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Through the eyes of a European

Well-known British painter William Hodges captured the subtle nuances of daily life during his travels in India in the 18th century. It was a picture the west had never seen before.

After the British emerged as a dominant power in India towards the late 18th century, they gradually started taking an interest in Indian history, literature and the culture of the people. Raj literature comprising journals, diaries and memoirs left behind by English travellers, scholars, missionaries, as well as civil and military officials, provide a rare insight into the social and cultural scene in India.

The presence of the British also encouraged professional artists to come to India and sketch the first true-to-life pictures of the Indian panorama. Their drawings ranged from picturesque landscapes and magnificent historic monuments to the occupations, customs and mannerisms of the people. Until then, there was no visual record of the Indian people. Some of these artists were well-known writers and their illustrated journals are regarded as classic chronicles of the times.

William Hodges is considered the first professional artist to sketch the scenic splendour of India and use his own observation to portray the common people. Prior to that, British artists had confined themselves almost wholly to painting portraits of the ruling elite and the Indian princes. Hodges, on the other hand, attuned himself to the sights, smells, colour and shape of his surroundings quickly, depicting his subjects with utmost fidelity and amazing detail.

Born in London in 1744, Hodges came from a humble background. While serving as an errand boy, he came to be noticed by well-known British artist Richard Wilson who was so impressed with Hodges’ artistic talent, that he decided to take him on as his pupil. Hodges came to India in 1780. Over the next three years, he travelled the country and made numerous sketches. Warren Hastings extended his generous patronage to him and many a time Hodges joined the Governor General’s entourage during his travels. Hodges was particularly fascinated by the light and atmosphere around the country. In his journal he wrote, “the clear blue cloudless sky, the polished white buildings, the bright sandy beach, the dark green sea, present a combination totally new to the eye of an Englishman”.

Hodges was particularly charmed by the winsome manners and polished behaviour of the Indian people which he considered the hallmark of the most highly civilised state of society. Unassuming and endowed with great personal charm, he made himself at home even in remote villages, never visited by any European before him. He admired the simple countryfolk and mixed freely with them, enjoying their hospitality with curries and ‘pillaw’.

Hodges’ journal of his travels in India (1780-83) published in 1793 is a remarkable document with some of his observations verging on the poetic and others highly illuminating as well as amusing and romantic. Struck by the awe-inspiring grandeur of the might Ganges he was equally captivated by the “simplicity and primitive appearance of the people”. Admiring the river, he wrote, “the meandering of the river Ganges through the flat country, and glittering through the immense plain, highly cultivated, as far as the extent of the horizon where the eye is almost at a loss to discriminate the termination of the sky and land”. Watching a group of Muslim women visiting tombs at night, he wrote “it is both affecting and curious to see them proceeding in groups, carrying lamps in their hands which they place at the head of the tomb: the effect, considered in a picturesque light is highly beautiful; with that of sentiment, it is delightful”.

Just as the British concept of the picturesque influenced their landscape painting, the western concept of beauty had its impact on their portrayal of the native people. Hodges openly admitted that his portraits of Indians, particularly of women, were based on ideas of classical beauty. He watched the women at Benaras Ghats and wrote: “To a painter’s mind, the fine antique figures never fail to present themselves, when he observes a beautiful female form ascending these steps from the river with a wet drapery, which perfectly displays the whole person, and with vases on their heads, carrying water to the temples.”

Hodges enjoyed travelling by palanquin instead of taking the river route. He could afford that since he received a substantial salary from the East India Company through Hastings. He gives a vivid description of the facilities for travellers including wells and shady banyan trees, and makes a special mention of Sher Shah Suri for his “most humane attention to the comforts and accommodations of his people”. He was delighted to meet a variety of travellers on the road and under the shade of banyan trees by the side of wells or tanks. As he saw men, women and native soldiers there, he drew their sketches on the spot. He witnessed and recorded a sati scene where a Hindu woman was being led to the funeral pyre of her dead husband.

After spending more than three years in India, Hodges returned to England and began work on his Select Views of India, a series of 48 aquatints which were published between 1785-88. It was an unprecedented work, for people in the west had never before seen such a vivid array of Indian monuments and scenery from sketches made on the spot. However, it was a financial failure. He also failed to get recognition from his contemporary seniors in spite of having exhibited a number of times at the Royal Academy. Faced with failing health and mounting debt he committed suicide in 1797. A re-appraisal of his work and his light-filled paintings by some art historians reveals him as an artist who was ahead of his times.

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