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What did 19th century Indians do for a living? These paintings tell their stories

  • Maria Thomas
By Maria Thomas

Writer at Quartz India

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

For much of the 18th and 19th centuries, art was one of the only ways to document life in Mughal-era and then colonial India.

Long before the advent of cameras and photojournalism, it was painters who captured the region’s diverse people and places. The paintings of royalty, monuments, and battle scenes are pretty familiar today, but there’s a subset of work produced by Indian artists for employees of the East India Company that is a lesser-known treasure trove of the history of India.

These so-called “company paintings” were designed to capture “exotic” everyday life for friends and family back home, but they’re now a useful record of what the lives of ordinary Indian people were like at that time.

In the 1980s, Shilpa and Praful Shah, the couple behind the Textiles and Art of the People of India Collection, began collecting these paintings from flea markets and antiquarian dealers. This month, they’re exhibiting their collection at Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya.

In the preface to the accompanying catalogue, titled Indian Life and People in the 19th Century and published by Roli Books, the pair writes:

Two hundred years after the paintings were executed, the livelihoods and milieu of the common people that were the subjects of the paintings, are all but vanishing from our sight. The paintings we gravitated towards were of people of diverse castes, trades and occupations—goldsmiths and mendicants, cooks, clerks and cobblers, shoemakers, sepoys and sadhus, itinerant merchants and munshis, rope-walkers and puppeteers. Some of these do have their modern-day Indian counterparts, but gone are the “asabardars,” silver stick bearers, the “chobdars,” silver mace bearers or the “sheristidars,” native court officers.

So, the book is a useful record of these disappearing and already lost professions, besides offering a sneak peak into a time when life in India was a world away from what it is today.

Here’s a selection of company paintings from the book:

TAPI Collection/Roli Books
Candle maker. He squats by an enclosed oven or kiln melting the wax or tallow, spooning the melted substance into moulds vertically hanging from a suspended ring. His house is alongside.
TAPI Collection/Roli Books
Paper maker. Wearing a white jama, green paijama and a red turban, he squats lifting his board with a new sheet of paper from its bath to join the pile of paper sheets he has beside him.
TAPI Collection/Roli Books
Money changer, Calcutta, 1795–1803. Wearing just a dhoti and a red turban, with rudrakasha beads round his neck and a sacred thread round his torso, the money changer sits on a reed mat on the ground balancing a coin on his fist.
TAPI Collection/Roli Books
Bread makers. One is mixing the dough for loaves in a large copper pot and laying them on a white cloth on the ground, the other is transferring them to an open fire in a pot. He uses two long sticks to move the loaves around and transfer them to another white cloth on the ground.
TAPI Collection/Roli Books
Pole decorator. A man wearing a white flared kurta and paijama with red cummerbund and green turban is seated outside a hut joining lengths of rod together to form a pole of uniform width, around which he is wrapping coloured ribbon.
TAPI Collection/Roli Books
A falconer and his wife. He wears a knee-length white jama over red paijama, a white Maratha-style turban and a yellow angavastra and holds a falcon or hawk in his hand. She wears a red odhani over a brown skirt and brown bodice and holds a lizard in her hand (for feeding the bird).
TAPI Collection/Roli Books
Writer. Inscribed below: A Brahmin and head native writer attached to the Kutch Political Residency.Wearing white cheni, angarkha, cummerbund and bulbous turban, and with an angavastra wrapped round his torso, he holds two documents in his hands, both with pseudo-Persian writing.
TAPI Collection/Roli Books
Silver stick bearer. Bearers of silver sticks (asabardar) and silver maces (chobdar) were essential retinue for anyone aspiring to high office in 18th and early 19th century India and preceded their master everywhere.
TAPI Collection/Roli Books
Coachman. Dressed in a uniform of long brown angarkha over white paijama, flat turban with blue band and rosette, and blue and white braided cummerbund, he stands holding a long whip over his shoulder.
TAPI Collection/Roli Books
Purveyor of skins. He holds up what appears to be a crocodile or similar skin with one hand, while another is slung over his shoulder.

All photos courtesy TAPI Collection/Roli Books from the book Indian Life and People in the 19th Century: Company Paintings in the TAPI Collection by J.P. Losty. 

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