The Social and Religious Landscape of Southern India in a 'Company’ Album
By Crispin Branfoot
Travellers and residents in foreign countries often take home images of the places and people they have encountered, both as personal mementos and to inform their friends of their travels. Before the widespread use of photography in the later 19th century, many Europeans based in South Asia purchased sets of paintings depicting the flora, fauna, monuments and peoples of the region. Created by local artists but targeted specifically at a European audience, these works – often compiled into albums – constitute a popular genre known as ‘Company’ paintings. The name derives from the various East India companies established by Europeans in South and Southeast Asia, and in particular is associated with the paintings produced for the British from the late 18th to the late 19th century in India and adjacent territories such as Nepal and Sri Lanka.
The creators of Company paintings were often artists who had previously found employment at the Mughal and other provincial courts of India. However, by the late 1770s, the influx of Westerners either resident in or passing through British-ruled India provided them with a new kind of clientele. Local artists now frequently adapted both their subject matter and their stylistic conventions to suit this new market. One of the principal criteria for the identification of a Company painting ‘is the degree to which it objectively observes the Indian scene in all its aspects, including natural history and human society’ (Archer, 1992, p. 11). The main centres for production were in areas under British rule for long periods: Patna, Oudh, Calcutta and Murshidabad in the east; Delhi and Agra in the north; and Tanjavur and Trichy in the south.
In producing these works, Indian artists experimented both with new materials, such as pen-and-ink and watercolours, and new techniques, such as a receding foreground and shadowing. The quality varies from region to region and over the course of the century in which Company paintings were produced: some of the finest were the product of direct patronage, while others were made for the open market in the manner of postcard sets, especially as the number of Europeans increased significantly in the early 19th century. Such images are often depicted against a flat background, a characteristic commonly seen in album sets produced between 1820 and 1850. The figures are detached from their context; there is no intention to represent a particular person, strata of society, moment or place. Craft activities, occupations and public religious events are subjects in their
Vishnu on Garuda
Thanjavur, India (made)
Watercolour and gouache on paper
Vaishnavite procession with devotees carrying a litter with an image of Vishnu on Garuda. Among the crowd in the foreground are musicians, ascetics and villagers.
One in a volume of thirty folios depicting castes, occupations, methods of cultivation and procession scenes.
Copyright: © V&A Images