Private collection, USA
A courtesan wearing a red skirt and a diaphanous red odhni stands holding a parrot with a long cord attached to its feet.
A parrot, the vehicle of Kama, the god of love, is symbolic of the profession. Comparable to a painting on mica from Trichinopoly c. 1850 in the V&A (D 549-1891, Archer 1992, no. 219(6)).
Southern Indian artists in the 18th century were among the first to adapt their styles and subject matters for their new patrons from the French and English East India Companies. Hindu deities and religious scenes had been the traditional decorations on the walls of temples throughout the south, so it was a simple matter for the artists to produce sets of deities and festivals on paper to inform westerners of the many unfamiliar aspects of south Indian Hinduism. These paintings were painted in brilliant colours against an uncoloured ground. It was again a relatively easy further step for these artists also to produce sets of occupations, castes, ascetics and festivals when British tastes changed to want permanent records of local life. The figures were normally in the early period painted in pairs, a man and his wife, originally standing on a simply painted ground and with a blue sky background behind them, sometimes with a narrow strip of tangled clouds at the top. Around 1800 more details of landscapes and more naturalistic clouds were added and the clouds began to cover the whole sky in jagged alternations of blue and grey.
Men from Tanjore of the muchi or leather-workers caste are thought to have been the artists of these sets, athough inscriptions of some of the albums and paintings indicate that they must have moved to other towns, particularly Madras, in search of employment, where they continued to paint their traditional subjects. Other centres where they are known to have painted included Vellore and Trichinopoly. The artists based in Trichinopoly specialised in painting on small sheets of mica that were mounted on paper guards and bound into albums. By the mid-19th century the artists had often abandoned painting couples, a man and his wife, and instead concentrated on single figures, as found here in this set.
The figures in the set are well drawn, lively and colourful, with good modelling of forms and facial features. Without inscriptions, however, some of the women especially are difficult to identify, but most are normally based on earlier identified figures. Many of the single women seem modelled on the ‘wife’ half of the earlier couples. The women normally wear the elaborate jewellery of the south, with various heavy earrings, hairpins, noserings, necklaces, bracelets and anklets, not detailed here.
References below are to comparable albums in the published catalogues of the collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum and British Museum, London. Accession numbers are included here as both collections are now on-line.
Archer, M., Company Paintings: Indian Paintings of the British Period, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1992
Dallapiccola, A., South Indian Paintings: a Catalogue of the British Museum Collections, British Museum Press, London, 2010
EXPERT: J.P. Losty
J.P. Losty was for many years curator of Indian visual materials in the British Library in London and has published many books and articles on painting in India from the 12th to the 19th centuries.
Artiana would like to thank J.P. Losty for his expertise and assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.