The British Empire Library

Representing Sindh: Images of the British Encounter

by Rosemary Raza

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
Sindh takes its name from the mighty Sindhu or Indus river that flows through it. Today it forms the southernmost province of Pakistan and is bounded by Balochistan and the Punjab to the west and north and to the east by the modern day Indian provinces of Rajasthan and Gujerat. To the south is the Arabian Sea providing Pakistan with its essential sea routes to the rest of the world. The British engagement with Sindh came surprisingly late in comparison with other parts of the Indian Subcontinent - it was not until the end of the 18th Century, prompted by concerns of a possible invasion of India from the northwest, that the East India Company turned its attention to what was then a rather inhospitable and politically unstable area. Suddenly it became of vital strategic importance to the British culminating in the annexation of the province in 1843.

With the new interest in Sindh at the end of the 18th Century came the necessity to obtain vital information about the country. Given the inhospitable terrain of the area it is hardly surprising that none of the great landscape painters like William Hodges and Daniells had ventured into Sindh to record the scenery, despite its ancient and intriguing history. But many British government officials - particularly army officers - were trained in the recently developed art of watercolour painting - and they were ideally suited to record on paper a visual image of the places they were sent to in Sindh from the early 19th Century onwards.

Rosemary Raza's most impressive book looks, in accurate detail, at the encounter of the British with Sindh and the way that its people, the scenery and the splendid historic monuments were recorded. London is the primary place for archival material of British India and particularly for drawings and watercolours held in various collections - chiefly that of the British Library but also other smaller collections residing in key institutions in the city. She has exhaustively researched all the surviving material held in these institutions and supplemented them with further material presently in private hands. The book is lavishly illustrated both in colour and black and white and the publication by Marg is as impressive as we have come to expect from this publication house - it is well laid out, the type script is clear and the illustrations accurate.

So often today images reproduced in art books bear no relationship to the colouring of the originals - here fortunately they are excellent. The author has arranged the book chronologically - early nineteenth century views by artists like Robert Grindlay - the founder of Grindlays Bank - are scarce. The really impressive works are discussed and illustrated in the second and third chapters. During the 1830s Sindh was seen as vital in the defence of British India resulting in the invasion of Afghanistan in 1838 and the disastrous British retreat from Kabul in 1842. Several of the officers who served in the campaign made delightful drawings of the scenes they visited and several of these were used to illustrate accounts of the campaign. James Atkinson's Sketches in Afghaunistan, the illustrations lithographed by Louis and Charles Haghe and published in 1842, is magnificent. The subsequent battles in Sindh and the annexation of the country a year later was similarly recorded.

In the following years professional artists like the brilliant Austro- Hungarian Rudolf Swaboda painted an officer in the Scinde Irregular Horse for Ackermarm's Indian Military Portraits. In 1843 General Sir Charles Napier was made Governor of Sindh and his primary aim was the pacification of the province and particularly the rebellious northern areas. But Sindh had to wait until the 1850s for any real development. Napier's successor - Bartle Frere initiated the development of roads, canals, the building of Karachi harbour and the railway link between Karachi and Kothi allowing easy access for British civilians into the province for the first time. A number of amateur civilian artists - some better than others - made their way to Sindh in this period. Some thirty years ago a splendid large album of sepia wash drawings of scenes of the great historic cities situated along the Indus passed through my hands. When I acquired the album the artist of these accomplished drawings was unidentified but I was able to ascertain that he was John Le Mesurier - a highly talented amateur. My album is now in the India Office collection at the British Library for all to study. The book finally considers early photography in Sindh starting with those of architectural importance by pioneering photographers like Captain Houghton from the late 1850s and also fascinating scenes of life in Karachi in the 1870s by Michie and Co. Some of the late illustrated books relating to the province are discussed in some detail. Sindh was always famous for its textiles, the glazed turquoise and white pottery of Multan, the elegant tiles of Tatta and jewellery. These were extensively recorded in numerous books written around the turn of the 19th/20th Century - perhaps the most important of which for modern studies is The Journal of Indian Art and Industry published by the Cambridge University Library in 1909.

Whatever ones' views are on the British involvement in the Indian Subcontinent, no one can deny the importance of the visual records left by the British and that is as true for Sindh as it is for any other part of India and Pakistan. Were it not for the British obsession with creating records we would have no images of this fascinating part of the world and the author deserves nothing but the highest praise for bringing these images to light for us all to enjoy. I cannot recommend more highly this thoroughly interesting and readable book.

British Empire Book
Rosemary Raza
First Published
The Marg Foundation
Review Originally Published
Autumn 2015 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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