The ‘officer artist’ in early 19th century Sindh was the embodiment of creativity driven by practical necessity. A unique set of circumstances had emerged in the subcontinent in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Art was deployed as a medium for the recording and conveying of valuable information. Art for the sake of art was, simultaneously, art for the foundation of what over a century and a half later would be labelled as ‘globalisation’. Independent scholar and author Rosemary Raza’s Representing Sindh: Images of the British Encounter is a foray into uncharted territory, taking us beyond the established narrative on colonial Sindh. Tastefully put together by the Mumbai-based publisher, The Marg Foundation, the handsome volume reveals oil sketches from as early as 1808, watercolours, lithographs and photography from the 19th and early 20th centuries, shedding new light on the province.
The sites, colours and atmosphere depicted in the images are rooted in our personal memory and experience of the region. Therefore, they strike a familiar chord. The impressionist style of travelling artist Hercules Brabazon reflects his experience of Karachi in the 1870s. Karachiites will be able to relate to the omnipresent grey and dusty brown film that engulfs the city to this day, captured accurately in the watercolour. It conveys a sense of mugginess (the man was clearly bothered by the humidity). The disorderly environment of the marketplace is juxtaposed with buildings that appear to be relatively new, slightly incomplete, and awkward in their layout (ironically applicable in the present day). Chaotic public spaces are a part of local culture. To portray this against a background of bulky Anglo-Oriental architecture depicts a clash of civilisations, highlighted by the silhouette of a mosque on the horizon. There is a sense of spaciousness, but the cluster of the crowd takes away from it.
Areas that are now neglected backwaters were once in the public eye. Thanks to radical weekly publications, such as the Illustrated London News, founded in 1842, detailed depictions of life in exotic lands were widely circulated amongst the middle class in Britain. The themes explored by Raza delve deeper than the realpolitik and opportunism that underlay the British conquest of Sindh and Napier’s infamous “piece of rascality”. The focus is on detail, key in unravelling individual perceptions. We are provided with the varied reactions to Napier’s conquest, where subtle gestures in lithographs and oil paintings had massive implications and served as propaganda, for and against occupation. There is an extensive analysis of the mistreatment of the Hyderabad branch of the Talpurs by the British. Ironically, it is the plainest of all the genres, an objective oil portrait of 30-year-old Mir Hasan Ali Talpur in exile in 1855 that is one of the most telling images in the entire collection. It is the expression on his face. There is a sadness in his eyes, perhaps because he felt let down by his former allies. However, it must be noted that it was a cultural tradition amongst the elite in Sindh to convey a sense of aristocratic detachment. The sense of calmness and ease were meant to reflect confidence, control and a degree of elevation. This could very well be the case in Mir Hasan Ali’s portrait. His crossed arms, although very casual for the 1850s, show composure.
Soldier, administrator, engineer, artist, historian, writer, explorer and spy were often the job description of a single person. This is unique in that we do not encounter such a specific mix of tendencies in individuals in subsequent history — the 20th century — or in present times. One does not hear of American soldiers making watercolours or sketches depicting Afghan culture. Limited technology necessitated the use of art and literary skills to collect information. Since official correspondence was carried out through letters — soldiers, administrators and engineers were well-practiced in the art of the written word. As the medium of photography would not be made available until the 1850s and 1860s, young cadets were trained to be able to draw well — a skill needed to carry out surveys and draw plans for engineering works. John Jacob was the foremost example of such a combination of talents. One of the most interesting parts of the book is Hungarian artist Alexander Svoboda’s portrait of Mohbut Khan, a commander of the Scinde Irregular Horse, painted in 1852. The expression on Mohbut Khan’s face is one of stern resolve and conscientiousness and there is something strikingly familiar about it. Perhaps an expression we may have observed in our contact with Sindh. Such details and analyses of previously unexplored themes serve to renew our perception of the region, making this work an invaluable addition to the canon of colonial Sindh.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 2nd, 2015.
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