The National Army Museum is currently hosting Indian Armies and Indian Art, a small but carefully constructed exhibition in Chelsea, London. It showcases works from the collections of soldiers and officers stationed in India between 1780 and 1880. The works reveal the relationship British soldiers had with their new discovery of the east. It’s easy at this point to dive into the visionary worlds of William Makepeace Thackeray and imagine what life could have been like for both British and Indian soldiers, but this doesn’t fully reveal the actual rivalry and violence that existed, nor the heat, intensity or drama. Partly due to the nature of the art being heavily stylised, meaning that although this is a highly visual exhibit, a lot of the work on part of the viewer is having to read between the lines.
Early Anglo-Indian wars were spread during the 18th and 19th centuries. During this time, The Company, a derivative name for the East India Company, became the prominent force in the country, weaving its dominance closely with that of the British Military. Also during these years of conquest, soldiers and officers began to commission works of art and architecture to capture their experience and understanding of the east. As the exhibition demonstrates, some of them really took a great appreciation of the mysterious new environment they found themselves in. What we begin to see therefore, is the very early interaction between two cultures in contrast to the harsh violence that eventually pulled them apart.
To look at the very early works, there is a display of small statues and models; indicative of popular art in India at the time. There are some Sikh Soldiers and works from the court of Tippu. These are very early stylised traditional pieces, belonging to the court of Mysore, demonstrating a typical southern-Indian style of aesthetic. Most of them fell into the hands of the British Army following the end of the Mysore wars, when certain courts and kingdoms disbanded and the British entered. What we begin to see after this are collections of paintings showcasing army life in central parts of India – spanning from the west in Punjab, to the east in Calcutta. We learn that soldiers very quickly began to form Asiatic societies, in which they took on the traditional method of empirically recording and documenting everything they saw. As such, they document the differences between soldiers from different regions, of different castes and in different ranks. This may inform us why they were able to take a strong hold on certain parts of the country, purely perhaps by careful observation.
When we look at the work from the courts of the Punjab, they tell a slightly different story, largely because the rebellion in this part of the country continued to exist until the first half of the 19th century. The court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh lasted up until 1845, from where the Punjabi Anglo-Indian battles commenced. They lasted for the best part of four years. There is one significant Company drawing here which depicts this. It is a vivid pencil work showing the British and Punjabi army, both carrying arms and charging at one another. Its two dimensional characters do little to show the fear and tension on each face, but the work overall serves to demonstrate the size of the battle. Its luminous colours give an impression of the types of battle dress that would have been worn and begin to give some indication of the techni-colour horror of the battle. Ultimately however, what’s quite sad about this drawing, other than the subject matter, is simply the fact that it’s unaccredited. Like most art of this time, everything would have been heavily controlled and censored. All art that was sanctioned simply existed through the dominance of The Company. As such, this work, along with many in the exhibition, is another Company relic.
Prior to reaching the exhibition, I didn’t really know what to expect as I turned a leafy corner on a damp and crisp morning in Chelsea. I’d carried my heavy back-pack across town and I was putting myself in a militaristic mind-set; but this really won’t have fully enhanced my understanding of the types of conditions that officers and soldiers of all ranks from both Indian and British sides would have experienced. The exhibition, however, serves well to indicate that not all interaction between either side was pure barbarism and hedonistic violence. It demonstrates that within the ranks and files, a genuine appreciation for beauty and culture existed perhaps becoming lost amidst the larger course of history.
On leaving the exhibition, I found myself wondering through other parts of the museum, and came across the following quote, “The sepoys are proud men of high caste and character, of respectable connections and proverbially faithful to their salt,” Lord William Bentinck. Though this was mentioned in a different part of the museum, it helped to accent the message that would have best fitted the exhibit. As it was, I think it scratches the surface of what army life might have been like; never the less, it provides an insight into a time that we may not ordinarily know about. Indian Armies and Indian Art runs throughout the year.