“All eyes were turned on them”: Amusing paintings of Exotic Firangis in Mewar

Updated: Dec 6, 2020

“All eyes were turned on them”: Amusing paintings of Exotic Firangisin Mewar[1] - Vinit Vyas, Art Historian

Fig.1: (Detail) Maharana Sangram Singh receives the embassy of Johan Joshua Ketelaar, circa.1711 CE, Mewar, Udaipur, Rajasthan, India. Collection & ©: Victoria & Albert Museum.

Source: https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O434267/maharana-sangram-singh-receives-the-painting/

As seen in the above image, attendants wearing colorful jamas (long coat) with golden patkas (sash) stand- one holds a kiraniya (sunshade) while the other two in the middle are seen talking to the blue-dressed figures and others seem curious about all this. Their strategic placement near the fountains of the white-marbled Amar Vilas inside the City palace, Udaipur give a strikingcontrast against their dark-skin and blue garments. But who are they? And why are they here? Dealing with these issues, we shall observe some specific paintings,perhaps more “amusing” in nature to unravel more information about the depiction of foreigners in Rajput paintings, especially from the Mewar region (and its capital Udaipur) which is a part of the modern state of Rajasthan, India.

As Stephen Markel writes, “Since the earliest periods of South Asian art, genre and narrative sculptures have depicted exotic foreigners and otherworldly anthropomorphized creatures with an embellished physical form and heightened artistic style, often as caricatures with exaggerated features and convoluted postures, and frequently wearing misunderstood foreign or hybrid garb.”[2]From the 16th-19th centuriesin the Mughal and Rajput courts, a spark interest in portraying these strange and exotic figures became prevalent, not only fulfilling the artists’ curiosity but also giving them an opportunity to caricaturize, experiment and create some of the most intriguing and comical paintings. The Mughals’ fascination with the Europeans led them and their artists to embrace not only the Europeans’ culture and artworks, but also exposed the artists to a variety of artworks and techniques. The Europeans’ appearance remained talk of the town. Take for example, the arrival of Jesuits in Fatehpur Sikri inthe 1580s, when Father Monserrate describes them: “When they entered, their outlandish appearance created a stir. All eyes were turned on them. People stopped, agape in wonderment, rooted to the ground and forgetting to get out of the way betimes, for who were those men coming along, unarmed, dressed in long black robes, with their faces shaven, and their close-cropped heads stuck in hats?”[3]

The Mughal fascination with the European material captured the Rajput attention as (at least) from the 17th-19thcenturies, artists at Bundi, Kota, Mewar, Uniara and Kishangarh[4]actively painted them. But before we move ahead, let us return back to the first image:

Fig.2: Maharana Sangram Singh receives the embassy of Johan Joshua Ketelaar, circa1711 CE, Mewar, Udaipur, Rajasthan, India. Collection and ©: Victoria & Albert Museum, London. Source:https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O434267/maharana-sangram-singh-receives-the-painting/

The complete painting filled with attendants, courtiers, shining trees and architectural elements, portrayed with utmost sensitivity, brings out the grandeur of Udaipur court. The scene is of a meeting between Maharana Sangram Singh (reigned 1710-34 CE) and Johan Joshua Ketelaar, the Dutch ambassador working for the Dutch East India company[5]who visited Udaipur via Surat in early 18th century. The Udaipur inventory reveals the gifts given to the Maharana and his ministers including “japanese lacquer, swords and other arms, nails, mirrors, spectacles, velvets and a gold flower” as noted by Andrew Topsfield.[6] It did not take much time for the painters to start depicting them more, which transformed into a genre called ‘Farangi’(foreigners)[7], especially in Udaipur- artists emerged to make a variety of themes; from parodies and caricatures of Europeans to depicting them in awkward erotic postures[8], backgrounds and facial expressions, the artists left no stone unturned to explore their curiosity about these “outlanders”. One wonders if/how these were viewed by the courtiers and the kings in the court. While the above image is much “sympathetic” to the Farangis, the following examples what went beyond this.[9]

Fig.3: Parody of Europeans, circa 1760-1800 CE, Mewar, Rajasthan, India. Collection and ©: Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Source: https://collections.lacma.org/node/205905

As seen above, two Europeans are seen giggling over something- their wrinkled faces, grotesque-amusing appearance showing their teeth and the gesture of wiping their nose (perhaps an obscene gesture) confirms that motive of the artist was to make it comical. The dark-blue background and their green-orange attires make them more “colorful”. But where does this come from? As one begins to dig deep, some sources come to the mind. In the 16th-18th centuries, European satirical paintings and prints by a number of artists like Peiter Balten (ca. 1527-1584), William Hogarth (1697-1764)[10], Dary Marly (flourished 1756-1779), some of which might have reached Udaipur through the Dutch and other ambassadors, gave birth to this artistic exchange (Figs.4, 5, 6). The above image is believed to have been inspired from the Dutch proverb De wereld voedt veel zotten (world feeds many fools)- the gesture of using their forefinger to touch or wipe their nose suggests the using of snuff or an act of obscenity. Daan Van Heesch adds, “The pictorial proverb signifies the everlasting follies of men through a letter ‘D’ (de), a cross-bearing orb (wereld), a foot (voet), a viol (ve(d)el) and a pair of jesters (narren/zotten) of which one is figuratively feeding himself folly (in fact porridge).”[11]Rajput artists, for obvious reasons either intentionally or unintentionally excluded some elements, which may have transformed these into parodies.

Fig.4: The world feeds many fools, 16th or 17th century CE, Antwerp (?), oil on panel. Collection: The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp. Attributed to Pieter Balten (1527-1584).


Fig.5: The world feeds many fools, circa 1630-1680 CE, published by Frans van den Wyngaerde, engraving, Antwerp (Amsterdam, Rijksprentenkabinet).

Source: https://twitter.com/menno_jonker/status/989885499786620930

Fig.6: A Book of Caricaturas: on 59 Copper-Plates, 1762 CE, by Mary Darly (flourished 1756-1779), London. Collection & ©: Princeton University.

Source: https://www.princeton.edu/~graphicarts/2011/04/mary_darly.html

Fig.7: A European concoction, circa 1760 CE, Mewar, Udaipur, Rajasthan, India. Collection and ©: Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Source: https://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/101264.html?mulR=676720067|1

Among the most enthralling paintings is this scene, aptly captioned as “concoction”- continuing the experimentation of European prints and paintings. Starting from the left, two Europeans are seen ogling at the viewer(s). Adorned with a wig, one is smoking a pipe while the other, as seen before, is touching his nose with forefinger. Their strange costumes give a contrast to the dark-green background. A child looking on the right, attended by a dog are climbing onto him. On the right, a gaunt and hollow-cheeked man in orange garment, perhaps in pain, is seen bawling as the snake bites his chin. The painting gets more interesting as the carpet depicts deer running around as a cheetah hides behind the rock, ready to jump on his prey. On the lower left and right side of the carpet, fight between dragon and tiger continues; the artist has left for us to decide if these are carpet designs or a hunt fantasy coming alive.This “concoction” is truly an extraordinary painting as the artist’s sensitivity in capturing expressions, and intricate details of the figure’s (in the right) skeletal body, his minute tongue, carpet and the use of color makes it an excellent example of this genre. Michael Yonan suggeststhat this image may be based on paintings or printsfrom 16th century Italy or 17th century Holland.[12]

Fig.8: European Man Bitten by a Snake (top), Courtesan (?) (bottom), circa 1760-1775 CE, Mewar, Rajasthan, India. Collection and ©: Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Source: https://collections.lacma.org/node/170287

Similar to Fig.7, here, the man wearing a green garment, shrieks tremendously as a pink snake bites his chin, while the bottom shows a half-naked bejeweled woman (perhaps a courtesan?) in full profile, holding a rose as the parrot is about to sit on it. Now, let us stop and observe why are the two figures portrayed in three-quarter face and a profile view respectively? “Style”, intrinsic to an artist’s visual vocabulary, has been consciously used by the artists to “define” their work.[13]According to Molly Emma Aitken, “In Rajasthan, three-quarter and frontal views of faces became standard stylistic markers of foreignness for the simple reason that they were employed by Persian, early Mughal, and European painters.”[14]Further, three-quarter or frontal faces became a strong mark to portray evilness or “outsiders”. Almost all the paintings in this article portray three-quarter faces, which became expressions of strangeness and even ridiculousness of foreigners.[15] In this case, as we observe, the screaming European man becomes a clear mark of ugliness and shame against the courtesan with her open breasts, jewelry and posture, giving a stark contrast between the grotesque and the ideal beauty.

Fig.9: Bust portrait of a mother and child, circa 18th century, Rajasthan, India. Collection and ©: British Museum.

Source: https://research.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details/collection_image_gallery.aspx?partid=1&assetid=275493001&objectid=233167#more-views

As mentioned, the Mughal fascination with European material, and also Christianity grew so popular much that Mughal artists swiftly started understanding juxtaposing, exploring it beyond copying it.[16] Dorota Kamińska-Jones writes, “Among European works, images of the Madonna proved very popular with artists. Initially only copied, they gradually became the model for the representation of an Indian mother and her child.”[17] Scenes from the Jesus’s life story, especially the theme of Madonna holding him as a baby became popular enough to be painted, juxtaposed and copied by the Indian artists, to create their own version of “European-Indian motherhood.”[18] Executed in a setting of jharokha portraits[19], here, the bejeweled[20]mother, with a veil on her head and an intriguing blue garment. The plain yellow background allows the viewer concentrate on her- a broad smile on her face, depicted through sizeable reddening cheeks and shading clearly reveal her happiness. But the bejeweled baby in her lap wearing a long white garment, looks at her mother, perhaps unhappy and may burst into tears anytime! In creating such rather less-conventional scenes, artists created visible expressions to heighten the comical or satirical aspect. But we must also note that not every scene was deliberately created for humour. Sometimes, the process of adapting a different style and the loss of translation from other images resulted in unintended hilarity.

As we observed, some of the most amusing and fascinating images from the region of Mewar give a glimpse of how artists chose or reacted to the styles, techniques and compositions. It is crucial to note that the adoption of technique, style or copying was selective – to expect that they were “simply copying” or they lacked innovation, would be to misunderstand their curiosities, mind and artistic ingenuity. Instead, these examples actually help us to explore the lesser-known aspects of Indian court paintings, moving beyond the conventional themes known to us.

[1] The term Firangi is a general Hindi/Urdu term for foreigners. I am extremely grateful to Dr. Michael Yonan (Prof. of Art History, School of Visual Studies, University of Missouri) for encouraging me and giving clues on early modern satirical European prints. My thanks to Sonika Soni for stimulating discussions on this subject and for reading an early draft of this essay.

[2] Stephen Markel, “The Enigmatic Image: Curious Subjects in Indian Art,” www.asianart.com (blog), July 30, 2015, https://www.asianart.com/articles/enigmatic/index.html.

[3]Sir Edward Maclagan, The Jesuits and the Great Moguls (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne Ltd., 1932).

[4]See Andrew Topsfield, ed., “Satire and Humour in Kishangarh Painting,” in Court Painting in Rajasthan, vol. 51 (Marg Foundation, 2000), 78–91.

[5]See Andrew Topsfield, “Ketelaar’s Embassy and the Farangi Theme in the Art of Udaipur,” Oriental Art XXX, no. 4 (85 1984): 350–67.

[6] Ibid., 352.

[7] ‘Franks’ in Persian; Ibid., 350. (‘Franks’; The usual term for any European)

[8] For an, example, see https://issuu.com/chromadesign/docs/simon_ray_2017_-_web/91 (p.90-91).

[9] While many portraits and other thematic paintings of Europeans were painted in Udaipur and other courts, here, my focus is only on specific comical examples.

[10] For an example, see https://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2016/schorsch-collection-n09466/lot.10.html?locale=en

[11] Daan Van Heesch, “The Graphic Source for Rajput Images of Fools,” Print Quaterly 35:1 (2018): 50–53.

[12] Email conversation with the author – February 2020.

[13] While it is impossible to define “style”, we may say that the artist’s work itself reveals what his artistic style is. Whether those are dense clouds, slender figures or an elongated nose. For further reading, see Molly Emma Aitken, The Intelligence of Tradition in Rajput Court Painting (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 56-109.

[14]Ibid., 75.

[15]Ibid., 78.

[16] For a recent study, see Kavita Singh, Real Birds in Imagined Gardens- Mughal Painting between Persia and Europe (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2017). Also see S.P. Verma, Crossing Cultural Frontiers: Biblical Themes in Mughal Painting (New Delhi: Aryan Books International, 2011).

[17]Dorota Kamińska-Jones, “Art and Gender in the Contact Zone: European Women and Indian Miniature Painting,” Art of the Orient 5 (2016): 202.

[18] Ibid., 202.

[19] Jharokha portraits or “balcony portraits” was a common subject, in which the ruler would appear in front of his subjects at balconies or windows. This was made popular by the Mughal emperor Jahangir (r. 1607-1627) and continued to be popular in the Rajput courts.

[20] Notice the bindi on her forehead, shoulder bracelet (bajubandh) and pearl jewelry, which was much popular among the British.

About the Author :

A graduate in Art History from MSU Baroda, Vinit Vyas works on a range of subjects with an interdisciplinary approach, most importantly South Asian painting and literature. From gender and sexuality, religion, early Hindi languages and poetry, Vinit has been actively researching on Indian painting traditions, especially from Gujarat and Rajasthan. Apart from public writing, he is currently working on early modern painting traditions of Gujarat and serves as a visiting faculty at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad.

The author can be reached at: nihalchand1715@gmail.com

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