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Synergies between art forms during the colonial period

The Origins of the form

European merchants held a fascination and, often, abhorrence for India and its people. Not wanting to miss the spectacle, they commissioned artists of all manners to capture every moment. They were more interested in the subjects than the rulers where every day and the common man became a point of artistic interest. It gave birth to the Company school of painting.

The words ‘Company painting’ might misleadingly refer to the art that was produced by the East India Company, but it isn’t. It was a new genre in Indian art, and although it was indeed patronised by the British East India Company, the art produced by the Company painters was primarily Indianised.  

Now, if we have to introduce Company paintings, we have to keep in mind the arrival of Europeans during the 18th century, who were fascinated by the environment. They wanted some Indian painters who could truly respond to the Indian ethos- cultural, social, and natural ethos. They wanted those painters to paint the Indian subject matters, the real-life subject matters in contrast to the traditional themes such as mythology, religion, and imagination. The Company paintings in terms of the subject matter were going to address realism, in terms of their lifestyle, events, and activities. Depicting Indian subjects was their main goal. 

Interior of the Taj Mahal
Image Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art
Hoopoe on a citrus tree branch, company school
Image Source: Clevel and Art

Art forms during the colonial period in terms of style

These Company painters had to develop a suitable visual style to give justice to the subject matter. Now, we must remember many of these painters hailed from a lineage of traditional painters. Even if this practice skipped a generation, their forefathers had roots being artisans of the traditional courts of royal families. This aided in them inheriting some of those sensibilities that primarily belonged to those traditional painting schools. So, they did carry something that was truly Indian in ethos. But along with that, they brought in naturalistic flavour derived from the western academic art practices which were by then all around India. So, as a direct impact, today we see a hybrid style developed during this period under the term Company paintings.

We see a transition from stylization to realism in the depiction of various forms. The Company painters learnt about western preferences and started using watercolour washes and incorporating elements like shadow, perspective, and naturalism. A recurrent feature in many Company paintings was that the background was kept unoccupied and open. The paintings were mostly made on paper. However, sometimes the paintings were done on ivory, which was mostly intended to be kept in portfolios or albums.

Company painting art forms during the colonial period
Source: Victoria and Albert Museum Collection
Indian Kalighat Paintings
Source: Cleveland Museum of Art

How was it impactful?

After the arrival of printing technology, it was only a matter of time that Company paintings would lose their significance and it would become passè. Despite its gradual decline, the genre continued in different formats and techniques such as printing and photography. However, other forms of hand-painted artworks were alive for a long time, and Kalighat painting was one of them. 

This creation of a new style of painting, which was quick, would take minimum time. But because the demand was increasing, their production had to catch upto speed. This made Kalighat paintings become a sort of souvenir, a memento for the visitors and pilgrims who would visit the Kalighat temple.

Kalighat painting is a wonderful example to illustrate how modern Indian art transitioned from a westernised gaze to a more folk-centric ethos.

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