Mrinalini Sil: Collection and Commission: Formation of the ‘Nabobs’ Oriental Art Collection from Eighteenth Century Bengal

The second half of eighteenth century in Bengal saw the extension of the English presence beyond the political and mercantile realm, where the ‘Nabobs’ of the Company emerged as eminent collectors and patrons unraveling a fascinating but complicated tale of art collection and patronage. The Company ‘Nabobs’ looted, commissioned, collected, quested for and preserved the best of the arts of eighteenth century Bengal. The materials collected by these men offer corporeal evidence of a time and place in which parallel cultural idioms and social ambitions worked to produce cross-cultural fusion, making the second half of the eighteenth century one of the most complex, perplexing but captivating and compelling of times. Thus, understanding these ‘Nabobs’ as active agents of transculturation, this paper will seek to probe into the conceptual and visual categories constructed around colonial collecting. Eighteenth century in Bengal witnessed from indiscriminate looting and plundering of oriental riches by early English administrators like Robert Clive to a careful patronage and curation of artworks to satisfy the encyclopedist interests that shaped the sensibilities of the first generation of Orientalists like that of Sir Elijah Impey and Richard Johnson. In this context Sil’s paper will bring to the fore an illustrated Razmnama manuscript belonging to Sir Elijah Impey and a set of Ragamala paintings from Richard Johnson’s collection (both done in the Murshidabad style) in an attempt to trace the patterns of synthesis and exchange that took place in the interstices between culture, traditions, artistic styles and aesthetic sensibilities in the twilight period of waning away of the Mughal empire and emergence of the British one. Highlighting the complex cultural entanglements of this period, an endeavor will be made to investigate the interrelation between colonial art patronage and collecting as a means of selffashioning that evolved along with the emergence of the proto-colonial intelligentsia in eighteenth century Bengal.

 

Mrinalini Sil is a PhD research scholar of Visual Arts in the School of Arts and Aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Having done her MA in History from Jadavpur University, Kolkata, she completed her MPhil titled Painting in Murshidabad in the eighteenth century: An exploration of the patterns of art patronage from the School of Arts and Aesthetics at JNU. Finding the transitional period of eighteenth century most exciting in terms of migration of ideas, people, artistic styles and forms, her MPhil dissertation dealt with patterns of art patronage in eighteenth century Murshidabad paintings. Working further on Murshidabad paintings for her doctoral thesis, her research interests broadly includes provincial Mughal styles of painting, sociology of art production in early modern India and notions of patronage and collection of art in early modern India. She had received the UK Travel Award from the Nehru Trust for the Indian Collections at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Sahapedia-UNESCO Fellowship and has presented several papers in different national and international conferences over the years.


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