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Paintings bring Moghul Delhi alive

Pran Nevile’s book “Marvels of Indian Painting/Rise and Demise of Company School” chronicles the efforts of Indian artists in the Moghul era, says R.V. SMITH


The Turkish Sultana of Akbar’s reign is still remembered because of the palace named after her in Fatehpur Sikri. She must have been very pretty – a half oriental and a half European beauty. An artist in 1810-1820 painted the Turkish Sult ana on the basis of a European print. He was inspired by the legends woven around the Sultana and a Turkish beauty in the harem of the Nawab of Lucknow. The Greek influence in it is manifested in three figures – two of them partly bare-breasted. The Indian features are the parrot, to whom the Sultana is talking to while away the time in the absence of her lover while reclining on a couch, and a panel of three swans at the base of each of the two pillars in her dream chamber.

There are numerous such interesting specimens in Pran Nevile’s latest publication, “Marvels of Indian Painting/ Rise and Demise of Company School”. The reference of course is to The East India Company.

New Year celebrations in the court of Shah Jahan, extracted from the Padshah Namah, is a delightful presentation of the heyday of the Moghul court. The New Year being celebrated was not the one which begins on January 1 but the Persian Nauroz. Sita Ram (19th Century) was the artist who painted the Taj Mahal and other monuments, as also the views of the Ganges. Mihir Chand of the 18th Century, son of Delhi’s Ganga Ram Painter, “was trained in the imperial Moghul style and left Delhi when the emperor (Shah Alam) fled East”.

Ghulam Murtaza Khan (1760-1840) was a court painter of Akbar Shah II, father of Bahadur Shah Zafar, who painted portraits of the imperial family and was patronised by the British after they took over Delhi in 1803. Ghulam Ali Khan, a genius, produced his first recorded masterpiece, the Diwan-e-Khas in the Red Fort in 1817 and was later engaged by Colonel Skinner, whom he accompanied on his Himalayan tour. Raja Jiwan Ram was a portrait painter of Delhi and a favourite of the British. Shaikh Zayn-al-din was engaged by Lady Impey for her botanical pictures of plants, birds and animals. He had inherited the skill from his forefathers, who had worked for the Moghul emperors. Inam Bux Lahori was another renowned artist.

Colourful past

Some of the paintings in the book bring alive the colourful past of Delhi. Sir David Ochterlony (Loony Akhtar), first British Resident, celebrated his evenings dressed in Indian costume and smoking a hookah while dancing girls performed in his drawing room.

On the terrace of James Skinner’s house in Kashmere Gate, the nautch was performed amidst much feasting and merriment. Ochterlony’s successor, William Fraser, made merry in the company of his favourite nautch girls, Malaguire, Kandar Baksh and Piyari Jan. Sir Thomas Metcalfe, who took over after Fraser’s murder, engaged Mazhar Ali Khan to paint for him for his “Reminiscences of Imperial Delhi”.

General Claude Martin too patronised out-of-work Moghul artists in the 18th Century. Red Lillies by a Delhi artist and Gladioli were favourites of the sahibs.

Other masterpieces included by Nevile are the walls of the Purana Qila, the Red Fort by Mihir Chand, Jama Masjid by Mazhar Ali Khan, Taj by a Delhi artist, Qudsia Garden Palace, Safdarjang’s Tomb by Mazhar Ali Khan, musicians and dancers at the house of a European in Delhi, the blind musician, Mian Himmat Khan Kalavant, Mahaji Scindia entertaining British Officers at a nautch in Delhi, the British Resident riding in a procession on Id-ul-Fitr in 1806, and the bearded young Delhi sword maker from “Skinner’s Album”.

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