Birds of India : in 19th century ‘Company-paintings’

DAG brings us an exhibition that is a celebration of man’s relationship with nature - in particular, the birds. 

Birds, companions more unknown
Live beside us, but alone
Finding not, do all they can, passage from their souls to man.
Kindness we bestow, and praise
Laud their plumage, greet their lays;
Still, beneath the feather’d breast, stirs a history unexpress’d

-[extract from Poor Matthias!] by Matthew Arnold

Birds, for very long have been a source of inspiration, solace, hope and wonder. In 2020, as we spent more time indoors, there has been a resurgence of interest in the winged creatures around us. As the world gets moving again, (and almost as a way of saying “hey, don’t forget the birds just yet!”) DAG brings us an exhibition that is a celebration of man’s relationship with nature – in particular, the birds. 

Birds feature in art frequently, inspiring (allegorical) poetry, stories and have lent themselves to artistic symbolism over centuries. Under the patronage of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir, natural history painting reached new heights. For the first time, looking at works like the one below, one could identify the specie. 

Great Hornbill, Folio from the Shahjahan album, ca.1540. Painting by Mansur. The Met Museum CC0

In the late 18th century, as the East India Company gained ground in India, artists trained in the Mughal style of painting, looked for new patrons. Murshidabad, Lucknow, Patna, Calcutta – became hotspots where a new hybrid style emerged : this style merged the Mughal naturalism with European ‘minimalism’. Take for instance the Mughal hornbill and it’s late 19th century counterpart: the extravagant borders and decorations disappeared, the bird becomes the focus of the portrait; the paper quality changed & stone-based pigments gave way to watercolours. The result : an arresting portrait of the (oriental pied) Hornbill, which even though Indian, ‘doesn’t look it’. 

Oriental Pied Hornbill (Anthracocerus albirostris); the Cunninghame Graham Album (ca. 1800-1804) image rights: DAG

Amidst the earliest patrons of ‘Company Painting’ were Lady Impey, Claude Martin , James Skinner, and the Frasers. Among these names, the Impey Album is well-known for its birds and animals. Shaikh Zain-ud-Din from Patna, and others were commissioned by Lady Impey (wife of the Sir Elijah Impey, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in Bengal) to document birds and animals including those from her menagerie – her private zoo had pangolins, Malabar giant squirrels, cheetahs etc. Clearly, this sparked a trend – one that the DAG exhibition gives us a glimpse of.

What you can expect at the Birds of India exhibition by DAG

Artworks from three different albums: the Cunninghame Graham Album (Calcutta, 1800-1804), the Faber Album (c.1830), works by Chuni Lal of Patna for Capt. Edward Inge (c.1835)

The exhibition, curated by Dr. Giles Tillotson traces the development of this genre through works in three different albums. On many artworks of the Cunninghame-Graham album, there are inscriptions that refer to the British ornithologist, John Latham. This establishes the patron’s interest in natural science and position these paintings as an important part of early studies of Indian birds. In his curatorial note, Dr. Tillotson while comparing works from the albums observes:

artists were no longer painting the natural world from life, finding it simpler to repeat the marketable formulas already established

Dr. Giles Tillottson, ‘Paper, Bird, Word’ for Birds of India: Company Paintings c.1800 to 1835

A painting by the Patna artist Chuni Lal is accompanied with notes by the collector Captain Edward Inge, “a most excellent Painter … the best artist at Patna”, and “12 Rupees one dozen” – one wonders if this was considered a ‘handsome’ reward by Chuni Lal. There are other questions that come to mind: what did the artists felt like, while ‘adapting’ their style for the new patrons? Did they feel excited about a new style? Was it a conscious choice to not sign their works? Was it deliberate that the European patrons failed to credit the creators? We’d never know. 

Hoopoe by Chuni Lal of Patna for Edward Inge c. 1835 | Image rights: DAG

Bird-watch at the exhibition : can you tell the Hunter birds from the Hunted? Which ones are rarely seen now?

Observe the birds like an ornithologist! Enjoy watching the birds up-close, noting their silhouette (body, tail shape, length of bill, etc.), plumage (feather colours, wing bars or patches), posture & size! The type of beak would tell you if the bird is surface-skimming or mud probing one; nectar feeding or fruit eating one. Look out for the different types of feet: climbing ones, perching ones, grasping ones (the hawks would have these).

BirdSong and Poetry

The Curatorial note by Dr. Giles Tillottson is filled with limericks and poems that make for a wonderful side companion while viewing this exhibition. A digital interactive at the exhibition also lets you listen to the bird-sounds. Make your visit more adventurous by taking a partner & play your own “find the bird” game.

One wonders if these works, when commissioned, were more out of a need to document the natural world or for the love of art-souvenirs. Perhaps a little of both, but some works in the exhibition deviate from their original scientific descriptions, leaving us curious and peering through the glass frames for clues. Hint: scroll up again, to see the Hornbills. The artist gives the Oriental Pied a prominent white wing bar – essentially a feature of the Great Hornbill (as seen in the Mughal painting).

At the DAG exhibition, the story of these un-named artists and their work comes full circle. These paintings of birds, that were once created in the subcontinent by Indian artists for British patrons, are now back in India. And this time, they will not be viewed with a European gaze, but an Indian one.

The exhibition is on at The Claridges, till October 6, 2021.

The Heritage Lab
The Heritage Lab
The Heritage Lab presents stories and resources from museums with a focus on South Asia - featuring its art, culture, history and heritage.

Click Culture!

Submit a photo of your favourite object from a museum collection to help us improve the coverage of Indian culture, art and heritage related content on the internet beginning with Wikipedia.


Comments are closed.