Indian women in British Indian Paintings

Legacy of Intimacy

One of the most popular artists of British India, Sir Charles D’Oyly was known for his perceptive delineation of Indian women in the 19th century.

British artists began arriving in India in the 1760s. They were the first to draw true-to-life pictures of the Indian panorama. Lured by the prospect of fame and fortune, most professional artists engaged themselves in making portraits of the sahibs and native princes or pictures of historical events of imperial interest. The amateur artists, on the other hand, applied their talents to depicting Indian people and their way of life. Some were very talented and their works were of a high standard. They had received training in drawing and water colour paintings, which formed an essential part of the liberal education in England those days. The professional artists in Calcutta gave drawing lessons to sahibs and memsahibs interested in art.

Sir Charles D’Oyly (1781-1845) was the most famous amateur artist in India in the first half of the 19th century. Son of a well-known East India Company ‘nabob’, he was born in Calcutta in 1781, and after receiving his education in England, returned in 1798 to join the Company’s service. He took lessons from George Chinnery, a famous artist of that time in Calcutta. A gifted artist, D’Oyly was ardently perceptive and responsive to the sights, smells, colours and shapes of the environment around him. He had great powers of observation and boundless curiosity. He devoted himself to recording intimate scenes and making on-the-spot sketches in water colour and ink. He has bequeathed us a valuable collection of drawings and paintings which provide a fascinating visual record of the Indian scene during that period. One of the most striking elements of D’Oyly’s voluminous work is his portrayal of Indian women, which he has done with utmost fidelity and graphic detail. He had studied Chinnery’s portrait techniques with great care and this is evident in his drawings. D’Oyly stayed in Patna for 12 years (1821 -33) and this was the most productive period of his painting career. It was in Patna that he achieved fame as an artist and came to be admired by the British community.

D’Oyly was also a very generous and popular host. When the river-boats moored for the night at Patna. many Europeans enjoyed his hospitality and viewed his drawings. In his journal. Bishop Heber describes his visit to D’Oyly’s house in 1824: “1 found great amusement and interest in looking over Sir Charles’ drawing books. He is the best gentleman artist I ever met with. He says India is a picturesque country if people would stir but a little away from the Ganges and his own drawings and paintings make good his assertion.” Lady Amherst, wife of the Governor-General, made an interesting sketch of D’Oyly’s studio showing local residents looking at his drawings and making their own pictures.

D’Oyly’s work inspired British amateur artists and also influenced many Indian artists, notably Sevak Ram and Jai Ram Dass, who worked with him in Patna and adapted their artistic skills to suit the taste of British patrons. D’Oyly founded an Art Society in Patna called “The United Patna and Gaya Society”, or “Behar School of Athens” for the promotion of arts and sciences and for the “circulation of fun and merriment of all descriptions”.

He also imported a lithographic press from England in 1824 which he ran in Patna with the help of local Indian artists. He encouraged his friends to make sketches which he published in the periodical Behar Amateur Lithographic Scrap Book. Many of his drawings, including those of Indian women from different classes, appeared in this periodical.

D’Oyly was a man of great social charm and much admired by the Indian artists who worked with him. A large collection of Patna paintings dealing with castes and occupations is attributed to D’Oyly and his Indian associates. Most of the scrap books published by D’Oyly in Patna, and containing pictures of Indian women, can be found in the British Library, London.