Exhibiting Heritage: Raising Some Questions through an Exhibition on the Company School of Paintings in India

by Ms. Deeplakshmi B. Saikia

HeritageForAll Heritage Intern (Call 2018) from Assam, India

According to UNESCO, “cultural heritage is the legacy of physical artefacts and intangible attributes of a group or society that are inherited from past generations, maintained in the present and bestowed for the benefit of future generations”. It is the range of tangible and intangible traditions, monuments, artefacts, activities, meanings and behaviours that have been passed down and accepted by succeeding generations. The concept of heritage carries with it a sense of memory and inheritance and thus, also, ownership. It may also be called possession, although heritage occupies a more important space in a people’s history than merely any possession. Since it follows a chain of ownership, therefore, there may also come times when a property- whether tangible or intangible- may be rejected wholly or in parts. Therefore, such a possession, over time, may change its form and/or character and become something that seems to be completely different and new. This new heritage will again be passed down to future generations. Like William Faulkner once wrote: “The past is not dead; it is not even past.” Therefore, in bits and parts, the past gets passed down.

However, this rejection and acceptance as mentioned is not a simple act. How does one decide what is ours” and what is “theirs” in order to make such a decision regarding reception and rejection? Had it been a mere possession of an individual or even a family, such decisions would be fairly easy. But heritage is not something that belongs to one person or even one community. In today’s world of globalization and blurry boundaries, heritage is considered to belong to all humanity. Factors such as media, education and travel have facilitated this even more. Therefore, the continuity or break of tradition or a property can be said to impact people all around the globe. Yet the decision lies in the hands of a few intellectual middle classes only, which brings into question who owns the past and makes these decisions for the present and the future generations. But along with the rise of relaxed boundaries, has also risen the concept of nationalism and national identity. This further complicates the idea of heritage because according to some, heritage is also the marker of a national identity. From this perspective, a heritage only belongs to certain community or nation, and only to be excavated, preserved, restored and exhibited for the “others”. However, this is also important because the conservation and study of our tangible and intangible heritage helps in the validation of certain traditions and rejection of certain others, while taking away lessons from them. Although with better communication facilities, in our multicultural world, public discussions have been taking place between individuals, groups, communities and nations, it has probably only served to complicate the matter even further. Be that as it may, heritage is simultaneously global and shared, local and particular. It is a part of the past, the present, and the future that it will help shape. It is a place for dialogue, recognition, reflection and development and/or regression.

By exhibition is meant a presentation of certain things in an organized manner. Exhibitions usually take place under a controlled environment such as a museum, library, park, gallery, etc. They are generally temporary, experimental, and follow rules regarding venue and timing. Exhibiting is a practice that is held all over the world.

However, if heritage is to include traditions and customs too, it can also be reflected and thus exhibited through a community’s way of life too. This is why the decision regarding acceptance and rejection of certain heritage is so important. However, in the present paper, the importance will be laid upon tangible heritage only such as a visual arts, more specifically, the practice of painting. Painting is an important part of heritage because it is more than the seemingly simple activity. It is said that humans learnt to draw before they learnt to write and read. What started as cave painting with natural colors and fingertips has developed into a much more complicated process, involving drawing, gesture, composition, narration and abstract. However, the paintings of early humans too cannot be dismissed as relatively simple because they too included almost all of the elements that we see in painting today. The technique and the tools may have changed over time, but the main concern has remained the same-communication.

Indian visual arts can be classified according to specific periods. They are Hinduism and Buddhism of the ancient period (3500 BCE to present, Islamic period (712-1757 CE), colonial period (1757-1947), Independence and the post-colonial period (post 1947), modern and post-modernism. Although each of these periods are important for inheriting past ideals and developing its own to pass on to the future, our current concern will be the colonial period which gave rise to a form of painting which was unique in style, subject and spirit.

The advent of the Europeans in India can be said to have started with the coming of Vasco da Gama in Calicut in 1498, a Portuguese explorer who was the first European to land in India. After the arrival of the Portuguese, it was the British, the Dutch and the French who successively landed in India, although it was the British who were able to establish their government in the Indian subcontinent.

With the coming of the Europeans, there occurred changes in all walks of life in India and the visual arts, especially painting, was no different. There were many reasons for the Europeans to forward their influence upon the practice of painting. That was a time when photography had not been developed. Therefore, the only way to document their experiences to show it to their family and friends back home was to manually visually depict them. They wanted to show the different culture they were seeing in a foreign land to their fellow Europeans too. They wanted to take back these pictures as souvenirs. They also wanted to study the new land and its indigenous people since they had started living here and were increasingly spreading their control. Some of these paintings now act as historical sources to study the Indian society at that time. Therefore, during the 18th and 19th centuries, these Europeans began to employ Indian artists to make paintings for them. These works formed a new schooled called the ‘Company school of paintings’. Some of the characteristics of this school of paintings were the usage of watercolors, linear perspective, light and shade, miniature in size, restricted vision, simple range of representative subjects such as crafts and occupations, castes and ethnic groups, commonly observed occasions and events, portraits of Europeans and their families, etc.

Therefore, this school produced paintings which were of a hybrid nature. Different from the recent Renaissance products, and yet not totally Indian, both the native side and the foreigners learnt from each other and collaborated to produce this gamut of work. Along with the paintings, also rose a new class of painters trained in this new production of artworks. Since this school lasted roughly from the 17th century to the early 20th century, not many artists trained in this school survive to this day. That is why the currently ongoing exhibition called The Allure of India at Bikaner House in New Delhi is important. (fig. 1)


It is a project of Dr. Seema Bhalla who is an art historian, curator and art critic. The project explores three hundred years of a shared heritage of art and trade between India and the Dutch, French and British East India companies. It documents the last living masters who had been commissioned to work on the company school of paintings by the Europeans. Therefore, the works which have been displayed in the exhibition showcase the integration of two different styles- one indigenous and one foreign. For instance, earlier the heavier gouache water media was used instead of the later watercolour. Also, bright reds and greens came to be replaced with softer tones. Thus, we see a vivid difference between certain works. Sometimes the difference is also seen within a single work. This is because all of the paintings contain a main panel at the centre which contains a painting, and two more paintings on the sides. Besides, the panel surrounding the central panel is filled with flora, fauna and some composite creatures. The overall work is surrounded by a gold border. The paintings on the sides and the one in the middle sometimes serve to showcase the differences that took place with the coming of the Europeans. In addition to this, the paintings on the sides sometimes also act as illustrators of the painting in the middle. Therefore, in one painting, a landscape painting of the Qutub Minar is seen in the centre inspired by the works of the uncle-nephew duo Thomas and William Daniell. On the side, the two men are seen standing and looking at the monument while drawing on their pads, similar to how they must have drawn or taken notes during their time when photography was not there. (fig. 2)

Fig. 2 (© Deeplakshmi Saikia) (Qutub Minar, Delhi From Aquatint by Thomas and William Daniell Company School Size-Central painting- 6.2 inch x 5 inch Gouache and watercolor with natural pigment and pure gold on Wasli (handmade paper) Two supporting paintings on the outer border in watercolor)

Similarly, in another painting, in the centre, there are some makers of textiles producing shawls and on the side are seen a few European ladies and gentlemen admiring Indian textiles decorated with paisley which is a popular Indian design element. (fig. 3)

Fig. 3 (© Deeplakshmi Saikia) (Shawl Dealer Sikh Company School Size- 11inch x 6.6 inch Gouache and watercolor with natural pigment, pure silver and pure gold wasli (handmade paper) Two supporting paintings on the outer border in watercolor)

For the exhibition, Dr. Bhalla had to travel extensively to identify these last living artists to create a historical re-contextualization of Company Paintings. This is because the leading centers of this school spanned all over India in places such as Madras (Chennai), Lucknow, Calcutta, Patna, Delhi and Tanjore (Thanjavur). Many of these works are similar to some of the works that are in the collection of the British Museum, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, and the Victoria and Albert Museum (London, UK). These paintings have also included the textile designs of India that became a rage in European fashion, particularly in the late 17th and 18h century.

The Allure of India can be taken as a standard exhibition which takes place in established galleries such as that in the Bikaner House. Therefore, certain questions can be raised which can be intriguing as well as controversial. First of all, the entire idea of exhibiting artworks or artefacts in a well-regulated environment such as a gallery or a museum places restrictions on the viewers. Some galleries charge a nominal fee for entry which is not so nominal for many people in India. Some galleries which don’t charge a numerical fee from visitors charge a certain social standing reflected in their appearance. Therefore, the heritage which is supposed to belong to an entire nation, let alone the entire globe, is prevented from being accessed to the citizens of the nation themselves. Also, who or what determines that something is to be considered heritage and displayed, occupying both space and time? Moreover, if something is being considered, something is being discarded. In the case of the present exhibition, what has been discarded? What aspect of company paintings has not been shown or is not possible to be shown? This brings into question the limitations of exhibition of heritage. Heritage is not a smooth process as much as one would like to romanticize it. Conflicts, contradictions, assimilation and recognition are as much as part of this process, as the ultimate action of accepting it and displaying it. These courses of development are something that cannot be displayed in the form of exhibitions, at least not in the conventional form of exhibition that we are aware of. The problem intensifies if we consider exhibiting intangible heritage. Even though these processes cannot be visually depicted, they can be studied in the form of discussing, reading and writing.

Yet exhibition of heritage cannot be completely dismissed. They are not of no use at all. They help in showcasing certain aspects of something some people of a community consider to be an important inheritance. And if nothing at all, they do aide in kindling the spark of curiosity regarding history, the past and probably even the future, in the minds of some people.


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