global art shot: kampani kalam, when east met west

Two friends seated in discussion. Way back in the year 1810-12 in Delhi. Two very real, very ordinary people. Just like you and me. And if it weren’t for an art form that went by the name Kampani Kalam in the local Indian lingua franca, or Company Paintings in English, these two gentlemen would have been forgotten in the pages of time.

But they survived. The two, not meeting my eye, but seemingly fully aware of being the focus of my attention last Sunday, were part of a special exhibition at Delhi’s National Museum. Some two hundred other paintings hung around me, but this hung in the spectrum of time. Their true-to-life faces, their elaborate local costumes, even the hair on their arms and chest.

Through them, I could travel back 210 years. In a flash.

The Mughal empire was waning. Miniature artists who thrived under Mughal rule had no option but to look for other patrons. Meanwhile, the Europeans had arrived through the British East India and other trading companies. They were eager to ‘record’ the colourful exotic world they had reached and share it with their friends and family back home. After all, photography was still a distant invention.

Whether the Europeans chose the miniature artists or the artists chose the Europeans, what emerged was a hybrid Indo-European style unlike any other. Monuments and portraiture, fauna and flora, were treated with perspective, volume, and shading for the first time by artists adept at the hitherto flat miniature style.

Result: Paintings such as the one of the two friends.

Oh, and if you wondering which grand edifice did the below painting ‘record’, it is Qudsia Bagh, the 18th Century Mughal Queen’s palace-garden mentioned in my post on Delhi’s 7 best heritage parks. Before it was blown up, that is. Thank god for Kampani Kalam, wouldn’t you agree? For providing an intimate account of 19th Century Indian life. Oh, and yes, the European in India life too. ❤

4 thoughts on “global art shot: kampani kalam, when east met west

    • Must have been a wonderful exhibition! That’s the one thing I miss most about London–its world class museums and galleries. I used to attend every special exhibition that would run at the British Musem, V&A, National Gallery and the two Tates when I lived in London. Now I just satiate myself with their newsletters.



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