Historian William Dalrymple’s profile is high at the moment, with an acclaimed book about the East India Company published recently and an exhibition he curated opening this month. We’re delighted that Vayu Naidu has interviewed him for Historia and writes here about Dalrymple’s wide vision, as shown by his writing and his selection of paintings.
Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company, an exhibition at the Wallace Collection, opened on 4 December, 2019. It’s curated by William Dalrymple, the renowned historian and renaissance man of narrative and visual collections.
He speaks to his audience about the fusion of British and Indian artistic influences in painting the natural world, addressing a balance of recognition on two counts.
For the first time, these ‘forgotten masters’ are drawn out of the anonymity prescribed by feudal traditions and are named and exhibited. Their works are placed in the context of their contemporary social reality: Hindu and Muslim artists commissioned in the 18th and 19th centuries by the officials of the East India Company (EIC).
Framing this natural world is the history of the East India Company itself and this September’s launch of his book, The Anarchy, is Dalrymple’s feat of telling that particular story, which also works as a cautionary tale.
It’s 5 September, during London’s Indian summer, 2019. I’m meeting William Dalrymple in Chelsea’s Physic Garden. A wood pigeon flutters past, echoing Shaikh Zain ud-Din’s 1780 painting of the Indian Roller on Sandalwood from the Impey Album, Calcutta.
Dalrymple breaks into a smile, descending the few steps of the modest archway. His social media avatar is kabootarwallah – keeper of pigeons. It is a prestigious Indian feudal rank, reserved for the keeper of courier pigeons trained to ‘return to sender’ with messages of importance. Pigeons also provided garrisons with a well-defined postal system for spies, lovers, announcements, tournaments.
We walk past the display of chilli – a botanical import from the Americas on an early trade route, grafted in India with ranges of potency for eating and as ammunition. Over lunch, consisting of an avacado and pomegranate salad with prawns, I see the colours of the palette of the ‘forgotten masters’ of the Impey Album.
Dalrymple unravels his narrative of The Anarchy – The Relentless Rise of the East India Company. How did he begin? “I like to write the kind of books I like to read.” He does this with rigorous research, deciding not to do another sweeping historical commentary of India’s many British Viceroys.
Instead, Dalrymple charts, from 1599, the origins of the joint stock company of Merchants from London trading to the East Indies. If the Dutch gave to the world the concept of (travel) insurance, then England’s unique contribution to the world was to compete and succeed against the Dutch and the Iberians in finding independent trading posts in Asia.
“This book took five years in the making,” he remarks, without the weariness of a research warrior. “It is the story of the conquest of India,” containing in it microhistories to map the influences of European and Indian rivalries of this macro history that germinates from the EIC (1599-1857) into the Empire familiarly known as the British Raj (1858-1947).
For the India section, the challenge was to thread a narrative from incidents that combine the raid of the Kohinoor diamond and the Peacock Throne (c1739), while including the multiple factors resulting in the discontent with the magnificent, distant Mughal empire that was ruled from the north.
Interegional players such as the Jagat Seths (Indian financiers), southwestern Marattas, the Deccan Nizam of Hyderabad and the topiwallahs or ‘hatwearers’ like Warren Hastings, assemble as a cast of political, economic and social alliances.
Dalrymple neatly charts the descending arc of the last Mughal ruler’s life (from 1720 to 1803), which embarks on the relentless rise of a private company that gains control by financing its mercenary armies.
The unique cover design for each of the book’s editions in the UK, US and India is evocative of the assumptions of this private company which was never uniform in its treatment or acceptance of the vast populaces that it controlled.
Is this history a new interpretation of old sources? Dalrymple confirms that both Anarchy and The Forgotten Masters: Indian Paintings for the East India Company expose the public to new material that radically shifts thinking about the EIC as being solely monolithic.
For Anarchy the British Library had “35 miles’ worth” of records on the EIC alone, he says. The Fort William offices of Calcutta sent information that was then compiled at London. “The virgin territory of primary material from archives explored for Anarchy was the shortlisting of 20 chronicles in Persian, translated over six years by Bruce Wannell.”
These included untouched chronicles from Tonk Oriental Library, in Bundi, Rajasthan. Early French sources were translated by academic historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam. New sources opened, with the works by a friend of Voltaire, the Voyage en Inde du Comte de Modave 1773-1776, critically assessed for additional perspectives.
Dalrymple’s style never fails to engage the reader, as historical evidence ricochets with contemporary fact. “The East India Company limped on in its amputated form… finally quietly shutting down in 1874, ‘with less fanfare,’ noted one commentator, ‘than a regional railway bankruptcy.’ Its brand name is now owned by a Gujarati businessman who uses it to sell ‘condiments and fine foods’ from a showroom in London’s West End.”
Dalrymple has embarked on a subject that is uncomfortable in Britain. In his earlier work, travel and kinaesthetic relish for India and Pakistan’s poetry, musical raaga and sciences of the seasons all pour into his understanding of the wealth of the followers of impoverished, dethroned or murdered kings.
The subject of Anarchy exposes the roots of this ignored history to a wider public and will open branches of a better understanding of why Britain is so multiracial and intercultural. It is also a commentary on expansion out of greed not absent in current governments.
The curious legacy of the EIC’s ownership was that it was handed to Queen Victoria, later Empress of India, and its Indian possessions were passed into the control of the British Crown. With no remains of an office that once stood in Leadenhall Street existing, the legacy of the forgotten masterpieces is a testimony to the confluence of cultures through their artworks.
The paintings commissioned by EIC officials are compiled from different Indian traditions featuring Mughal, Maratha, Punjabi, Pahari, Tamil and Telegu Vijayanagaram, illustrating its biodiversity. It was only in the 1950s that the term Company School was coined by Mildred Archer.
Kabootarwallah is a bridge of connecting flights to unforgotten worlds that return with new interpretations; evidences continue to be discovered. Dalrymple opens a portal to ways of re-examining Britain’s mythology of India which students of history cannot do without.
Her latest book, The Sari of Surya Vilas, was published in 2017. Her forthcoming novel, set in Jacobean England, features dramatic encounters with Mughals and African people.
He also edited the catalogue accompanying the Forgotten Masters exhibition.
Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company is on at the Wallace Collection until 19 April, 2020.
Brahminy Starling with Two Antheraea Moths, Caterpillar, and Cocoon on an Indian Jujube Tree by Shaikh Zain ud-Din: via Wikimedia
Indian Roller on Sandalwood by Shaikh Zain ud-Din: via Wikimedia
William Dalrymple in the Chelsea Physic Garden with pigeon in background: by the author
Rufous Treepie and Caterpillar on Branch by Shaikh Zain ud-Din: via Wikimedia
Six Recruits by Ghulam ali Khan, c1815: courtesy the Wallace Collection