Kampani qalam: Why Company paintings are a treasure house of knowledge on Indian birds

A spotted Owlet stares at the viewer, its gaze arresting and unnerving at once. Every detail of the bird is captured clearly: right from its...

A spotted Owlet stares at the viewer, its gaze arresting and unnerving at once. Every detail of the bird is captured clearly: right from its folded wingtips to its greyish coloring, ensuring that its discerning viewers wonder if their imagination conjured the bird in front of their eyes from the pages of a catalogue.

This and 124 other stunning images form a part of DAG’s first-ever exhibition in India dedicated to an extraordinary selection of Company Paintings of Indian birds, entirely from the gallery collection in honour of the unknown Indian masters commissioned by East India Company in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Most of the 125 watercolor paintings are from a single album compiled between 1800 and 1804. The rest are dated slightly later, up to circa 1835. The paintings are soaked in rich detail and observation: an Indian Robin with its cocked tail gazes away from the album while a Purple Sunbird is showing resting on a branch of a pomegranate tree. A majority of the paintings include original inscriptions in Urdu which add an interesting angle to the art; one calls a Spot-billed or Grey Pelican, kahukal while the other refers to a White-rumped Vulture as a gidh.

The Company school of painting

The Kampani qalam or the Company school of painting refers to the artworks created for the officials of East India Company in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Documenting the flora, fauna, heritage and people of the Indian subcontinent, it consists of a wide-ranging repository of art that was commissioned by British officials in India.

The artists were influenced by a heady mixture of styles. The Mughal style of portraiture was still strong in India and while painting these artworks, the artists were introduced to European models which resulted in a unique mixture. They are characterised in the medium by the use of watercolors (instead of gouache), and in technique by the appearance of linear perspective and shading.

Northern Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis)

They are completely different from anything commissioned in Europe at the time. Company painting is unique and occurred only in India because it required the combination of European patrons, techniques perfected in the West and the skill of Indian artists. This collection, however, is similar to other Company paintings made in Calcutta around the time.

Birds of India

This exhibition celebrates birds. More specifically, it presents portraits of Indian birds made in the early 19th century. Birds have always been featured in Indian art. Some geese, somewhat idealised, endowed with luxuriant crests, appear in the Ajanta murals while naturalistic portraits of recognisable species reached perfection in Mughal art under Emperor Jahangir.

Most of the paintings in the exhibition — a group of 99 paintings — come from one collection that was bound in a single album. Unfortunately, the names of the artists, and that of the original patron or collector, are not recorded. Subsequent owners of the album, include two members of the famous Scottish family called Cunninghame.

Giles Tillotson, Senior VP, Exhibitions and Publications at DAG, who curated the show notes that the importance of this exhibition lies in the high quality of the works, and the rarity of the subject. “Although there are other Company paintings depicting birds, I am not aware of any other album on such a scale that is entirely devoted to birds.” he explains and adds, “The album underscores the point that some of the best Company painting is also some of the earliest, dating from around 1800.”

The placement of the birds is an interesting aspect of the entire collection. Most are placed on the blank ground in the center of the page (which is paper, not canvas) which suggests a scientific approach and sensibility. Tillotson adds, “A few of the birds would have been caged or kept in menageries, but mostly the artists just observed the birds in the wild. The paintings are lifelike: they are very well observed. It shows the artists’ powers of observation.”

Many of the works show remarkable consistency of approach and are the work either of a single artist or of a small group of artists working to an agreed agenda. Each bird is depicted either perched on a single detached branch (in these cases leafless) or against a blank ground.

Cinereous Vulture (Aegypius monachus)

The paintings belong to four groups — 99 works from Cunninghame Graham (1800-1804) are supplemented by eight folios painted in Calcutta around 1810 album, fourteen images of birds from the Faber album around 1830 and the four folios from an album of Patna paintings by Chuni Lal (the only artist to be identified) from the never-seen-before 1835 Edward Inge album.

“The Cunninghame Graham album displayed in this exhibition is the largest collection of Indian bird paintings that I have seen.” shares Tillotson adding that while it is not ‘comprehensive’ (there are many more than 99 species in India) it certainly is wide-ranging.

Most artists behind the paintings are unknown but Tillotson says that they were mostly trained at Indian courts like those in Lucknow and Murshidabad. He adds, “The very refined brushwork is like court painting. But here they use new materials: paper and pigments that have been imported from Britain.”

Significance of the collection

Through the collection, one can learn about the early scientific study of Indian birds and about the expanding scope and style of Indian painting. Most of the birds from the kingfishers and the kites to the starlings and the shrikes are still commonly found in India almost two centuries after the folios were painted. None of the birds are extinct; though some of the ones painted are quite rare, or very hard to spot, like the Indian Pitta.

Capturing the nascent stage of Indian ornithology, the collection gives us a rare, documented peek into the natural world of India in the 1800s. Colorful and exuberant, they are an amalgamation of the best of both, the contemporary west and the exotic east.

They also place on record work of the excellent artists who were trained in the royal ateliers of India and their subsequent metamorphosis into modern artists who could marry the best techniques the west had to offer with the ancient knowledge of art, the east endowed them with.

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