This forgotten visionary was our pioneering painter of modern life

This forgotten visionary was our pioneering painter of modern life

By VINEET GILL | | 5 December, 2015
Portrait of Sita Ram by a Calcutta artist, c. 1820.
Not many remember the name of the 19th-centry artist Sita Ram anymore and most of his work has already been consigned to oblivion. Of his oeuvre, only some 200 watercolours remain, providing a collective testimony to his genius, writes Vineet Gill.

Artists in India have forever been conscripted in what Milan Kundera, in some other context, once called the battle of memory against forgetting. Those innumerable forgotten artists who belong to our unrecorded past have, it would seem, lost this battle irrevocably. We don’t know their names, even if we sometimes come across their works, marked with a pitiably impersonal sign that says “unknown artist”. One feels consoled at times like these recalling Flaubert’s assertion, establishing beyond doubt the centrality of art in human affairs, that went, “Man is nothing, the work — all”. But then we’re consoled no more when we think of artists whose works — damaged or lost in the riptide of history — have faded just like their names.  
It’s not often in art history that we get to see a forgotten figure re-emerge suddenly from the deep waters of oblivion. The 19th-century painter Sita Ram’s re-emergence hasn’t been quite as dramatic and sudden, although the fact that his name and works have managed to survive only by a whisker continues to astonish. To think that we’d all but lost Sita Ram’s fabulous watercolour landscapes of Indian cities and towns! His minutely-detailed architectural studies of monuments and buildings; his pitch-perfect renderings of animals, birds, insects and trees!
Everything would have been lost, had the artist not been commissioned by the British statesman Lord Hastings for a series of watercolours documenting the latter’s journey from Calcutta to the Punjab Province between 1814-15.
Sita Ram composed over 200 illustrations during his travels with Hastings, all of which were collected in some ten albums (of which two have been lost). The paintings were meant to complement the text of an extensive journal that Hastings was writing at the time.
Both the journal and Sita Ram’s paintings have just been published by Roli Books in an excellent coffee-table format, with an unwieldy title, Picturesque Views of India: Sita Ram: Lord Hastings’s Journey from Calcutta to the Pubjab, 1814-15.   
 Edited by the curator and art historian J.P. Losty, the book is meant to revive public interest in both Sita Ram’s paintings and Hastings journal. “This is one of the least studied of the great series of Anglo-Indian narratives of the early 10th century,” Losty says of the journal.
But the general reader is easily distracted, and there’s nothing like having Sita Ram’s landscapes as accompanying pieces over here to take the focus further away from the text. “Slow progress,” writes Hastings in one of his entries, “and excessive heat.” A day later, we find him whimpering still: “Our advance has been still slow... from great heat.”
Then the reader’s wandering eye — stymied by this perpetually slow progress — finally lands on the painting beside the text, and a whole new world opens up. It is a landscape depicting “old buildings along the riverside at Monghyr”. Looking at the shimmer of the water, we’re reminded of the French Impressionist painters, although Claude Monet would compose his seminal masterpiece, Impressions, decades down the line. In Sita Ram’s painting, the clouds remind us, faintly, of Turner, but the astonishing thing is that Sita Ram’s landscape precedes Turner’s high point by decades.
How did this happen? Whom was Sita Ram following? Where was learning from? We do know that he had seen the architectural etchings of Piranesi, finding guidance and inspiration in those. But what of those light brushstrokes in his landscapes, the vague finish of his paintings, the sense of movement conveyed by his compositions? How did an obscure Indian painter from the Bengal region, a product of the Murshidabad school, so ably and accurately prefigure the dreams and visions of European art?

How did an obscure Indian painter from the Bengal region, a product of the Murshidabad school, so ably and accurately prefigure the dreams and visions of  European art?

We now know that Sita Ram was trained in one of those “Company” schools also. So exposure to the dominant European styles of the time was not a problem for him. Except that his own style, as evident from these paintings, isn’t anything close to the manners and idiom of early 19th-century European art, let alone colonial art.
There is something fresh and deeply original about these paintings. And originality is  not necessarily to be found in the subject an artist decides to depict; it is found in the way an artist approaches his or her subject. This is the cardinal lesson of modern art — the way of seeing is more important than what is being seen.
Hence a subject like the Taj Mahal is no good in mediocre hands, for the amateur artist is bound to be overwhelmed by the reality — by the real beauty, as opposed to the beauty manufactured on the canvas — of what he sees before him. In such cases, the intent is usually to reproduce reality, to capture the whole aesthetic essence of the Taj: an objective that remains a lost cause.
Now look at Sita Ram’s portrayals of the Taj. He painted the monument from various perspectives, in broad daylight and under a bright full moon. But the monument is never an imposing presence in his compositions. It is seen, for instance, from afar in one of the paintings, crowning the horizon of a barren landscape spotted with random trees and a few wayfarers, who may or may not be headed to the Taj.
In another painting, the monument itself, the great subject, is obscured by the foliage of some giant trees standing in the “Taj garden”. You can only see part of the central dome of the Taj and three of its minarets barely visible through the branches. It’s one of the best paintings of a historical monument that I’ve ever seen. That’s because while failing to capture the whole aesthetic essence or the grandeur of the monument, this painting presents to us an interpretation of a specific moment, of which the monument merely happens to be a part. This celebration, this highlighting of the contingent is what modernity is all about. And Sita Ram, it turns out, is our least-celebrated painter of modern life, who painted at least a hundred years before modernity — as we now understand it — began.

Picture essay of Sita Ram’s watercolours called History In The Making is also featured on our website under photos.

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