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Of sahibs and nautch girls

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ROYAL HUES: The Nawab of Jhajjar astride a pet tiger (left) and the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar in captivity, shot in May 1858

In the decline of power, there is also the pursuit of pleasure. The death of Aurangzeb in 1707 heralded the slow demise of the Mughal era in India and the emerging threat of British colonial ambition. Delhi was enveloped in political chaos. Emerging from this turbulence was art that has often been overlooked. A new exhibition at New York's Asia Society titled Princes and Painters in Mughal Delhi 1707-1857 throws light on how Mughal art in its final years was influenced by the changes in the patronage networks in Delhi.

Featuring around a hundred works, mostly watercolour on paper by Delhi-based court artists like Ghulam Ali Khan and Ghulam Murtaza Khan, the exhibition has been curated by the historian William Dalrymple, author of award-winning books The Last Mughal (on Bahadur Shah Zafar) and The White Mughals (on British residents who went native) and Yuthika Sharma, an academic who recently received her PhD in South Asian art and architecture from Columbia University.

As Mughal power waned, court artists were left with no choice but to work for other wealthy Indian, British and European patrons. Prominent among these patrons were David Ochterlony, William Fraser and James Skinner, British residents who had 'gone native' by adopting the local dress and lifestyle and marrying local women. Readers of Dalrymple's White Mughals will recognise Ochterlony, who caused quite a stir when he took all thirteen of his wives out for evening promenades, each on the back of her own elephant.

With Western patronage came Western perspectives in art. "The exhibition examines these new treatments in Mughal art that emerged as a result of the new influences, " says Adriana Proser, curator of Traditional Asian Art at the Asia Society Museum. "You look at the imagery and portraiture before this particular Western impact and you see faces being sometimes side-views or three-quarter views. Then all of a sudden, with the introduction of new patrons, you see many more frontal views. "

So while some works depict these new patrons in their habitat, as seen in a painting of the Nawab of Jhajjar astride a pet tiger by Ghulam Ali Khan or the portrait of Ochterlony in Indian garb, smoking a hookah and watching nautch girls, others are a realistic documentation of the locals as can be seen in the Fraser Album. Local artists were commissioned for the Fraser Album, a massive undertaking by William Fraser, a Persian scholar from Scotland, who was a surveyor and collector for the East India Company. He regularly undertook terrain mapping surveys across India and was accompanied by his brother, James, an artist, who suggested that they document the local people. This is a landmark work for its striking full-length portraits of people across India - village elders, dancing girls, soldiers, holy men, Afghan horse dealers - and the style of portraiture is distinct from the prevalent Mughal style. These pencil sketches and watercolours anticipate the future art of photography in their arrangement of groups of people, faces in full frontal view, and have often been called ethnographic for their accurate recording of local dress, architecture and scenery. Despite the passage of years, these paintings retain their vitality and their deep jewel-like tones.

"The exhibition looks at the fascinating relationship between these British residents and the local population, " says Proser. One interesting painting concerns James Skinner. He was an Anglo-Indian mercenary who fought on both sides, first for the Marathas and later for the English, leading a fierce and extremely well-disciplined Irregular Cavalry Corps, called Skinner's Horse, made up of local cavalrymen. In Skinner's commissioned paintings, much like his mixed ancestry, one can see a hybrid blend of Mughal and Western styles. "What we're really seeing is a new merging of Indian painting with Western stylistic elements that patrons such as Skinner encouraged, " says Proser. "As Ghulam Ali Khan paints for him, his style is hybrid - the perspective is Western. You still see these incredible details in the hallmark of Mughal style, so it's not as if the tradition or the skill is gone, it is just being applied in a new way. "

Perhaps the final section of the exhibition featuring photographs remains the most poignant. A haunting photo by Robert Tyler and Charles Shepherd shot in May 1858, shows the last Mughal Bahadur Shah Zafar reclining in captivity. The photo is flanked by the remains of what was once a great empire. On one side of the exhibit, a jeweltoned natural colour Mughal style portrait of Zafar shares a wall with a sample of his own exquisite calligraphy on painted paper;on the other, photographs of the ruins of Delhi after the Mughals, and the later reconstruction efforts by Edwin Lutyens.

At this intersection of art and history, it is perhaps time to re-examine that twilight period. Viewed through the lens of art, can we judge the last Mughals, often seen as weakling princes and dilettantes, less harshly? Proser admits that this can be problematic. "The exhibition shows how political power and artistic production are associated, but are yet two different things, " she says. "We find that when times are not politically stable or there is a merging of cultures, in terms of art these can be very fertile periods. What happened with the Mughal period is that to a certain degree, people and even art historians have been blinded by the history, the story of the weakening of Mughal political power and that has influenced their understanding and their appreciation of the art of that time. Great art can sometimes come out of periods of great duress. Today, in the 21st century, we are in a position to revaluate what was really going on in that era, without denying the reality of history. But this is also a sensitive subject - we're talking about the colonial invasion of a culture and it is hard to separate emotionally from that. By saying this is a good painting - is that the same thing as condoning what happened or can you separate that?"

The exhibition is on at the Asia Society Museum, New York, till May 6

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