Friday 3 March 2017

Picturing the Raj by Debra Daley

‘Patna is a place of great traffic’, Jemima Kindersley noted, when she visited the ancient chief city of Bihar in 1767. ‘The English Company have one of their most considerable factories there, where they carry on a great trade in saltpetre, besides opium, salt, betelnut and tobacco.’ Patna had been of commercial importance to Britain since the middle of the 18th century – and an apt place, I found, to sow the seeds of a plot that would hang on the machinations of the East India Company. The novel I was inspired to write, The Revelations of Carey Ravine, was published last year, but it’s taken me until now to finish disposing of the box files of ephemera (print-outs, notes and general papery stuff) that I accumulated during the writing. I’m working on a new novel now and I would prefer not to have the ghosts of the old ones in the room.

However, I don't feel that I can leave the India research behind without saluting the artists whose work showed me the physical appearance of Patna in the very early 19th century. Without the views of Charles D’Oyly, Thomas Daniell, Sita Ram, Shiva Lal, Walter Sherwill, and numbers of anonymous illustrators, I couldn’t have properly described that city. When storytelling springs from a past that existed before the advent of photography, you have to ferret around for every shred of visual evidence you can get. These paintings and drawings allowed me to construct a pictorial tour of Patna. I pinned up the images next to my desk in a sequence – as if, having won a coveted contract to work in the opium trade as a factor for the East India Company, I found myself bound upriver from Calcutta for Patna for the first time, on my way to present a letter of introduction at Bankipore, a western suburb of Patna where British interests were concentrated.

Sir Charles D'Oyly, artist unknown, late 18th century.

Charles D’Oyly was an India hand through and through, a prolific amateur artist and a generous host to British visitors. He was born in India at Murshidabad, where his father was the East India Company’s resident at the court of Nawab Babar Ali, and held many senior postings in the Bengal Civil Service. He spent thirteen years in Patna and documented the city extensively. Reaching Patna from Calcutta, an upriver journey of four hundred miles, was quite an effort in those days. You were obliged to wait until the end of the monsoon season and even then the undertaking could last as long as eight or nine weeks. D’Oyly’s view of Rajmahal shows the typical mode of transport – a bulky barge known as a budgerow, with rudimentary cabins. This one has a palanquin stowed on the cabin roof for use on shore.

A view of the Rajmahal Hills, Sir Charles D'Oyly, 1820.

You would travel in a flotilla of smaller craft carrying stores, baggage and kitchen, sometimes by oar, and sometimes by haulage. Progress up the Ganges was exceedingly slow. ‘We found it extremely tedious,’ Mrs Kindersley reported. Imagine the relief and elation when, one morning, you catch sight of four great towers in the distance, their eastern faces lit by the rising sun. Here is the city of Patna, at last. And here is my first 18th century view of it, in a handcoloured aquatint by Thomas Daniell.

City of Patna, Thomas Daniell, 1795.

Fortified in the Indian manner, with a wall and a small citadel, Patna’s prospect is a romantic one, commanding the high southern bank of the Ganges. The towers, the bastions projecting into the river, the elevated terraced mansions – it all looks splendidly established and must have inspired confidence in new East India Company employees, arriving to take up their commissions. Thomas Daniell recorded Patna on a long tour he made through British India, accompanied by his nephew, William. He was an English artist of humble origins, who arrived in Calcutta via China in 1786, with his nephew, hoping to make his fortune in the fabulous sub-continent, like so many men of his day. Daniell never found the wealthy patron that he sought, but the East India Company gave him a contract as an engraver and he spent seven years making views of ‘oriental scenery in Hindoostan’, which was to become his stock-in-trade on his return to England. His India tour provided him with an enduring livelihood.

Thomas Daniell, R.A., Sir David Wilkie, 1838.

Along with other British travelling artists such as John Zoffany and William Hodges, the Daniells found employment in India training Indian artists – many of them former Mughal court painters who had lost their patrons – to adapt their work to the naturalistic conventions appreciated by the western art market. This Indo-British school of painting is known as Company Style, or sometimes as Patna or Bazar paintings. Some commentators have been sneery about Company pictures, dismissing them as inferior art, but as a visual record of the past, especially of everyday details – domestic interiors, realistic renderings of tools and equipment, images of Indians and their costumes, often categorized by regional and ethnic type, or occupation, and so on – Company paintings are packed with information that is historically valuable and culturally fascinating. They offer a glimpse into the lives of artisans and servants, the provincial and non-privileged, which I can appreciate even as I note that inhabitants of the Company frame are defined by their functions and not by their subjectivity. Like cartes de visite later in the century, the image-making seems designed to serve collectors and to illustrate rather than express.

Harvest scene, artist unknown (Company Style), early 19th century.
Opium from Patna being tested for purity, Shiva Lal (Company Style), 1857-60. 

Opium from Patna bound for China, Shiva Lal (Company Style), 1857-60.

Shiva Lal was a prominent Company artist, who sold his work from the art-shop that he ran in Patna. The painting above comes from a series of nineteen illustrating processes in the manufacture of opium at the Gulzarbagh factory in Patna. The paintings were commissioned by Dr  D. R. Lyall (the personal assistant in charge of opium-making) for a series of murals in the factory. But Lyall’s death in 1857, during the Indian Mutiny, meant the scheme was abandoned.

Ox-drawn carriage, artist unknown (Company Style), early 19th century.
It was a journey of about half an hour, as the crow flies, from the eastern ghat at Patna to the opium factory at Guzulbargh, but it would inevitably take much, much longer than that. After disembarking at the ghat, where you would be met by a heaving crowd of hawkers and drivers of every description looking for custom, you might settle for an ox-carriage with some fancy drapery, rigged against the heat and the dust, as your conveyance. Off the carriage lumbers through Patna’s eastern gate and into the chowk (market), where Patna’s specialties are heaped high – opium, saltpetre, striped cotton rugs and hookahs with curiously-worked silver chillums, and piles of produce. The hookah purveyors in their doorways blow on the charcoal in the chillum and the fragrance of Persian tobacco, herbs and spices and rosewater drifts through the air.

Eastern gateway of Patna City, Sir Charles D'Oyly, 1824.

Patna market, Shiva Dayal Lal (Company Style), 1858.
The artist was the cousin of Shiva Lal.
Chased silver chillum cover in the shape of an opium poppy pod, 18th century.
The chowk and the main street of Patna, Sita Ram, 1814-15.
Main street of Patna, showing one side of the chowk, Sita Ram, 1814-15.
The painter Sita Ram, artist unknown, c.1820.
The views, above, of Patna’s chowk were painted by an accomplished Indian watercolourist named Sita Ram, whose work, with its impressionistic brushwork and architectural finesse (he had trained as a draughtsman), transcended the Company Style. The watercolours belong to a set of albums commissioned by Lord Hastings, governor-general of Bengal from 1814 until 1823. Sita Ram undertook the work as he travelled with Hastings’s retinue on a seventeen-month journey from Calcutta to Punjab to inspect British possessions. He continued to work for Hastings until the governor-general’s departure from India in 1823. After that, Sita Ram disappeared from the record and no more is known of him.

The bazaar in Patna City, Sir Charles D'Oyly
Once you’re in the thick of Patna, the city seems rather less imposing than its beguiling riverfront aspect promised. There is only one main street, with many crooked lanes leading off it, and the backs of those grand mansions fronting the river are dilapidated. The ordinary dwelling houses are built of brick or of baked mud, with roofs of thatch or crumbling tiles and screens of bamboo mats. Many of them have shops on the ground, open to the street. Traffic churns the street to mud, but now that the rains have lifted the mud will soon dry and turn to choking dust.

The real might of Patna lies beyond the fourth great bastion of the city wall. It is the compound of the English Factory at Guzulbargh, headquarters of the East India Company’s commercial activities in Patna. The compound used to be a military store, but has now been made over to opium agents. The jail is included in this compound.

The English Factory compound, Patna, Sita Ram, 1814.
Opium warehouse, Patna, Sita Ram, 1814.
A stacking room in the opium factory, Patna, W.S. Sherwill, c.1850.
The manufacture of opium at the Patna factory was recorded in great detail by Captain Walter Sherwill, who was a revenue surveyor in the Bengal Army. He produced a compelling series of drawings that communicates the vast scale and the operational efficiency of the Company’s opium business.

Opium fleet descending the Ganges on the way to Calcutta,
W.S. Sherwill, c.1850.
Opium was carried from the factory to the ghat at Guzulbargh and floated out to the opium fleet. The ships were preceded on the river by small canoes, the crews of which sounded the depth of water and pounded drums to warn other boats out of the channel, as the government fleet claimed right-of-way. It must have been intimidating, and also impressive, to hear the beat of those drums as the opium fleet approached on its deadly business. The timber raft of Nepalese logs in the foreground of Sherwill’s image has been floated down from the mountains, and will be used to make packing-cases for the opium.

Western gateway of Patna City, Sir Charles D'Oyly, 1824.
After passing through Patna’s western gateway you reach a wooded landscape, where native mud houses are gradually being displaced by British residences.

Houses near Patri Ghat, western suburbs, Charles D'Oyly, 1824.
Farther out, there are large garden houses. Your driver enters a compound enclosed by a low wall. Across an expanse of beaten earth lies a white bungalow with a high thatched roof, an unrailed veranda and doorways hung with screens of grass. You are surprised at first by the lack of garden, at least in your conception of it. There are only a few trees near the walls, mostly palm and plantain. The paths are spread with gravel to impede the passage of snakes.

John Havell's bungalow in its garden, Sita Ram, 1810-22.
And this is it. Here you are. With a letter of introduction to hand, you descend from the carriage. The air is noisy with the cawing of the crows, the scratching of the sweepers’ brooms, smoothing the earth around the house, and the lowing of yoked bullocks plodding to the well in a corner of the compound. The steward of the house appears on the veranda and greets you with a salaam.

There is so much about this world that is corrupt and complicated – and yet, its glamour persists. 

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