Discovery Of Colonial India
Open|December 21, 2015

Lord Hastings 1814 journey from Calcutta to Punjab with painter Sita Ram is a discovery of Colonial India through lives mundane and magical.

Shreya Ray

The annals of official history —echoed in schoolbooks and newspaper headlines— seldom concerns itself with the wholeness of stories it professes to tell, filling it up as it does with wars, dates, monarchs and murders. The greatest or most evil of rulers make an appearance, as do political achievements and disasters. An entire people’s stories exist within these subjective, caricatured polarities.

On the other side is a personal, microhistory which concerns itself with the minutae, the mundane, the crayon that colours in the black lines of official history. Personal history humanises even the political figure; it distances him from his treaties and battles, offering a window to his mind; it shows us the stunning views that surrounded him, the animals he saw, and if the author is English, his observations on the weather. Where recorded history shows disregard for these details, personal history returns the favour by existing as a parallel stream of reality, rarely punctuated with ‘The Big Picture’.

One of these political figures in Indian history textbooks is Lord Hastings—often memorised by schoolchildren as one of seven governor generals to have served India before Independence. It is a less known fact that Lord Hastings’ travels across the country were accompanied and documented by one of the greatest Indian artists of the pre-modern era, Sita Ram.

One of the greats of what is known as the ‘Company’ style, Sita Ram accompanied Lord Hastings and his coterie on a 17-month voyage to the Punjab and back, and recorded his impressions in 229 large watercolour drawings. Of these works, 60 unpublished drawings along with corresponding journal entries by Lord Hastings have been put together into a book, Sita Ram: Picturesque Views of India Lord Hasting’s Journey from Calcutta to Punjab, 1814-15, by JP Losty (Roli Books India, Rs 2,495, 254 pages), the former curator-in-charge of the extensive Indian visual collections in the British Library in London. The drawings are also being exhibited all this month at Bikaner House. The result is a lively combination of lyrical paintings, written mutterings of the Governor General, all with footnotes by Losty, who has published many books on Indian art from the 12th to the 19th century, including The Art of the Book in India, Calcutta, City of Palaces, The Ramayana: Love and Valour in India’s Great Epic and Delhi: Red Fort to Raisina.

In order to inspect British possessions in India and to meet Indian rulers especially around the time of war with Nepal, Lord Hastings embarked on a journey from Barrackpore to Punjab and back, crossing Patna, Benaras, Allahabad, Kanpur (‘Cawnpore’) in a flotilla of 220 boats, and overland to Lucknow, Delhi and Punjab. Including his wife, children, secretaries, ‘sepoys’, there was an estimated entourage of 10,000 that travelled with him. The troupe disembarked at Kanpur, for the biggest meeting—with the Nawab vizier of Oudh who had honoured his father’s promise of lending the Company Rs 1 crore to help finance the war with Nepal. The principal members of the party travelled on elephant, camel, horseback, palanquin (there are Lord Hastings’ observations on garish palanquin décor) with two sets of tents— one that was present before the troupe arrived at the next encampment, and one that they left behind. Lord Hastings and his troupe rested at the camps during the heat of the day; this is when he met local people and carried on with day-to-day tasks of reading and replying to dispatches sent to him.

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