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Study of a Sikh wedding party & three topographical views of India

Place of Origin: Study of a Sikh wedding party & three topographical views of India

Date: 1868 – 1869

Sikh Wedding Party: w 310mm x h 210mm

Mosque: w 355mm x h 220mm

Reference: 508

Status: Available

Full Description:

Other Dimensions:

Mahim fort, Bombay w 350 x h 205mm

Dalmau ghat (Raebareli) w 355 x h 180mm

The watercolour study of A Sikh Wedding Party by a British painter is accompanied by three attractive topographical landscapes from the same hand. The paintings are on wove watercolour paper and their uniform size and dimension indicate that they came from the artist’s sketch book. Sometime later, they were mounted on cartridge paper and identifying inscriptions were written in brown ink on the mounts in an italic English hand, typical of the late nineteenth century.

The first study is identified on the mount at the lower right, ‘A Sikh Wedding Party’. Five figures, both men and women, sit tightly-packed on a traditional two-wheeled Indian cart (rath) drawn by white bullocks, as they journey to a Sikh wedding. The rath, or gaddi, plays a pivotal role in Punjabi and North Indian culture, as an essential component of the celebratory wedding procession. The vehicle and its bullocks are decorated with colourful phulkari textiles, a traditional embroidery on hand-loom cotton, typical of the Punjab. The joyous occasion is inferred through the different colours that each attendee wears. Their shawls are pulled over their heads to shield them from the sun. They are in a rather bare and desolate environment, with a patch of palm trees in the distance. This is not a wealthy wedding party and thus it captures a moment in the lives of ordinary people – something which written sources rarely capture.

An intriguing inscription is written in pencil on the reverse of the painting itself:

‘The Burn of the Vat

The Vale of Cobleen

August 14th 1880

When I see some dark hill point its crest to the sky,

I think of the rocks that o’ershadow Colbleen’

Whoever wrote this – likely the artist - was thinking of Aberdeenshire in Scotland. The Burn O’Vat is a water pool just six miles from the Vale of Cobleen (near Dee Castle). The two lines of poetry are from Lord Byron’s poem, ‘When I Roved a Young Highlander’ (1817). So, this opens up an interesting question as to how the inscription relates to the painting, for the poem is about a person longing for the familiar mountains of their home and dwelling on the love of a woman they have left behind. These were experiences which no doubt resonated deeply with many colonial sojourners in India.

The three topographical watercolours date from the late 1860s, capturing the landscape of India through the lens of the picturesque. Unlike the Sikh wedding party, the scenes focus on place rather than person. Two of the scenes are located near Raebareli in Uttar Pradesh. The first shows a mosque, a well, and a marketplace (serai). It is inscribed on the mount, ‘Well at Hydraghur. Ray Bareilly, 15 December 1868’. On the back of the painting, there is a pencil inscription that states, ‘Musjid, Well & Serae/Built by ?Chandry ?Surfurang Ahmed/1868 at Hydraghur’. The name of the architect is uncertain and probably refers to the serai buildings, while the white marble mosque is a typical example of Mughal architecture of the seventeenth or early eighteenth century.

The second scene in the environs of Raebareli is of Dalmau Ghat on the banks of the River Ganges some 30km from the city. The riverfront is attractively lined with temples, trees ghats and pavilions, and the waterway is busy with boats moving to and fro. The inscription on the mount beneath the image states, ‘Dalmau Ghaet, Ray Bareilly, January 4th, 1869’, repeating an inscription in pencil on the verso of the painting itself, that reads, ‘Dalmau Ghaet, Ray Bareilly district, January 4th 1869.’ So the artist clearly spent at least three weeks in this region over Christmas and New Year 1868-9. There is a further pencil inscription on the verso which appears to list topographical sites. It is difficult to make out, but no. 6 on the list definitely says ‘Church’. These two scenes are interesting from a colonial perspective because Raebareli was established as an important administrative centre by the British in 1867.

The final landscape scene from this artist’s sketchbook shows a busy beach and seaport with palm trees. One immediately senses the landscape is further south and this is confirmed by the inscription on the verso of the painting, which says ‘Mahim Fort, Bombay’, referring to Mumbai in Maharashtra. No fewer than eight boats lie at anchor, and the coastline is protected by a fortress bastion, Mahim Fort, which the British captured in the late eighteenth century. There is also a European style house.

The subjects, style, palette and inscriptions on these paintings point unequivocally to the work of an itinerant British artist in India in the late 1860s onwards. Perhaps it was someone of Scottish origin, given the inscriptions on the verso of the Sikh Wedding Party. Maybe a travelling officer or engineer, given the focus on landscape views, or a woman accompanying her husband. As a group of works together, the paintings give an insight into the colonial vision of India in the heyday of the British Raj. They tell the tale of a colonial journey, landing by sea in Bombay and then travelling widely across Uttar Pradesh and the Punjab. They capture, river, city and ocean, in an all-encompassing gaze of India as the jewel in the crown of empire.   U.W.


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