Ghulam and Company

Art and the ‘Craft’ of Caste

By Swapnil Singh

Jahaz or The Naval Battle Ship. Signifies the arrival of the Company Raj from the distant Atlantic landing on the shores of the Arabian Sea. Attributed to Kitab-i-Tasrih-al-Aqvam, Library of Congress

As the dawn of the East India Company’s arrival was breaking on the horizon of the subcontinent, the court painters of the dwindling Mughal sultanate began preparing their ateliers for what history would remember as one of the most defining visual art cultures of the Company rule in India. It was the growing mercantile might of the Company in South Asia that resuscitated the craft of these displaced court painters. Under European patronage, they could now serve the fancies of an affluent Western clientele that longed to take home ‘exotic’ vignettes and souvenirs from the Indian subcontinent. Thus begins the chronicle of an art style that synthesised traditional elements of Mughal and Rajput paintings, rendered with a Western treatment of perspective, giving it greater volume and spatial depth, all the while being an ethnographic documentation of the people and their associated culture, surroundings, natural history, and architecture. It is only befitting that this Indo-European style of the early nineteenth century came to be eponymously known as ‘Company Art‘. 

Through the careful reading of history, one realises that the emergence of Company Art was an avant-courier of the predatory colonisation project that would inevitably follow. Accordingly, the colonisers took it upon themselves to introduce the ideas of Western modernity in India and mould the narrative to justify their colonisation. In the cultural field, their anxiety was apparent in their eagerness to set up elite art schools primarily reserved for the upper-caste, upper-class gentry of the cosmopolis of Bombay, Calcutta and Madras. The curriculum, tailored according to the imperial aesthetics, reflected the intentions of the coloniser’s pedagogy.

A work to explore those very intentions is Kitab-i-Tasrih-al-Aqvam, roughly translating to ‘The History of the Origin and Distinguishing Marks of the Different Castes of India’. Completed in 1825, Kitab-i-Tasrih-al-Aqvam is a Persian manuscript with portraits and miniatures drawn in the Company Art style. The work captures the genesis of the coloniser’s preoccupation with documenting, classifying, categorising, translating and appropriating the knowledge systems of the colonised subcontinent to make sense of the alien land through their European lens. The work is almost precognitive, which signals what was to happen with vigour and an unparalleled obsession in the coming future. Like any other Company art, this collection of portraiture purportedly worked as a “straightforward reportage”[⇗] of the farthest perimeter of the Orient. The act of cataloguing coincided with the emerging colonial perspective about India in the nineteenth century. This essay, hence, seeks to problematise this very act of cataloguing by analysing various facets of the collection.

When unpacking the palimpsest of oriental motifs and the aesthetics of exoticism in the Company paintings, a critical layer almost surreptitiously manages to escape the analysis. This crafty, deceptive and wicked subject of our study–the embedded Brahmanical pedagogy–is without any exaggeration, a discourse that colours nearly everything under the tropical sun of ‘Hindustan’. The ethnographic record of Tasrih-al-Aqvam is another flavour of Brahmanical knowledge production, where the work emerges as a classificatory account of the distinguishing marks or characteristics of castes, tribes, and occupations. Unfortunately, postcolonial scholarship and mainstream historical narratives in and about India solely tend to blame Western colonialism, disregarding the sins of injustices and violence perpetrated under Brahmanism. Let me reinstate it if I haven’t done it already: the very act of cataloguing is political. 

Colonel James Skinner in Tazkirat al-umara (1830) by Ghulam Ali Khan. Watercolor and body color on paper. Attributed to British Library, Add.27254.

Kitab-i-Tasrih-al-Aqvam is a diorama of the social and cultural topography of North India where it indexes each subject against a white background (turned khaki-brown with age). James Skinner, otherwise colloquially known as ‘Sikandar Saheb,’ a military general of Anglo-Indian descent, commissioned the paintings. Born to a Scottish soldier and a Rajput woman from Bengal, Skinner’s mixed parentage exposed him to the exquisite cultures of two contrasting worlds. Skinner’s fluency in Persian, still the dominant court language, made him receptive to the cultural, social and political nuances of the times, albeit confined to the perspective of an Anglo-Indian man of an upper-caste, zamindar upbringing. Ghulam Ali Khan, the last court painter of the Mughals, a master of fluorescent Indian gouache, quickly adapted to the paler watercolours which were in vogue in Europe, thus enjoying patronage from both the Sultanate and the East India Company. Skinner commissioned Khan to paint a series of portraits of anonymous subjects referred to only by their castes, thereby forever encaging them within the annals of the Kitab

The European colonisers’ understanding of racial hierarchy concurred with the already present caste hierarchy, and they conveniently used caste to manoeuvre Indian society. Their administrative fears were understandable as they tried to appease the tussle between two drastically different epistemologies. The Company that arrived on the mighty fleets of Jahaz sought a middle ground to avert the conundrum of finding their knowledge system rendered fallible in an alien socio-political landscape. Failure to draw a hard-and-fast separating line on the caste-race riddle was one of many instances that troubled them, and, therein began a project of understanding caste from a British colonial lens.

Tasrih-al-Aqvam mystifies its subjects by reducing them to native stereotypes and not presenting them as unique individuals. It removes the fleshiness of the subject’s occupation determined by a rigid caste structure, and sterilises the depiction by decontextualising spaces, people, and their trades. This is precisely what the caste system tries to achieve: decontextualized, sanitised and depolluted spaces by forced submissiveness of minds and the bodies. The paintings did an excellent job in violating the subjects via the gaze of Ghulam & Company–a European overlord and a representative of the embedded oppressor–together committing the violence of interpretation.

In the book, one can observe the remnants of the Mughal style brush strokes on canvases that belonged to the Raj. Tasrih-al-Aqvam provides an insight into colonial ethnography in its genesis. The work offers a rough trajectory of colonial ethnography before “official ethnographers” were assigned by the Crown. It is an insightful collection to understand how ‘Brahmanical knowledge’ collaborated with the anthropology of European origin, demonstrating the subsequent two hundred years of unbridled fieldwork carried out by the colonisers with bureaucratic efficiency. No matter how vibrant and exquisite the portraits appear, the colonisers merely saw the natives as specimens to be counted, classified, organised and ruled.

The catalogue also gives a glimpse into the social intimacy of caste occupation, slurs and dehumanisation. While translating the captions for the illustrations with the help of a friend fluent in Persian, I noticed a disconcerting, but not a surprising pattern. The paintings depict the subjects–the artisans, labourers, and handcrafters engaged in their everyday chores–in a collectivised caste identity, listed by their occupation/caste/community. These are the same occupational, caste or community names that are used as slurs and expletives of the highest degree even today. It is a given fact that roots of slurs in any language lie in the denial of human dignity and agency of the oppressed. Yet, these paintings show the subjects in an almost disturbing state of calmness, as if in a trance of opium smoke. The observation speaks volumes about the acts of interpretative and representative violence through the ages. Overall, the wide topography covering the deserts and the grasslands, the towns and the villages of North India, is in actuality a reductive model of the mottled realities in a stepwell of degradation.

In the essay ‘Shades of Wildness: Tribe, Caste, and Gender in Western India’, author Ajay Skaria, a scholar of South Asian politics and history, introduces the idea of the politics of time. He posits that the colonisation project consistently construed the notion of the ‘primitive’, in shades and degrees. The colonised subject is understood as wild, whether of a caste or a tribe. The colonisers graded the castes and/or tribes in a hierarchy of primitiveness relative to their ‘civilised’ self. The contrast with the European civilisation sitting atop the pyramid fits well with the West’s Orientalist understanding. The time factor becomes relevant here because it orders primitiveness in a spectrum according to how slow time has moved for different categories of the natives with respect to modern Europe. Caste herein became a convenient tool for the British colonisers to navigate Indian society, a sort of pre-made, ready-to-use rank of primitiveness already flourishing and thriving. The idea becomes relevant here as the titular ‘Ghulam & Company’ represents this intersection of the Brahmanical and the Orientalist concepts of backwardness. 

Furthermore, I observed the representation of different standards of femininity that the women were expected to adhere to, as per their caste position in the social order. The element of shame and punishment worked to different degrees and extent for each caste location. In Tasrih-al-Aqvam, the high-caste women appear to be engulfed with the fear of an intrinsic shame and an extrinsic caste dishonour that might come with overstepping the dictums of their caste boundaries. On the other hand, women who were forced to remain in the lower rungs of the caste ladder were more likely to be victims of extrinsic shame and intrinsic dishonour of their caste location.

To substantiate the above claim, take the example of the portrait of the ‘Harlot’ exuding an irresistible charm. The ‘Harlot’ is donning a shimmery red sharara ornate with flashy accessories, smoking a hookah in her verandah and conversing with a potential client. The absence of the purdah is a rejection of the set dictums, which then becomes one of the indicators of shamelessness imposed upon the ‘Harlot’ extrinsically by the society. In another painting, two women cover their heads in a purdah, with clothes that look less gaudy in contrast to the ‘Harlot’. The posture and expressions of these women register a reluctance to come out of their domestic and caste boundaries in the process of interacting with a male outsider. 

As evident from the statements above, the stereotypes around the construction of femininity, respectability, primitiveness, intelligence and conduct get typified as caste markers. Food habits, personality, sexuality, posture, clothes, language, skin colour get churned in this perpetual-motion machine of creating differences. From the debilitating acculturation under the Brahmanical hegemony, the output one receives is an everlasting caste prejudice arranged in a degrading hierarchy of descending order. The book is an archetype of an obliterated individual assertion of identity, and of oxymoronic fluidic standards within an inflexible caste system. 

Commemorated and remembered as a beautiful exposition of inter-mixing of sundry cultures and traditions, well preserved in the halls of grandiose museums and pompous galleries, can Company Art be redeemed of its multiple problematic depictions? In all sincerity, the essay attempts to invite a good digging, lest the surreptitious layer discussed at the beginning of the article enters a blind spot again. Hopefully, it appears as complex to others as it does to me. Hopefully, it disturbs those who can place themselves in the positions of the subjects rendered immovable in the permafrost of time. 


Watkins, J. & Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection. (1825) Kitāb-I Tashrīḥ Al-Aqvām. Skinner, J., comp [Manuscript/Mixed Material] Retrieved from the Library of Congress. [⇗]

Society, A. (Ed.). (2012, February 7). The Last Atelier: Ghulam Ali Khan. Princes and Painter in  Mughal Delhi 1707-1857. [⇗]

Eaton, N. (2006). Nostalgia for the Exotic: Creating an Imperial Art in London, 1750-1793. American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ASECS), 39(02), 227–250. [⇗]

Fuller, C.J. 2017. ‘Ethnographic Inquiry in Colonial India: Herbert Risley, William Crooke, and the Study of Tribes and Castes: Ethnographic Inquiry in Colonial India’. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 23(3): 603–21.

Skaria, Ajay. 1997. ‘Shades of Wildness Tribe, Caste, and Gender in Western India’. The Journal of Asian Studies 56(3): 726.

Pant, Rashmi. 1987. ‘The Cognitive Status of Caste in Colonial Ethnography: A Review of Some Literature on the NorthWest Provinces and Oudh’. The Indian Economic & Social History Review 24(2): 145–62.

Sardar, Marika. “Company Painting in Nineteenth-Century India.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. [⇗]

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