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A CRANNY IN EVERY NOOK

Pran Nevile’s THE RAJ REVISITED (Niyogi, Rs 1,495) is an all-too- familiar romp through imperial India. It gathers thematically — with commentary, glossary, bibliography and potted biographies — reproductions (of varying quality) of paintings, aquatints, engravings and lithographs from a number of Indian, British and American libraries and museums. Nevile is a veteran in these pop-colonial pleasures, having already done love stories, nautch girls, women and BBC films from (and on) the Raj. The appeal of the book, which is comfortably slim and can be taken to bed from the coffee-table, is primarily visual. It makes one realize, all over again, why postcolonial Britain is so bored with its own dreariness, in spite of tikka-masala multi-culturalism and the Windsors. The loss of Empire took away all the fun, comfort, intrigue, mischief and play from the lives of the British — the broods of servants performing every possible domestic chore, the nautch girls and the native mistresses, not to mention the fat nabobs, sword- swallowing jugglers, levitating fakirs, bunderwallahs and snake-charmers, all of whom are longingly documented by the artists gathered in Nevile’s book. Sir Charles Doyly’s 1813 hand-coloured aquatints of typical vignettes from the domestic life of “A Gentleman” dwell beautifully on the drollery and languor of a household teeming with native clerks (crannies), money-servants (sircars), ayahs, head-bearers, barbers and sundry other members of staff crawling out of the woodwork in attitudes of total and eternal servitude.

Picturesque and sublime, native and European, individual and type, strange and familiar, Poussin and Canaletto coexist in the eyes of these artists to create worlds that are sometimes comically, sometimes wonderfully, and sometimes outrageously suspended between history and fantasy, the ungovernable and the colonized. There were both the East India Company and someone like Sir William Jones behind these pictures, mixing knowledge and desire, greed and grace, order and disorder to create the sense of a utopia that is realized, captured and then relinquished to what could never be completely organized, mapped or known. Nevile’s artists include William Hodges, the Daniells, Tilly Kettle, George Chinnery, Francois Baltazard Solvyns, Emily Eden, Sir Charles Doyly, Captain Charles Gold, Fanny Parks and William Simpson.

These Fornasetti faces with a faraway look are hand-coloured etchings by, and after, Solvyns (1808-1812), of Shudra (top left), Kshatriya (bottom left), Brahmin (top right) and Vaishya (bottom right) couples. Solvyns thought that “Hindoos” were “a portion of mankind exempt from ambition, from vanity, from curiosity, satisfied in the enjoyment of what nature bestowed, and possessing in their mild and calm disposition that happiness which they themselves had pursued so long in vain, through the mazes of philosophy and science.”