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India through landscape paintings

"Memory is the fourth dimension to any landscape."

~ Janet Fitch (writer, teacher, author)

An oil on panel painting of a temple kund or pond in the foreground, with lightly painted temple spires and a dominating mountain in the background
The Temple at Tirukalikundran, Tinnevelly District, with a procession in the foreground and temples and mountains beyond. T.DANIELL/1816. Oil on panel

There are so many ways in which we perceive, record and remember landscapes. In this day and age, our cameras have gotten both bigger and smaller — we heft our DSLRs or reach for our mobile phones — and we leave a place with impressions etched in the mind and on our memory cards. Our records often serve as a way to share our sense of wonder, draw others into our memories, or at some date in the future, remind us of what once was.

Even after the discovery of photography, some travellers chose to record their memories in a different way. As sketches or in ink, as aquatints or watercolours, artists painted vivid scenes upon physical and mental canvases. Each dot, each line, each stroke, possessed the power to capture the fleeting, ever-changing moments of life, into immortal, eternal works of art.

I've always loved landscape paintings; The Hay Wain by John Constable, with its rustic hues and that overcast sky, Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji by Hokusai in its classic Japanese ukiyo-e style, William Turner's iconic seascapes and fiery skies, the list goes on. Each of these paintings has an immersive, emotional quality, they draw you in, and they make you imagine places you've never been to.

Surely India's diverse terrains from the Himalaya to the river valleys, the lakes to the coastlines, have inspired art too? Here are some of the artists who immortalized India's landscapes.


William Hodges (1744-1797)

A coloured etching of a rock outcrop jutting out of the river Ganges in India, painted by William Hodges, and is currently part of the Wellcome Collection.
Large rock in the river Ganges, India. Coloured etching by William Hodges, 1787. Wellcome Collection

William Hodges was an English painter renowned for his contributions to the art world during the 18th century. He accompanied James Cook on his second voyage to the Pacific Ocean, where he skillfully captured the awe-inspiring landscapes and locations they encountered. Hodges' sketches and paintings depicted mesmerizing scenes from Table Bay, Tahiti, Easter Island, New Zealand, Dusky Sound, and even the Antarctic.

Before his voyage with Cook, Hodges supported himself by painting theatrical scenery. The sketches and wash paintings he created during the expedition were transformed into engravings and featured in the original published edition of Cook's journals. After his Pacific journey, Hodges reached India in 1778 and was one of the earliest British landscape painters to explore the country. He spent six years in India, residing in Lucknow and upon his return, he published an illustrated book chronicling his captivating adventures in India.

A coloured etching of an Indian countryside, with lovely architecture in the background and a large overcast sky. In the foreground, bare, muddy tracts stretch into gentle green slopes with scraggly bushes.
Landscape at Firozabad, northern India. Coloured etching by William Hodges, 1788. Wellcome Collection

Firozabad is a city that lies close to Agra in Uttar Pradesh. In 1566, it was named so by Firoz Shah Mansab Dar. It has a colourful history as a thriving, bustling city during the regime of Akbar.

A coloured etching of a waterbody stretching into thick forest, with a pale, washed out rocky outcrop looming in the backdrop.
Mountain seen from the jungle, India. Coloured etching by William Hodges, 1788. Wellcome Collection

With such a vague title, it is difficult to say where exactly this etching is from. The artist's notes indicate that it was 'A view in the jungle Ferry; drawn on the spot & engraved by W. Hodges'. Does anyone care to guess where this is, based on that tall, looming outcrop in the distance?


Thomas Daniell Sr. & William Daniell (India, 1786 - 1793)

An etching of a beautiful three-storeyed building in ruins, set against a huge banyan tree, with some cows and sheep in the frame
Thomas Daniell - Ruins of the Naurattan, Sasaram, Bihar - Google Art Project

The place Sassaram or Sasaram in Bihar has a rich history as the capital of the Sur dynasty, and later, for its Buddhist architecture. These ruins may have been one among many of the ancient city's architectural wonders - some of which are no longer standing. This was one among many works of Thomas Daniell Sr & his 15-year-old nephew, William Daniell, who travelled to India as engravers.

When the Daniells arrived in India in 1786, the East India Company (EIC) held significant power. The EIC had gained control over Bengal and Bihar, while the Marathas and Tipu Sultan had been weakened by relentless warfare. The EIC had established trading centres, forts, and factories in the three Presidencies of Madras, Bengal, and Bombay, covering extensive regions in the south, east, and west of India. This political climate allowed the Daniells to obtain permission to travel throughout much of the country.

Unlike their European counterparts who secured royal patronage, Thomas and William Daniell had to finance their own travels through the sale of their artwork. Victorian England was hungry for Oriental Art. Upon arriving in the capital of India at the time, they immediately began working on a series of aquatints titled "Views of Calcutta." Their landscape engravings and aquatints earned them a fine reputation, and they set off on their first expedition to the north.

Read more in this blog by the Sarmaya Trust >>

A gushing river set against a distant background of vegetated mountains, with a towering rocky outcrop to the right, from which a delicate rope bridge spans the river.
Thomas_Daniell - The Rope Bridge at Serinagur - Google Art Project

Perhaps, you've guessed - Serinagur is Srinagar (image 2), the capital of Jammu & Kashmir. Those distant mountains may be Zabarwan Range, but that rocky outcrop is quite puzzling, as is the delicate bridge.


Other British Artist-Explorers

Plate XI from James Baillie Fraser’s Views in the Himala Mountains (1820) shows the Hindu pilgrimage site of Gangotri (the holy shrine of Mahadeo), the source of the River Ganges.
James Baillie Fraser’s Views in the Himala Mountains (1820) shows the Hindu pilgrimage site of Gangotri & the holy shrine of Mahadeo.

During the 18th and early 19th centuries, the East India Company played a pivotal role in South Asia, using visual representations to strengthen its authority. The company, originally established as a trading entity, transformed over time through battles, alliances, and annexations, ultimately gaining control over a vast territory across South Asia. This territory encompassed diverse landscapes, spanning regions across the length and breadth of present-day India and beyond. To navigate and understand this unfamiliar and challenging terrain, and its people, visual documentation was deemed crucial.

The East India Company actively engaged in producing and commissioning landscape records and representations, training its employees in draughtsmanship, and supporting British and Indian artists. These visual records served various purposes, from documenting the landscape to serving as propaganda, reflecting personal, professional, aesthetic, and political motivations within and beyond official Company policies. The British Library's India Office collections hold valuable examples of these visual records, shedding light on the Company's visual engagement in consolidating its knowledge and control over the region.

During this time, India's landscapes were captured by British surveyors, artist-explorers & army personnel.

A valley of dense trees stretching out into a steep, monolithic structure, atop which is perched a temple and a statue of a man. This 18th century etching is from Sravanabelagola in Kartnataka, India.
North View of the Hill of Sravana-Bellagoola, 17th August 1806, from an original sketch on the Mysore Survey in 1806 taken by Lt. Benjamin Swain Ward
An etcing of thickly forested mountain slopes giving way to a gushing river.
View on the Road to the Village of Syne by James Manson

This painting from Almora in Uttarakhand was done by James Manson, an artist accompanying Cpt. James Herbert's geological survey. Like the mapping of India and Central Asia (I'd written about this in a previous blog, the Great Game), was an attempt by the East India Company to consolidate their claims over unknown territory, so was landscape art.

Read more in this blog by Smart History>>


Nicholas Roerich (India - 1923)

Path to Shambhala 1933, Nicholas Roerich Museum, New York

In 1923, Nicholas Roerich or Nikolai Rerikh, a Russian painter, writer, archaeologist, theosophist, and philosopher, travelled to Darjeeling with his family, in search of the mythical kingdom of 'Shambala'. Despite its absence on any map, the Roerichs traversed 25,000 kilometres of uncharted terrain, driven by the firm belief in the existence of this kingdom, held by many religions.

During Roerich's Himalayan expeditions, in over five-hundred paintings, he captured breathtaking mountain landscapes, peppered with examples of the local architecture and monasteries, as well as documenting the region's diverse flora, fauna, and folklore. Roerich's paintings offer a glimpse into the rich Himalayan culture at the time - some of which survives, even today.

Read more in this blog by the Heritage Lab >>

Remember | Nicholas Roerich Museum New York

Kanwal Krishna (1910 - 1993)

Untitled (West Tibet) - The Surya Collection - Property from Mrs Ute Rettberg, 2022, Sotheby's - Kanwal Krishna

Kanwal Krishna, a modernist painter and printmaker, embarked on a journey to southern Tibet in 1938, accompanied by a monk, where he captured the essence of Lhasa's society and culture through his artwork. Notably, he was the only Indian artist granted permission to document and film the enthronement ceremony of the fourteenth Dalai Lama in Lhasa in 1940.

In 1945, Kanwal Krishna and his wife, Devayani Krishna journeyed through Afghanistan, the Khyber Pass, the Swat Valley, and Chitral, painting the diverse life and cultures of the region.


Since Independence, many Indian artists have dabbled in landscape painting, often with cultural/architectural elements or scenes from daily life. As an artist's life is tough, there are few dedicated landscape painters, and most of them have needed to find diverse subjects to paint. In the interest of copyright issues and losing your attention, I'd best stop here.

Here's a final quote to ponder over:

For me, a landscape does not exist in its own right, since its appearance changes at every moment; but the surrounding atmosphere brings it to life - the light and the air which vary continually ~ Claude Monet

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