The Paintings of Sita Ram, Part 4

BY: SUN STAFF - 18.5 2023

'The Battleground of Udhua Nullah'
Painting by Seeta Ram, c. 1817
British Library Collection

A serial presentation of the extraordinary collection of Sita Ram's early 1800's watercolors depicting Indian temples and landscapes.

In earlier segments of this series we have mentioned the presence of the Mughal invaders in India, who Lord Hastings and his expedition artist, Sita Rama, crossed paths with on many occasions. But the point should also be made that Hastings himself was an invader in India, operating as an agent of the British Raj who had dominated most of the subcontinent.

The painting above is one of numerous scenes painted by Sita Rama of the Hastings party's encampments. These scenes attest to the fact that while Hastings was indeed traveling to explore and document the glories of India, he was, on at least two of those journeys, also carrying out military campaigns to dominate both the native citizens of India and the competing Muslim invaders.

The scene above, entitled 'The Battleground of Udhua Nullah', depicts Lord Hastings' encampment at the same place where a previous Raj leader, the Nawab of Bengal, Mir Qasim had been defeated just 50 years prior to the production of Sita Ram's painting. The scene shows Lord Hastings' tents in the foothills of the Rajmahal range. Mir Qasim likewise met with defeat in the Battle of Murshidabad.

A description of the government of Lord Hastings is given by T.G. Percival Spear:

"The end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 opened a new era in India by strengthening the commercial and economic arguments for completing supremacy and by removing all fear of the French. The Pindari raids, which grew year by year until they affected both the Bengal and Madras presidencies, added further reasons for action. The final act was directed by Francis Rawdon-Hastings, 1st marquess of Hastings (governor-general 1813–23), who came to India as a consolation for his failure to attain the premiership under his friend the prince regent (later King George IV). Lord Hastings, however, first had to deal in 1814–16 with the Gurkhas of the northern kingdom of Nepal, who inflicted a series of defeats on a Bengal army unprepared for mountain warfare. Each side earned the respect of the other. The resulting Treaty of Segauli (1816) gave the British the tract of hill country where Shimla (Simla), the site of the future summer capital of British India, was situated, and it settled relations between Nepal and British India for the rest of the British period. Nepal remained independent and isolated, supported by the export of soldiers to strengthen the British military presence in India.

Lord Hastings then turned to the Pindaris. By a large-scale and well-planned enveloping movement, he hoped to enclose them in an iron net. But this involved entering Maratha territories and seeking the cooperation of their princes. Sindhia agreed after agonizing indecision, and this really settled the issue. Holkar's state was in disorder and was easily defeated. Both the raja of Nagpur and the peshwa resisted and attacked the British forces stationed under their respective subsidiary treaties. Nagpur quickly collapsed, but the peshwa kept up a running fight before surrendering in June 1818. The Pindari bands themselves, chased hither and thither, broke up or surrendered.

The East India Company was thus the undisputed master of India, as far as the Sutlej River in the Punjab. This episode was completed by the acceptance of British suzerainty by the Rajput chiefs of Rajasthan, central India, and Kathiawar, as they had formerly accepted the Mughals. Thus the year 1818 marks a watershed, when the British Empire in India became the British Empire of India." (Encyclopedia Britannica)

This historical brief underscores the point that in 1818, at the height of Sita Ram's engagement as expedition painter for Lord Hastings, he was actually traveling as a member of a military entourage, albeit not himself in a fighting mood.

From the standpoint of art history, the above helps us to understand more clearly why Sita Ram's watercolors belong to the Company school designation, and why his style is considered to be an influence on later Company artists. The 'Company School' (or the 'Patna school') was a direct byproduct of the British Raj's presence in India. The school first emerged in Murshidabad, West Bengal, close to Sita Ram's home, and was primarily comprised of watercolor paintings on paper and mica. Sita Ram no doubt gained significant credentials as a member of the Hastings military party, and this likely encouraged greater interest in his work among later Company school painters who were also supported by the Raj.

It's interesting to note that Murshidabad was known during the 18th-19th Centuries for the strong Bhakti cult influence prevalent there, and particularly an affection for Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and the Gaudiyas. The Bhakti mood is present in many Murshidabad paintings of the period, such as the wonderful works by watercolorist Kshindranath Majumdar, often featured in the Sun.