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In 1805, a young scholar-official of the East India Company was invalided home to Suffolk at the age of only 35. Edward Moor had first come out to India at the age of 11, spoke several Indian languages, and was passionately interested in the cosmology and beliefs of the Hindus.
Now, with time on his hands in an unfamiliar country he hardly remembered, Moor filled his time by gathering together and organising the artistic, anthropological and textual materials he had been collecting for many years on the deities and images of Hinduism. Five years later, in 1810, he finally published his masterwork, The Hindu Pantheon. Moor's book immediately established itself as the most detailed and accurate attempt yet made by any European scholar to collate and compare the textual and artistic material on Hinduism.
Before Moor, British scholars in India had managed to write some quite amazing nonsense about the Hindus and their religious practices. Sir William Jones, the pioneering Sanskrit translator, for example, correctly believed that the ancient language of the Brahmins was "more perfect than Greek, more copious than Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either" and declared how "the warriors of the Mahabharata appear greater in my eyes than Ajax or Achilles...when I first read the Iliad". Nonetheless, he also passionately believed that the Hindus were a lost tribe of Egypt, while others in Calcutta were equally sure that the Jains were confused descendants of the followers of Pythagoras, and that the three-faced Maheshamurti image of Shiva was somehow a strange Indian representation of the Christian Trinity.
Moor's work was not flawless. Yet, by and large, The Hindu Pantheon—or as its Sanskrit subtitle had it, the Sri Sarva Deva Sabha, the Audience Hall of the Gods—remains even now a remarkably encyclopaedic and accurate guide to Indian mythology. It brought together almost everything that was then known by European intellectuals about the religion of the Hindus, and contained reliable descriptions, images and genealogies of some 2,000 of the major deities.
Moor's work on Hindu deities was not superseded for 80 years and remained in print for over a century; yet today he is remembered less for his scholarship than for the remarkable Indian paintings, miniatures and artworks he commissioned and collected as part of his research. These consisted of over 640 items of Hindu painting and sculpture, with a special emphasis on the varying iconographies of the different deities.
Siva and Parvati on a Terrace: A Jaipur school gouache Moor bought in Pune
Now, for the first time, as part of the celebrations for the 60th anniversary of India's Independence, the British Museum in London is mounting a remarkable show called Faith, Narrative and Desire: Masterpieces of Indian Painting in the British Museum. This shows part of the Moor bequest, as well as many other masterworks from its own superb and rarely exhibited collection, concentrating particularly on the Hindu art commissioned from Indian painters by British patrons. The exhibition is thus a timely tribute both to the breathtaking skill of the miniature painters who created the images, and to the curiosity and passion of the early British patrons who commissioned them.
The finest of the images in the exhibition is probably a remarkable Jaipur school gouache bought by Moor in Pune, depicting Shiva and his consort Parvati. The two divine lovers sit on a tigerskin draped over a terrace just after sunset on a monsoon night, the edge of the clouds turning golden in the dying Himalayan light. The exquisite picture was a particular favourite of Moor who thought "it the most beautiful, highest finished thing I ever saw...."
Nearby is another remarkable commission of the same period, showing Shiva as the wild, fanged yogi Bhairava, riding upon a giant green parrot amid a shower of yellow amaltas. Facing it is the wonderful Month of Bhadon, part of a series of brightly coloured Barahmasa images that Moor commissioned, illustrating verses of Kaishav Das on the different seasons, and the emotions associated with them. The turbulence of the thunder of the monsoon storm mirrors the emotional upheaval of the lovers Radha and Krishna who sit enraptured at the centre of the picture. On a rooftop chhatri-pavilion above, Krishna's favourite bird, the peacock, displays his magnificent fan of tail feathers; below, three sporting elephants splash in the rain-swollen river.
Although such miniatures were not designed to be viewed in a gallery setting, the British Museum has made a remarkably good job of displaying these small but perfect pictures, with lighting carefully arranged to bring out the burnished gilt of the borders and the inlaid iridescent beetle wings and carapaces that are arranged to form the deities' necklaces and bracelets.
Vishnu and Lakshmi on Garuda
Moor was certainly not the first British enthusiast to collect Hindu statuary. That honour goes to Charles 'Hindoo' Stuart, a strange Irishman who in the 1780s came out to India while still in his teens and seems to have been almost immediately attracted to Hinduism. Within a year of his arrival in Calcutta, he had adopted the practice—which he continued to his death—of walking every morning from his house to bathe in and worship the Ganges according to Hindu custom.
Stuart appears to have worshipped as well as admired the statues he collected. Certainly he is known to have commissioned and built an entire Hindu temple at Saugor, and wrote an anonymous pamphlet called the Vindications of the Hindoos in which he tried to discourage European missionaries from attempting to convert the Hindus, arguing that "on the enlarged principles of moral reasoning, Hinduism little needs the meliorating hand of Christianity to render its votaries a sufficiently correct and moral people for all the useful purposes of a civilised society". He also pointed out that the Vedas were "written at that remote period in which our savage ancestors of the forest were perhaps unconscious of a God".
Eccentric as he may have been, Stuart was a central figure in the history of the Western appreciation of Indian art. His collection, which towards the end of his life he put on display to visitors as a private museum in his house in Calcutta, now forms the core of the British Museum collection of Hindu statuary, known today as the Bridge Collection, after a subsequent purchaser. It is without question the finest group of Hindu sculptures brought to Europe at this period. Appropriately enough, several of the finest masterpieces of Pala art from Stuart's collection line the stairs which lead up to the exhibition, as well as fill the Hotung gallery on the floor below.
About two decades before Stuart began collecting his first Hindu images, another Company official, Sir Elijah Impey, was commissioning Mughal-trained miniaturists to paint his menagerie for him. It was the first recorded commission of Indian artists by British patrons, and remains one of the most successful.
The three artists whom Impey summoned to his classical Calcutta palace were all from Patna. All had clearly been trained in the old Mughal techniques of miniature painting, but working for the Impeys, using English watercolours on English paper, and taking English botanical still life as their models, an extraordinary fusion of English and Indian artistic impulses took place, a fusion that resulted in an entirely new type of painting, known today as the Company School.
The brilliance and simplicity of the colours, the meticulous attention to detail, the gem-like highlights, the way the pictures seem to glow, all show the Company artists' Mughal training. Yet, no artist working in a normal Mughal atelier would have placed his subjects detached from a landscape against a white background, or with flowers cut into a perfect, scientific cross-section as is usual in Company botanical images. Two traditions have met head on, and from that blinding impact an inspirational new fusion has taken place.
In time, the Company style came to be used by British officials all over India to record the many facets of Indian life that came to fascinate the British. Soon, Company officials were commissioning Mughal-trained and other Indian artists to paint larger numbers of botanical specimens and exotic Indian animals; the different castes, trades and occupations of India; and the country's architectural monuments and its different deities.
The exhibition includes an especially fine Company image from Patna of a roadside seller of clay images. An elegantly attired client is being offered a standing image by a sitting lady in a green sari and yellow blouse, while behind her, her half-naked potter husband turns a bowl on a wheel; the client however is looking at an image of Kali trampling on the recumbent Shiva.
Radha and Krishna in a Garden
But it is Company images of the gods, of exactly the sort commissioned by Edward Moor, that effortlessly dominate Faith, Narrative and Desire. There are spectacular examples of a set of images of the gods of the Tamil country, among them a wonderful image of a wooden temple chariot being drawn in a festival at the great temple of Sri Ranganatha at Srirangam; up at the open window of the chariot, two bare-chested Brahmins attend on an image: one carries a tray of lamps in one hand and a bell in the other; and the other throws petals over the holy image.
This intelligent early colonial interest and respect for the beliefs of India did not last. By 1813, a change in the charter of the East India Company let loose a wave of evangelical missionaries on India; the act was pushed through Parliament by William Wilberforce who told the assembled MPs that "the natives of India, and more particularly the Brahmins, were sunk into the most abject ignorance and vice". Within a few years, the missionaries were beginning to fundamentally change British perceptions of the Hindus. No longer were they inheritors of a body of sublime and ancient wisdom, but instead seen merely as "poor benighted heathen".
Such missionaries began ferociously attacking any British official who, like Moor or Stuart, studied or took a sympathetic interest in the religions of India. The British mind was closing, and the short period of Hinduphilia was soon over. The brief flourishing of Company School painting, the chief artistic product of that period, did not survive the great uprising of 1857.
Following the success of Edward Said's groundbreaking work Orientalism, the entire intellectual exploration of India's past by European scholars has become the target of a major scholarly assault. Men like Edward Moor and Sir William Jones have come to be seen as complicit in the project of gathering 'colonial knowledge'—outriders of colonialism, attempting to 'appropriate' Indian learning and demonstrate the superiority of Western ways by 'imagining' India as decayed and degenerate, fit only to be colonised and 'civilised'. Yet, it is ridiculously simplistic to see all attempts at studying, observing and empathising with another culture necessarily as an act of domination—rather than of understanding or respect.
Today, as Britain struggles to forge a more equitable relationship with India on its 60th anniversary of Independence, this exhibition is a profound metaphor for a brief but important moment of deep British scholarly and artistic engagement with, and appreciation of, the arts and culture of South Asia.
This one room of lovely images bears testament to the strenuous attempts of a group of men working in India between 1780 and 1830 to understand and comprehend the deepest and most profound religious images and symbols of a world their compatriots were about to seize, and then partially destroy. It is hard not to feel that it is worth more than all the rest of the hoopla surrounding the 60th anniversary celebrations put together: those endless, slightly pointless, celeb-vehicle travel docs of Saira Khan and Sanjeev Bhaskar on BBC2, Shahrukh Khan popping up at Madame Tussaud's, and inflatable Taj Mahals floating down the Thames. Who would not swap all that for one leaf of the gorgeous images Moor bought or commissioned to illustrate his great Hindu Pantheon? At low cost and short notice, the British Museum has succeeded in making the most intelligent and stimulating response we are likely to see to this important anniversary, marking the beginning of yet another chapter in the continuing history of the long and complex engagement of India and Britain.
(William Dalrymple's new book, The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi 1857, published by Bloomsbury, has just been awarded the Duff Cooper prize for history.)