British Views of India


British Views of India
The British had been trading in India since 1600. As R.W. Lightbown, it was not, however, until the late eighteenth century that British interest in Indian culture burgeoned and was carried home by the traveller. The East Indies hung before the eyes of sixteenth-century merchants, soldiers and adventurers as lands of riches and rarities, the home of pearls and spices, porcelain and silks, of powerful Oriental princes, of strange idolatrous religions and rites, of elephants and monkeys, of palms and banyan-trees. The first Renaissance descriptions of India proper, written by Italians, Portuguese, Dutchmen and Englishmen who found their way there in quest of fortune are concerned with the coasts and the busy ports into which the trade of China, Japan and South-East Asia flowed to mingle with the trade of India itself. As the Mughals rose under the great Emperor Akbar in the later sixteenth century to be the dominant power in India, embassies were despatched seeking privileges for trade from the court. At the same time the Jesuits made their way to Delhi and Agra, pursuing their steady missionary policy of seeking to convert the rulers of the non-Christian empires and kingdoms of the East in the hope that their subjects would follow their example. From the reports of ambassadors and of Jesuit missionaries the west received its first accounts of the splendid court life of the Mughals, and shrewd descriptions of their government, their policy and of the natural products and manufactures of the provinces over which they ruled.

Naturally what was seen by ambassadors and missionaries, by itinerant merchants and by soldiers was limited to the roads on which they journeyed through India. Their routes were the routes of trade and administration, for travelling for the mere purpose of pleasure or exploration or to add to learning was unknown to the sixteenth century. The curious traveller was a phenomenon of the seventeenth century; indeed he was to puzzle the East until modern times, for no oriental could believe that anyone would be so foolhardy as to undertake the toils and dangers of a journey without some powerful motive of profit or espionage. And indeed of European travellers to India in the seventeenth century only three, the Italians, Pietro Della Valle (1586-1652) who visited India in 1623-4, and Giovanni Francesco Gemelli-Carreri (1651-1725) who passed through South India in 1695 on a journey round the world, and the Frenchman Jean de Thevenot (1633-66) who visited western and Northern India in 1666, were travellers pure and simple. They had no aspiration to explore India in any geographical sense: their motive was to make themselves acquainted with men and manners, rites and customs, governments and princes, fashions of dress and buildings, arts and manufactures. Aware that much of what they saw was unfamiliar or unknown to Europeans, they recorded their observations of the countries they passed through, and whatever they could glean about their history and productions. So great was western interest in India that other travellers who went there with some practical end in view, either to sell jewels, like the Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (1605-89) or to practise as physicians, like another Frenchman Francois Bernier (1620-88) compiled great descriptive works of travel from the journals they kept of their experiences. The books of these travellers were all rendered into English in the seventeenth or early eighteenth century.

The deliberate policy of patronising learning followed by Louis XIV under the inspiration of his great minister Colbert, gave a great impulse to oriental studies in seventeenth-century France and this continued under official patronage well into the next century. It was in France that the miscellaneous observations of India by single travellers began to be shaped into a truly scientific corpus of knowledge. The principal interests of French savants, as indeed of all learned Europeans, were in natural history, and in history, antiquities, religion and society. In history much research and learning were expended on chronology. It was in the seventeenth century that Archbishop Ussher calculated from the Bible the famous date of 4004 BC as the date of Creation, and chronological studies absorbed many of the best minds of the century, including that of Isaac Newton. Underlying them was an uneasy wish to reconcile the chronology of pagan history with the testimony of the Bible and so defend Christianity from the assaults of infidelity by proofs drawn from history. The discovery first of a Chinese chronology and later of an Indian chronology that went back much further into time than the accepted Biblical chronology was deeply perturbing to pious men of learning. At the end of the eighteenth century the researches of that great British Orientalist Sir William Jones were still shaped by his anxiety to fit the endless aeons of Hindu time into the limited centuries of Biblical time. In part the same motive' of apology for Christianity also underlay the interest, half uneasy, half patronising, taken in oriental religions. Thus when resemblances were perceived between oriental images and Christian images, they were interpreted as the work of the devil, deluding the ignorant with imitations of the truth so as to keep them in the darkness of idolatry.

If the Christian inheritance of the west accounted for some aspects of its interest in the East, the traditions of its secular learning accounted for others. The Renaissance had made the study of classical literature, history and antiquities the one engrossing theme of a polite education. In classical studies India and Indian religion made more t tl",.l a fabled appearance, unlike China, which was hardly known either to the Greeks or the Romans. Classical tradition linked the doctrines of Pythagoras, who had taught the transmigration of souls, with the Brahminical doctrine of metempyschosis which the Greek philosopher was believed to have learned on a journey to India. The Brahmins also figured in Philostratus's life of Apollonius of Tyana, the mystic sage of the first century AD who was said to have travelled in India, and in Lucian's Dialogues. Classical mythology made Bacchus the conqueror of India, and this tradition was reported by classical historians like Diodorus Siculus, and was later rationalised into a historical expedition of conquest. Then Alexander's expedition into India, after his conquest of Persia, had been described by ancient historians, notably in Greek by Arrian and in Latin by the much-read Quintus Curtius Rufus. Unhistorical, by contrast, was the account in Herodotus and Diodorus Siculus of a great expedition to the East by an Egyptian Pharoah named Sesostris, who was supposed to have conquered India as well as the rest of the East. To many of the European learned, accustomed to a comfortable view of the Middle East and the Mediterranean as the cradle of religion, history, and civilisation, this expedition of Sesostris was a welcome explanation of the great civilisations of India and the East, which had so disconcertingly arisen outside the pale of Christianity and the Mediterranean. Accordingly we find European scholars and travellers, and not least the British, advancing well into Victorian times the theory of an Egyptian origin for Hindu architecture.

Such was the intellectual background of the British discovery and exploration of India. The first British settlements in India were purely for trade. They were made by servants of the East India Company, which was to rule over British possessions in India until after the Mutiny of 18S7, when the great apparatus of civil and military administration that had so surprisingly emerged from the chrysalis of a commercial enterprise was formally taken over by the British government. The early servants of the Company were solely interested in trade, and indeed the spirit in which it governed its affairs was for long years uncompromisingly mercantile. But like all western mercantile powers the Company was anxious to acquire its own ports in order to carry on its trade safe from the threats of European rivals and of native princes. It was this which led it to obtain its first real footholds in India; Madras (1640), Bombay (1668) and Calcutta (1690). Only when the European wars of the mid-eighteenth century spread to India did rivalry between the French and English kindle into war. It was these commotions, together with the decay of the Mughal Empire and the rise of hostile Indian rulers on its ruins that led to the establishment of the Company as a territorial power in India.

War, trade, and the administrative settlement of the Company's new possessions in Bengal and the Carnatic left its servants little time for the pursuit of Indian studies. Yet the great rock-cut temples of the island of Elephanta, and of Kanheri on the island (now peninsula) of Salsette near Bombay had attracted British curiosity by the later seventeenth century. In 1712 a Captain Pyke and a Captain Ball made a description and drawings of Elephanta, while Charles Boone, governor of Bombay from 1716 to 1720, had the temples of Kanheri measured and drawn and a detailed description of them compiled to accompany the drawings. The great rock-cut temples of India captured the imagination of the British like no other Indian monuments. Indeed, as late as 1845 James Fergusson, in publishing his Illustrations of the Rock-Cut Temples of India, the first of his important essays on the history of Indian architecture, could declare that although

Part of the appeal of the rock-cut temples to an antiquarian age like the eighteenth century was their mysterious antiquity. Nothing was known of their origins, of their connection with the great religions of India, especially Buddhism, whose great contribution to the Indian past was then unrealised, all the more because the Buddhist countries of the East were comparatively little known to the West. Some late eighteenth-century antiquaries and visitors to the rock-cut temples could even speculate that these great works must be of Egyptian origin or the work of an unknown race, so little did they resemble the temples of modern India. The first book published in Britain on Indian antiquities, Richard Gough's Comparative view of the Ancient Monuments of India (London, 1785), was entirely devoted to the rock-cut temples, principally those of Salsette and Elephanta, but also including an account of the great temples of Ellora, which had first been described by Thevenot. In the 1790s the Scottish artist James Wales (1747-95) planned to make drawings of all the cave temples of western India, but his death in November 1795 cut short this ambitious scheme. Nevertheless British soldiers, officials, artists and travellers with antiquarian tastes were always eager to examine the caves. So Henry Salt (1780-1827), an artist who accompanied Lord Valentia (1770-1844), the first and last British visitor to India who can fairly be described as a Grand Tourist, has left us a view of Karli fully evocative of its grandeur and mystery.

The great 'pagoda' temples of South India with their huge towers and gopurams or gateways also excited some interest. Many of them were to be found near Madras itself, like the famous temples of Mahabalipuram, or in towns like Tanjore, Conjeeveram and Madurai which were part of the territory surrounding the Madras Presidency and under British protection. One of the earliest British paintings of strictly Indian views is Francis Swain Ward's painting of the tank, which he called 'the Brahmin's bath' of the temple of Chidambaram, south of Pondicherry. And in 1785 another painting by Swain Ward of the 'pagoda' of Srirangam decorated the committee-room of East India House.

Hindu sculpture also intrigued the learned late eighteenth-century antiquaries of England, influenced as they were by Winckelmann and the Frenchman D'Hancarville, who were responsible for a quasi-mystical interest in the relationship between classical religion and the symbolic attributes of the classical gods. Since the forms of Indian religious images were so clearly designed, as Gough nicely put it, to express 'ideas impossible to be comprised by forms borrowed from nature', Indian sculpture, they thought, had some relationship with classical sculpture. The iconography of Indian deities was to occupy Sir William Jones and other oriental antiquaries until the early nineteenth century, culminating in The Hindu Pantheon (London, 1810), by Edward Moor (1771-1848). Moor, realising the all-pervasiveness of religion in Indian life, formed a large collection of pictures and images of Hindu and Buddhist deities, some of which were specially made for him. In his important book he reproduced them from drawings and gave scholarly accounts of each god and goddess.

The later eighteenth century was the first age to develop a feeling for the primitive and primaeval, and part of the appeal of India to the cultivated British public was inspired by a sense of awe at the survival into modern times, apparently unchanged, of a civilisation of high antiquity. The painter William Hodges (1744-97), whose Travels in India (London, 1793) are the most sensitive of all eighteenth-century descriptions of India, was moved on visiting Benares, the classic holy city of Hinduism, to declare that 'it certainly is curious and highly entertaining... to associate with a people whose manners are more than three thousand years old'. Serious British study of Indian religion began with John Zephaniah Holwell (1711-98), a Dublin-born physician now best known for his association with the Black Hole of Calcutta. In the 1760s Holwell published essays on the doctrines, creation myths, festivals, calendar and chronology of the Hindus illustrated with engravings after drawings by Indian artists, probably made in Calcutta.

At this period knowledge of Sanskrit language and literature was still jealously kept to themselves by the Brahmins. Those, like Holwell, who wished to study ancient Indian books had to make do with translations into Hindi, or into Persian, the court language of Mughal India. It was also from Perisan that Alexander Dow made his translation of the history of medieval India written in the early seventeenth century by Muhammad Kasim, better known as Ferishta. This was the first true history of pre-European India to appear in a Western language. The first Englishman to master Sanskrit was Charles Wilkins (1749?-1836) whose famous translation of theBhagavat-Gita was published at the expense of the East India Company in l785, under the patronage of Warren Hastings. Whatever else he may have been, Hastings was an acute and enthusiastic student of Oriental learning, and it was with his encouragement that Sir William Jones founded, in January 1784, the Asiatick Society of Bengal to study 'the history and antiquities, the natural productions, arts, sciences and literature of Asia'. In 1789 there appeared under Jones' editorship the first volume of the Society's famous journal Asiatick Researches , for decades the most important learned periodical devoted to the study of India. Jones's own contributions to Indiao studies are of course celebrated: his discovery of the relationship between Greek, Latin and Sanskrit and of the ancient Indian drama, to name only two of the most famous.

Books of views, sometimes accompanied simply by description, of the plates, were already an established genre of European art. With the new cult of the picturesque in landscape and monuments whose theoretician was William Gilpin, and the attendant cult of the sublime, inspired by Edmund. Burke's famous treatise, British sensibilities become kindlingly alive to the beauties of new scenery and architecture. The great rivers and mountains of India, its Hindu temples and Muslim mosques and tombs, its people in all their variety of costume and occupation appealed to tastes highly trained to appreciate their attractions, enhanced as they were by the traditional exotic appeal of the Orient. From 1780 to 1783 William Hodges travelled in Madras., Bengal, Bihar and Central India, making drawings some of which he later engraved and published in England with descriptive notes as Select Views in India (l785-88). In these prints, with their rough jagged outlines and strong contrasts of tone, Hodges is an exponent of the picturesque taste. A smoother impression of India appears in the work of; Thomas Daniell (1749-1840) and his nephew William Daniell (1769-1837'), two professional artists who travelled far more extensively in India than Hodges, indefatigably drawing views and monuments from 1786 to 1793, After their return to England, the Daniells busied themselves with engraving many of these in aquatint for their great work Oriental Scenery (1795-1808), the fullest and most faithful record of the landscape, buildings and antiquities of India that was to be published for many years. In their coloured form, a classic beauty informs the Daniells' aquatints, giving them a timeless serenity even when they are most boldly picturesque.

It was at this time, too, that the people of India began to be meticulously observed and portrayed in the coloured etchings made in Calcutta during the 1790s by the Antwerp artist, Francois Balthazar Solvyns, it is said, with the encouragement of William Jones. Simultaneously the people of South India were being depicted by an amateur, Charles Gold, who went out to India during the wars with Tipu Sultan as an officer in the Royal Artillery. Many army officers were taught drawing as part of their profession, and became keen amateur sketchers. Moreover a good number of them shared the thirst for the discovery of new knowledge so characteristic of these years of the Enlightenment. The great Indian wars and political upheavals of the 1790s and 1800s took many of them into new parts of India, little known to Europeans, above all to Mysore, where they fought hard campaigns against Tipu. Public interest in these campaigns led a number of them to publish views of Mysore on their return home; in 1794 alone three books of views of Mysore were issued, one by the artist Robert Home, the other two by the soldier amateurs, A. Allan and Robert Colebrooke. So came into a being a genre whose popularity lasted well into Victorian times, the book of views illustrating a theatre of war.

The sympathetic study of Indian society and religion begun by Englishmen who went out to India from 1760 to 1800 was halted by two new trends in English thought and religious life which had a great influence over the rising generations of the early nineteenth century, Evangelicalism and Utilitarianism. Only the book of views continued to enjoy unabated popularity, either in the form of line-engravings or of lithographs, into the 1830s and 1840s, being used to illustrate new regions of India, such as the Himalaya mountains, or the Sikh kingdom of Ranjit Singh, which had just become known to the British. Then it too fell victim to the uncomprising Victorian insistence on stern truth, and to Victorian suspicion of the poetic and visionary charm of the picturesque. New ground was broken by the British in Indian archaeology and the study of Buddhism in the 1820s and 1830s: great histories and descriptions of India or regions of India were written, especially those of James Grant Duff, Sir John Malcolm and Colonel James Tod, all published in the 1820s. But with this last generation disappeared the lively curiosity, the speculative brilliance, the broad-minded warmth and sympathy which had marked these earlier years of the British presence, to be replaced by the gloomily disapproving view of India as a land of idolatry and sin and of slavery to rigid, superstitious and often cruel social custom that prevailed for the rest of the nineteenth century.

It is essentially the achievement of these first eager recorders of the Indian scene that the exhibition India Observed , which will be held at London's Victoria and Albert Museum from April 26th to July 4th, seeks for the first time to illustrate in paintings, drawings, books and engravings.

By Ronald Lightbown

Fort Agra by William Hodges
Fort Agra by William Hodges
Further Reading
British Drawings In The India Office Library: Vol I - Amateur Artists; Vol Ii - Official And Professional Artists.
by M. Archer

Early Views of India: Picturesque Journeys of Thomas and William Daniell, 1786-94
by M. Archer

Much Maligned Monsters: A History of European Reactions to Indian Art
by P. Mitter

Sir William Jones: A Study in Eighteenth-Cntury British Attitudes to India (Cambridge South Asian Studies)
by S. N. Mukherjee

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by Stephen Luscombe