The Emperor Bahadur Shah II Enthroned India, Delhi, Mughal, dated 1838
Opaque watercolor and gold on paper. by Ghulam 'Ali Khan
Editor's Note: William Dalrymple is a Scottish historian and prolific writer, art historian and curator, as well as a prominent broadcaster and critic.
Dalrymple's interests include the history and art of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Middle East, the Muslim world, Hinduism, Buddhism, the Jains and early Eastern Christianity.
He is also one of the co-founders and co-directors of the annual Jaipur Literature Festival.
Dalrymple has lived in India on and off since 1989 and spends most of the year at his Mehrauli farmhouse in the outskirts of Delhi.
Sutra Journal is honored to publish his five part series on the History of Indian Art - This is the last of the five articles.
Read Previous Parts in this Series
Bahadur Shah Zafar was the last Mughal Emperor, and one of the most talented, tolerant and likeable of his remarkable dynasty. Born in 1775, when the
British were still a coastal power clinging to the Indian shore, he lived long enough to see his dynasty reduced to humiliating insignificance, and the
British transform themselves from simple traders into the most powerful military and economic force India had ever seen.
Zafar came late to the throne, succeeding his father only in 1838 when he was in his mid-sixties, and when it was already too late to reverse the
inexorable political decline of the Mughals. But despite this he succeeded in creating around him a court culture of unparalleled brilliance, and partly
through his patronage there took place in Delhi a last great literary renaissance.
While Zafar was himself a mystic, poet and calligrapher of great charm and accomplishment, his greatest achievement was perhaps to nourish the talents both
of Urdu’s supreme love poet, Ghalib, and his great rival Zauq. While the British progressively took over more and more of the Emperor’s power, removing his
head from the coins, seizing complete control even of the city of Delhi itself, and finally laying plans to remove the Mughals altogether from the Red
Fort, the court busied itself in obsessive pursuit of the most cleverly turned love lyric, the most moving ghazal, the most perfect Urdu couplet. As
military and economic realities of British ambitions closed in, the court was lost in a last idyll of pleasure gardens, miniature painting and poetic
It is more than ironic, therefore, that the most complete and remarkable pictorial record that exists of the last days of Mughal Delhi, known as The Dehlie Book, comes from the patronage not of Zafar, nor of the Mughal Court itself, but from Zafar’s would-be nemesis, the notably
unimaginative British Resident (or Ambassador), Sir Thomas Metcalfe.
Metcalfe’s arrival in Delhi brought to a close a period which had seen a great deal of social, cultural and sexual interaction between the Company and the
Mughal court: one of Metcalfe’s predecessors, for example, was Sir David Ochterlony who every evening used to escort all 13 of his Indian wives around the
Mughal capital, each on the back of her own elephant. At the beginning of the 19th century such behaviour was far from unusual: at this period, after all,
one in three British men in India was living with or married to Indian women. Ochterlony’s assistants had included Edward Gardner and William Fraser who,
according to one shocked memsahib, “both wear immense whiskers, and neither will eat beef or pork, being as much Hindoos as Christians, if not more; they
are both of them clever and intelligent, but eccentric; and, having come to this country early, they have formed opinions and prejudices, that make them
Watercolour by an anonymous Delhi artist of Sir David Ochterlony in Indian dress smoking a hookah ca. 1820s
These White Mughals became important patrons of Mughal painting, transforming the art of the capital in the process. The best works produced under Company
patronage are unparalleled in Indian art and shows a sympathy with the Mughal world quite at odds with prevailing stereotypes of colonial philistinism and
insensitivity. These works produced by Mughal painters for British patrons are sometimes classified as ‘Company Painting,’ but in the Mughal capital it is
impossible to make any meaningful distinction between ‘Company’ and ‘Mughal’ work as the same families of artists were working in very similar styles for
Indian, English and mixed-race Anglo-Indian patrons.
Sir Thomas Metcalfe @ The British Library Board
Thomas Metcalfe, however, was a very different man to these White Mughals whom he replaced. A cold and fastidious Englishman, he would have blanched at
even the thought of a ‘native’ mistress. Indeed so refined were his feelings, according to his daughter Emily Bayley, that he could not bear to see women
eat cheese. Moreover, he believed that if the fair sex insisted on eating oranges or mangoes, they should at least do so in the privacy of their own
He would never have dreamt of dressing as Ochterlony had, in full Mughal pagri and jama. Instead, he arranged that his London tailors,
Pulford of St James’ Street, should regularly send out to Delhi a chest of sober but fashionable English clothes. A trunk of the latest English books was
likewise dispatched twice every year. His one concession to Indian taste was to smoke a silver hookah. This he did every day after breakfast, for exactly
30 minutes. If ever one of his servants failed to perform properly and efficiently his appointed duty, Metcalfe would call for a pair of white kid gloves.
These he would pick up from their silver salver and pull on over his long white fingers. Then, ‘with solemn dignity’, having lectured the servant on his
failing, he ‘proceeded to pinch gently but firmly the ear of the culprit, and then let him go — a reprimand that was entirely efficacious’.
Much of Metcalfe’s professional life was dedicated to limiting the power of Bahadur Shah and preparing to abolish the Mughal dynasty. Yet his attitude to
Delhi and its Mughal culture was much more ambiguous than this political stance might suggest and, almost against his better instincts he slowly came to
fall in love both with the city he presided over, and the high Mughal culture which animated it.
Sir Thomas Metcalfe's "Delhie Book" @ British Library Board
To act as a record of his love, between 1842 and 1844, Metcalfe commissioned The Dehlie Book, a series of images of the monuments, ruins, palaces
and shrines of the city from a brilliant Delhi artist named Mazhar Ali Khan. He later had the images bound into an album, and wrote an accompanying text
which he sent to his daughter Emily to act as her guide to the city, as she headed from school in England to join her father in the Mughal capital.
Mazhar Ali Khan was part of a family of artists, the patriarch of whom, Ghulam Ali Khan, had probably worked for William Fraser on a similar commission
some 25 years earlier. The result, known as the ‘Fraser Album’, is now recognised as one of the supreme masterpieces of Indian art. All the artists of the
family had clearly been trained in the old Mughal techniques of miniature painting, but working for Fraser and Metcalfe, using English watercolours on
English paper, and taking English architectural elevations and botanical still lives as their models, an extraordinary fusion of English and Indian
artistic impulses took place. This fusion resulted in an extraordinary final phase in the history of Indian miniature painting.
The brilliance and simplicity of the colours, the meticulous, almost hypnotic attention to detail, the gem-like highlights, the way the picture seems to glow, all these point unmistakably towards Mazhar Ali Khan’s Mughal training, as does his idiosyncratic approach to perspective. No English artist
would have thought of using the astonishing palette of colours that still stands out in the library display like a small aesthetic firework display; the
tentative washes of a memsahib’s watercolour are a world away from this work.
The usual Mughal attention to fine detail is fused with a scientific European rationalism to produce an architectural painting that both observes and feels
the qualities of a building. Thus while the picture of the tomb of Ghazi ud-Din minutely reproduces the proportions and detail of the Mughal domes of the
mosque behind it, the artist has also understood the ideal of lightness and delicacy which the architect was aiming at, and produced an image of the
building as fine and as fragile as a lace ruff: the tomb, you feel, is so delicate and ethereal it could almost be blown away with a breath.
Ghazi al-Din's Mosque, Madrassa of Ghazi al Din Khan, Madrassa of Ghazi al Din, Tomb of Ghazi-al Din; by Mazhar Ali Khan for the Metcalfe album, c.1840's
But for all the life and colour of the paintings, there is a sadness inherent in its images; for it records a city on the eve of catastrophe and
destruction. On a May morning in 1857, only 13 years after the album’s completion, three hundred mutinous sepoys rode into Delhi, massacred every British
man, woman and child they could find in the city, and declared Zafar Emperor.
No friend of the British, Zafar was powerless to resist being made the leader of an uprising he knew from the start was doomed: an officerless army of
peasant soldiers set against the forces of the world’s greatest contemporary military power. Within a month Delhi was surrounded by the British and the
scene was set for one of the most gruelling and pitiless conflicts in Indian history: known in Britain as the Indian Mutiny, and in India as the First War
of Independence, it was the largest anti-colonial revolt against any European empire anywhere in the world in the entire course of the 19th century.
The Siege of Delhi was the Raj’s Stalingrad: a fight to the death between two powers, neither of whom could retreat. For the four hottest months of the
Indian summer, the beautiful Mughal capital was bombarded by British artillery with thousands of helpless civilians caught up in the horrors. There were
unimaginable casualties, with both Indians and British starving, the city left without water, and the combatants on both sides driven to the limits of
extreme physical and mental endurance. Finally, on 14 September 1857, the British attacked and took the city, sacking and looting as they went. The entire
population who had survived the subsequent massacre were driven out into the countryside. Delhi was left an empty ruin.
In the weeks that followed, the vengeful British oversaw the wholesale destruction of great areas of Delhi. The Red Fort was plundered and much of it —
including the exquisite harem courts — were razed to the ground. Though the royal family had surrendered peacefully, all 10 of the Emperor’s surviving sons
were shot in cold blood. The Emperor himself was put on show trial in the ruins of his old palace, and sentenced to transportation. He left his beloved
Delhi on a peasants’ bullock cart. Separated from everyone and everything he loved, broken- hearted, the last of the Great Mughals died in exile in Rangoon
in 1862, aged 87.
Indian mutiny of 1857, all rights with BBC. Getty Images
The last Mughal renaissance which Zafar had nourished was destroyed forever in the bloodletting of 1857. But miniature painting outlived for a while the
destruction of the Mughal court, to die a slow death at the hands, not of sepoys or vengeful grenadiers, but of photographers.
Photography was introduced to the Subcontinent in the early 1840’s and by 1870 had totally altered the way the court painters went about their work:
princely portraits soon began to be strongly influenced by photographs, while in some cases, black and white photographs used to be hand-painted by
miniature artists to make them more closely resemble miniatures.
In 1877, my great uncle, the pre-Raphaelite artist Val Prinsep arrived in Delhi to collect material for a picture the Government wished to present to Queen
Victoria as India’s new Empress. Soon after his arrival Prinsep received a visit from the artists of Delhi, who he discovered now worked entirely ‘from
photographs, and never by any chance from nature’. The same bright colours and marvellous attention to detail was still on show — ‘their manual dexterity
is most surprising,’ he wrote. But this was a last stand. By end of the century many had given up and either become photographers themselves, or else
retreated into producing crude reproductions of earlier work for the tourist trade. Miniature painting as a tradition was now dying, as Prinsep was one of
the first to realise. ‘It is a pity,’ he wrote, ’that such wonderful dexterity should be thrown away’.
An unbroken indigenous Indian tradition which began with the murals of Ajanta one hundred years before Christ, died a slow and lingering death over the
second half of the 19th century. The Dehlie Book, the last major project of that tradition, and one ironically commissioned by an Englishman, sits
today in the British Library like a last survivor to record just how much was lost.