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An unknown Indian artist who painted for British rulers

Sita Ram's water colour of the Rumi Darwaza
Sita Ram’s water colour of the Rumi Darwaza
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The picture above shows the square in front of Bara Imambara, a historic complex in Lucknow, the capital of the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Built in 1784 by Nawab Asaf, a prince of the Oudh royal family, as part of a famine relief project, this building is one of his last large, palatial buildings in the Mughal style.

The complex includes several buildings, including the Bur Bouraiya (Labyrinth) and the Asfi Mosque. Please look at the picture again. You can see the outer gate of the complex, but not Imambara itself. To reach this imposing building, visitors must pass through this gate and two large courtyards to reach the central hall, the world’s largest arched structure without beams or columns.

In the painting, Rumi Darwaza, the imposing gateway to old Lucknow, can be seen directly in front. And there is an elephant and a few scattered people.

This striking watercolor by the once unknown and long-unknown Indian artist Sita Ram will be on display at an exhibition organized by the Delhi art firm DAG later this month.

From June 1814 to early October 1815, Seeta Ram traveled extensively with Francis Rawdon, also known as the Marquess of Hastings, who had been appointed Governor-General of India in 1813 and held the position for ten years. (He is not to be confused with Warren Hastings, much earlier the first Viceroy of India).

As art historians tell the story, Lord Hastings sailed upstream with a vast retinue – his wife, and staff and a painter who he mentions only as a “Bengal draftsman” – in a flotilla of 220 boats over 15 months from the city of Kolkata (then Calcutta) to the distant reaches of Jind, now situated in Haryana.


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Sita Ram drew a similar painting, this time depicting a long procession approaching the Rumi Darwaza
Sita Ram drew a similar painting, this time depicting a long procession approaching the Rumi Darwaza

The purpose of the long journey was to “meet the rulers in northern India, with a view to possible expansions of British control, and to monitor more closely an ongoing war in Nepal”, according to art historian Giles Tillotson.

During the journey, Sita Ram painted 229 large water colour paintings portraying the buildings and landscapes that unfolded along the way. Together, they amount to a “continuous visual narration of the expedition and complement Hasting’s written account”, says Mr Tillotson.

JP Losty, a former curator of the British Library in London, wrote that “some of the paintings illustrating the river journey are among the most tranquil and beautiful creations in Indian painting”.

The paintings – averaging 40 by 60cm – were pasted into 10 annotated albums which Hastings took back home at the end of his term in India. They were passed down to his descendants and for a century and a half – 1820s to 1970s – Sita Ram’s works were “unseen by the outer world, and his name was unknown”.

In 1974, the Hastings family sold two of the 46 albums of paintings at Sotheby’s auction in London. Sita Ram’s name on the album cover gave the world a glimpse into a previously unknown artist and her work, Tillotson said.

“On this evidence alone, specialists of Indian paintings saw Sita Ram as one of the most important Indian artists of this period,” he says. “But still very little was known about him”.

Because the painting was being sold anonymously, there was no way to link Seeta Ram to Hastings.

After 20 years, the family will sell the remaining eight albums and three others containing other paintings done by Sita Ram during his visits to Bengal in 1817 and 1821. I decided to. The collection was acquired by the British Library.

“It now appears that Hastings was not the artist’s only patron. After Hastings left India, he continued to work for other patrons, or he made other versions of his works, either to keep himself or sell to others,” says Mr Tillotson.

Sita Ram’s works belong to the genre of corporate paintings. Characterized by the use of watercolors, which differs from traditional gouache, they are painted on paper and collected in bifold albums. The painting is named after the British East India Company, which was founded in 1600 for trading purposes.

But as this powerful multinational expanded its control over India in the late 18th century, many Indian painters (famous names include Sewak Ram of Patna and Ghulam Ali Khan of Delhi) I ordered a piece of art.
They had previously worked for the Mughals.

Sita Ram's striking watercolour of Bara Imambara, a historical building complex in northern India
Sita Ram’s striking watercolour of Bara Imambara, a historical building complex in northern India

Not much is still known about Sita Ram. Hailing from Bengal, he seems to have been trained in the late Mughal school of Murshidabad, the capital of the prince of Bengal. “When the school fell by the wayside, artists like Sita Ram moved on to find patrons in the new cities emerging under British rule,” says Mr Tillotson.

Was Sita Ram a trained draughtsman? Losty seemed to think so. He wrote that Sita Ram’s work was “overlaid by exposure to a precise style of draughtsmanship” which he could have probably acquired through being trained as a botanical draughtsman or an architectural draughtsman “as well as his training in the English watercolour topographical style”.

Losty said many of Sita Ram’s paintings “promised to be of great interest in the discovery of India’s past before the advent of photography and the Archaeological Survey”.

Mr Tillotson says Sita Ram was “one of the most versatile and inventive of Indian artists working for European patrons in the early 19th Century”.

“Scenes such as this courtyard before the Imambara in Lucknow [in the painting] seem familiar to us 200 years later; all that has changed is an increasingly urban landscape that is now encroaching on the setting.”
Source: BBC

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