South Asia and the Himalayan Region, 1800–1900 A.D.

  • South Asia and the Himalayan Region, 1800–1900 A.D.



Established as a commercial interest in the seventeenth century, the British East India Company has become a military force by the nineteenth. A 1799 victory over Tipu Sultan of Mysore (r. 1782–99) propels further conquests in this period, and the company expands its control into Sind, Punjab, Avadh (Oudh), and Burma. In each new territory, the company appoints puppet princes to govern, and so a weakened Mughal dynasty survives in Delhi. Not all of the native population is willing to cooperate, however, and the company faces a deadly uprising in 1857 that they term the Sepoy Mutiny, but that the Indians consider the first battle for independence. After this incident, the East India Company is abolished and British monarchy takes direct control of India. It becomes a colony of the empire in 1858.

While political tensions run high in this period, the arts provide a mechanism for interaction between the British and Indian population. The Company School of painting emerges in response to British demand for paintings of local people and monuments, and the art of the Indian courts takes on an eclectic, European-influenced character. Photography, introduced to India a year after its invention in France, becomes a popular medium for both Indian and British artists working in the country. However, colonial and indigenous photography significantly diverges in its aims. Indian photographers working for Indian patrons create a thriving business in portraiture. Some of these portraits are painted with bright, decorative colors, making them less like photographs than miniatures. For the British, photography becomes a tool to classify and comprehend the people they rule, while preserving ways of life their rule threatens to transform. In architecture, the century is one that favors hybridity: amalgams of Victorian and Indian motifs, or Hindu and Muslim motifs within a single building. Paintings continue to be made for some rulers of Rajput courts.

Concerned about the effects of industrialization on British craftsmanship, the British open art schools in Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras that are designed to protect Indian craft traditions. Contradictorily, these offer drawing from nature and attempt to cultivate Indian taste in Western ideals. The schools graduate a new generation of middle- and upper-class artists who find patronage primarily in portraiture and copies of Western masterpieces.

Art salons provide a space for British artists working in India to show their work. These increasingly feature Indian artists as well, who find in them a new path to success. The salons generate a public discourse around art and attract elite Indian patronage. Exemplary of India’s new salon artists is Raja Ravi Varma (1848–1906). An aristocrat widely hailed as a genius, he is acclaimed for his naturalistic portrayals of the Indian elite and of Indian mythology and history. His career is a far cry from that of India’s remaining court artists, who—as they have for centuries—work for small sums and receive little or no public recognition. Varma opens a printing press with his brother, and popularizes his work through print media. His prints strongly shape the popular taste of the coming century.

India’s royal courts, which enjoy internal autonomy under British rule, continue to patronize traditional court painting. In the early decades of the century, a few regional court styles see considerable stylistic innovation. In Rajasthan, several court traditions gravitate toward extreme stylization and fantastic coloration to answer an aesthetics of Krishna worship. Over time, however, traditional idioms accommodate more Western fashions adopting greater chiaroscuro, intuitive perspective, and naturalistic proportions than had previously been favored.

Concerned about Russian expansion, the British begin to explore relations with the Himalayan countries of Bhutan, Nepal, and Tibet. Nepal loses territory in the Anglo-Nepalese War of 1814–16. Meanwhile, the British send missions to Bhutan, but relations sour. Following the Duar War of 1864–65, Bhutan cedes land to the British in the mountains of Assam and Bengal.

Tibet remains closed to outsiders during the nineteenth century, but the British send spies from India. China’s Manchu dynasty weakens and cannot protect Tibet or interfere with it. As a consequence, the country becomes virtually autonomous, though it formally recognizes Chinese sovereignty. Tibet asks for assistance from China in its wars with Ladakh in 1842 and Nepal in 1858, but receives none.

Technically very polished, nineteenth-century Tibetan painting contains many Chinese inspirations as well as Indian elements from Mughal painting. Regional painting styles are much less distinct and are harder to identify than in previous centuries. They mostly claim descent from the Menri (or sMan-ris) traditions. Paintings illustrating monastic lineages continue to be popular, as are Pure Land paintings, which depict the realms of the Buddhas from a high vantage point. There is greater naturalism in the depiction of landscapes and figures, but the worlds represented are clearly ideal, divine realms. Sculpture is also more naturalistic, though it is deliberately mannered.


“South Asia and the Himalayan Region, 1800–1900 A.D.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2004)