Asian and African studies blog

12 posts from January 2014

12 January 2014

A new portrait miniature by Jivan Ram acquired

Mildred Archer’s catalogue in 1972 of the Company drawings in the then India Office Library established a whole new area of research for scholars of Indian painting.  Her chapter on Delhi artists is especially valuable, since the works of artists she knew mostly only by name such as Khairallah, Ghulam Murtaza Khan, Ghulam ‘Ali Khan and Mazhar ‘Ali Khan have over the succeeding decades been discovered and published.  All of these artists have been influenced to some degree by European techniques and compositions.  Archer also wrote in 1972 (p.171):  ‘A few of the Delhi artists even painted on canvas in oils.  Jivan Ram was extremely versatile and could work in a number of styles and techniques.’  It proved possible during the last twenty years to flesh out Archer’s brief mention of Jivan Ram with the acquisition of some important works for the India Office Library’s Prints and Drawings collection (now British Library Visual Arts) and to expand the known range of his accomplishments.  This blog introduces a new acquisition by Jivan Ram and is a foretaste of a paper on the artist by the present author to appear in the electronic BLJ.

Jivan Ram is in fact well known from literary sources.  There is a long passage in William Sleeman’s Rambles and Recollections (London, 1844, vol. ii, pp.285-7) referring to the artist in 1834:  ‘Rajah Jewun Ram, an excellent portrait-painter, and a very honest and agreeable person, was lately employed to take the Emperor's portrait.’  Although the painting is not now known, a preliminary drawing survives, acquired by the India Office Library in 1971 just after the Archer catalogue had been sent to press.  This is a brush drawing in appearance much like a European portrait.  It appears from the truncation and the background shading to have been intended as the basis of a portrait miniature.
Add.Or.3167 Akbar II
The Mughal Emperor Akbar II (1806-37).  By Jivan Ram, Delhi, c.1834.  Brush drawing with wash and some colour on paper.  20 by 15 cm.  Add.Or.3167.  noc

When an actual oil painting signed by Jivan Ram appeared in 1993, it was swiftly acquired.  This painting is a small three-quarter length portrait in oils on canvas of Captain Robert McMullin (1786-1865), of the East India Company’s Bengal Native Infantry, signed Jewan Ram on the front and dated 1827.  Jivan Ram had obviously seen and been inspired by some of George Chinnery’s portraits.  This was published in a small exhibition catalogue (J.P. Losty, Of Far Off Lands and People:  Paintings from India 1783-1881, Indar Pasricha Fine Art exhibition catalogue, London, 1993).

Two years later in 1995 another small half-length portrait in oils appeared of another army officer, Captain William Garden (1790-1852), again signed and dated 1827 and this time inscribed on the back as having been executed at Delhi.  Here the manner is more akin to that of Robert Home.
Fig. 3. BL F882 Capt William Garden 1827
Captain William Garden.  By Jivan Ram, Delhi, 1827.  Oil on canvas.  36 by 31 cm.  Signed and dated on front:  Jeewun Ram 1827.  British Library, F882.  noc

Garden was attached to the suite of Lord Combermere (Commander-in-Chief 1825-30), when the British successfully intervened in Bharatpur in 1825-26 to restore the infant Maharaja Balwant Singh to the throne.  Garden was then attached to the suite of Lord Amherst (Governor-General 1823-28) in his tour of the Upper Provinces in 1826-7.  Amherst visited Akbar II in Delhi in 1827 and it must have been then that Jivan Ram painted Garden’s portrait also.

At this period Jivan Ram was based in Delhi and then around 1827 seems to have moved to Meerut where Sleeman says he was based.  His principal clientele was army officers especially after the successful conclusion to the Bharatpur war.  He had no competition from British artists in upper India at this time.  A few years later in the 1830s we find him working for the famous Begum Samru of Sardhana (1745-1836), whose palace was decorated with some twenty of his oil paintings.  In 1893 they were sold;  some were bought for Government House, Allahabad, while others wound up in the Indian Institute, subsequently in the Bodleian Library, in Oxford.  They are all described in Sir Evan Cotton’s The Sardhana Paintings at Government House, Allahabad (Allahabad, 1934), while the Bodleian’s paintings along with the Library’s and others by or attributed to Jivan Ram in public collections in the UK may be seen at

In addition to his oil paintings, Jivan Ram was also a painter of miniature portraits on board and ivory.  In another literary reference to Jivan Ram, Emily Eden’s refers to the artist in glowing terms (Up the Country, London, 1866, vol. i, pp.33-4).  She was staying in 1838 at Meerut with her brother George Lord Auckland (Governor-General 1836-42), and her sister Fanny:  ‘I treated myself to such a beautiful miniature of W[illiam] O[sborne, her nephew]. There is a native here, Juan Ram, who draws beautifully sometimes, and sometimes utterly fails, but his picture of William is quite perfect. Nobody can suggest an alteration, and as a work of art it is a very pretty possession. It was so admired that F[anny, her sister] got a sketch of G[eorge] on cardboard, which is also an excellent likeness.’.

So miniature portraits by Jivan Ram on ivory might be expected to surface, but it was not until 2006 that the Library was able to acquire a signed and dated example.  Subsequently another two were acquired:  all three of them are dated 1824 (Add.Or.5605, 5636, 5637).  Another more ambitious miniature signed and dated 1826 appeared at Bonham’s, London, in November 2013 and this has now been acquired by the Library.  This is a standing three-quarter length portrait of Lieutenant Gervase Pennington (1795-1835), dressed in the uniform of the 3rd Bengal Horse Artillery.  
Lieutenant Gervase Pennington, 3rd Bengal Horse Artillery. By Jivan Ram, Meerut or Delhi, 1826.   Gouache on ivory.  16 by 11.5 cm.  Add.Or.5726  noc

This is set in an interior with a view to a landscape outside through arched embrasures.  Pennington adopts a military swagger pose with one hand on his hip, the other on his sword, while his crested helmet is beside him.  Pennington was Adjutant to the 3rd Brigade Bengal Horse Artillery from 1825 to 1832 and along with his regiment was involved in the Siege of Bharatpur in 1825-26, which would have brought him into Jivan Ram’s ambit.

The Library’s paintings and miniatures by Jivan Ram are limited to those of the 1820s, while the Bodleian’s portraits carry the story forward to 1835.  No miniature has yet appeared from his work in the late 1830s corresponding to Emily Eden’s enthusiastic description.  Jivan Ram boldly essayed the techniques and style of European portraits and set himself up as a portrait painter without a patron.  He is not of course among the greatest of Indian artists, even in the nineteenth century.  Yet they are undeniably charming examples of the art of portraiture. Not until more signed and dated work appears will it be possible to provide a definitive account of one of the most interesting Indian artists of the nineteenth century.

J.P. Losty (Curator of Visual Arts, Emeritus)   ccownwork

10 January 2014

Malay 'eye candy': illuminated literary manuscripts

Happy New Year, and Selamat Tahun Baru 2014 to all our readers in Southeast Asia.

For my first post of the year, I would like to ponder the question of why illuminated Malay manuscripts are so rare. Regular readers of this blog will have noticed that, apart from a superb copy of the Taj al-Salatin (Or. 13295), almost none of the Malay manuscripts I have been writing about are decorated in any way. Among the recently-digitised Malay manuscripts from the historic British Museum collections, the only other finely illuminated work is a copy of the Hikayat Isma Yatim, Add. 12379, from the John Crawfurd collection, which has a pair of ornamental frames around the first two pages. The manuscript has just been digitised in full and can be read here, with high zoom capabilities allowing a close inspection of the artwork.

Hikayat Isma Yatim, by Ismail, recounting the story of a young writer who becomes a trusted advisor to the king.  British Libary, Add. 12379, ff. 1v-2r.   noc

When I first began to survey illuminated Malay manuscripts in British and other collections,  it was surprisingly hard to make sense of the data: no patterns or trends could be read into the decorated frames, headpieces and tailpieces which adorned the books, however beautiful they were. It was only when I realised that the finest examples of manuscript art from the Malay world are found not in literary, historical or legal manuscripts written in Malay, but in manuscripts of the Qur’an and other religious works mainly written in Arabic, that the mists began to clear, and distinctive regional schools of Southeast Asian Islamic manuscript art could be identified. On the basis of the shape and structure of the decorated frames, and the palette and ornamental motifs used, it is usually possible to identify the origin of a Qur’an manuscript from Southeast Asia, whether from Aceh, or Terengganu, or Java.  But although many decorated Malay literary manuscripts exist, they stubbornly refused to group themselves into clusters on the basis of the artistic criteria which had proved so effective in identifying regional schools of Qur’anic illumination. 

The reason for this discrepancy may lie in differing perceptions of the status of religious and literary manuscripts in the Malay world. Manuscripts of the Qur’an, containing the enduring and unchanging Word of God, are usually the most beautifully ornamented books in any Muslim culture, and much the same reverence enveloped certain other texts in the Islamic canon. It is where the written text was deemed to have intrinsic value that we find illumination in a prescriptive and conformist way, also fulfilling a functional purpose: decorated frames announced the opening and closing words of the Holy Book, while marginal ornaments guided the reader to standard divisions of the text.  On the other hand, Malay literary works were composed for oral delivery: they came alive while being recited aloud and while being listened to, with the beautiful sounds of sung syair (narrative poems) enjoyed as halwa telinga, literally 'sweetmeats for the ear'. There was thus little sense of permanence attached to any particular written manifestation of a work of literature; indeed, Malay scribes conventionally exhort their successors to correct and improve the text in front of them.  Perhaps this is why literary manuscripts were not traditionally deemed to merit illumination, with decoration only occasionally being supplied at the whim of individual scribes.

Another important consideration is differing contexts of production. Illuminated religious manuscripts in the Malay world almost always appear to have been created in the communities within which they were initially destined to be ‘consumed’. On the other hand, many illuminated Malay literary manuscripts known today were copied at the behest of European patrons, implying that western tastes and commercial incentives may have played a pivotal role in their production, with illumination added as halwa mata, 'eye candy', to attract the client and add value to the book.  It is hardly surprising that the only other illuminated Malay manuscript known to have been owned by John Crawfurd – a copy of Hikayat Dewa Mandu, written on English paper watermarked 'Budgen & Wilmott 1809' and perhaps commissioned by Crawfurd himself – was snapped up by another European collector, and is now held in the Staatsbibliothek (Preussischer Kulturbesitz) in Berlin. 

What, then can we say about the British Library’s Hikayat Isma Yatim?  The gold panels at top and bottom of each page reflect the influence of Qur’anic illumination, for such panels would normally enclose surah titles in a Qur'an manuscript. The use of pale blue pigment may indicate a Javanese origin, which is in fact consistent with the majority of Malay manuscripts in the Crawfurd collection. And the suggestion of European patronage in the production of this illuminated Malay manuscript is strengthened by the presence of some writing exercises in Latin script on the first page.


Detail of the first illuminated page of Hikayat Isma Yatim. The palette is centred on gold, red and pale blue, with black ink used for outlines and an important role played by ‘reserved white’, whereby the white background of the paper is manipulated as essential component of the colour scheme. British Library, Add. 12379, f.1v (detail).  noc


Writing exercises in English on the first page of the Hikayat Isma Yatim manuscript.  The sentence in Malay in Jawi script reads: Raja Ahmad yang menulis surat Inggris ini adanya, 'Raja Ahmad wrote these English letters'. British Library, Add. 12379, f.1r (detail).  noc

Further reading

A.T.Gallop, Malay manuscript art: the British Library collection. British Library Journal, 1991, 17 (2): 167-189.

A.T. Gallop, Islamic manuscript art of Southeast Asia.  Crescent moon: Islamic art & civilisation in Southeast Asia, ed. James Bennett.  Adelaide: Art Gallery of South Australia, 2005, pp.156-183.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia


07 January 2014

When an angel meets a demon: Advice on love and relationships in a Thai divination manual

A new year – a new beginning. An easy (re)solution, one might think. But it may turn out later that things like love and relationships should not be taken too lightly, and it is always worth thinking twice. Or, at least, seeking advice. People in 19th century Siam would certainly have done so before getting serious in a relationship. They would have consulted a divination specialist (mor doo) who would have had the knowledge to interpret the texts and illustrations of divination manuals (phrommachat) that had been handed down from generation to generation. Such manuals were part of the paraphernalia of divination masters who specialised in fortune telling, matching the horoscopes of prospective couples, and giving advice on love and marriage.

British Library, Or.4830, folio 30, showing a couple of 'average' humans.  noc

Divination manuals were found in Thailand not only in Thai language but also in Mon and Shan languages, but usually the illustrations in these manuscripts are in central Thai style. Some beautifully illuminated examples of such manuals are held in the Thai, Lao and Cambodian collections of the British Library.
One outstanding phrommachat manuscript was acquired for the Library by Henry Ginsburg in 1975 (Or. 4830) and has been digitised recently. Although the manuscript has no colophon and is not dated, we know from the style of writing and orthography that it was produced during the second half of the 19th century. However, it may be a revised copy of an older manuscript that was in a deteriorating state due to frequent use.  The manuscript has 59 folios of text written on mulberry bark paper, accompanied by coloured illustrations on 32 folios and one ink drawing of entwined naga serpents. The text mainly explains how to interpret the illustrations, which include drawings based on the Chinese zodiac that relates each lunar month to the animals of the 12-year-cycle and their reputed attributes (earth, wood, fire, iron, water) as well as a male or female avatar (representing yin and yang), and a symbolic plant. A small number diagram used to work out periods in a person’s life which are particularly dangerous or unlucky is also usually present.

British Library, Or.4830, folio 6, showing the horoscope page for people born in the year of the tiger.  noc

Each zodiac-related folio is followed by one folio of paintings, which symbolise the fate of a person under certain circumstances. The paintings are accompanied by numbers and one would have to trust the interpreting skills of the divination specialist to find out about the future.

British Library, Or.4830, folio 7, containing illustrations that represent possible fates of a person born in the year of the tiger.  noc

Most interestingly, the manuscript includes descriptions of lucky and unlucky constellations of couples. At first sight, these portrayals may appear like some wild imaginations of love and lust as they involve not only humans, but also angels (devata) and demons (phi suea). However, the figures - which are shown locked in amorous embrace - in fact represent different human characters, and the purpose is to take people’s characters in consideration in addition to the horoscopes.

British Library, Or.4830, folio 26, with explanations of the prospects of marriages between demons, as well as between demons and angels.  noc

According to these interpretations, a couple of rough, noisy or hot tempered (demonic) characters have a good chance of living happily together through all ups and downs and growing old together, whereas the relationship between a demonic male character and an angelic female will not go well, although they can marry and have children together.

British Library, Or.4830, folio 28, illustrating the possible fate of marriages of angels with humans and between angels themselves.  noc

The relationship between average humans and angelic characters may begin with passionate love, but it will not last long. They may end up fighting and having a lot of trouble. The best possible constellations for marriage are between two average humans, and between two angelic characters. These couples are said to grow old together happily with many children and without any worries.  

The miniature paintings in this manuscript are of outstanding beauty and quality. The unnamed artist paid great attention to every single detail of the figures - facial expression, hand gestures and body language, and the elaborate designs of their clothes and jewellery. It is a fine example of 19th century Thai art and wisdom.  The entire manuscript can be viewed online on the British Library’s Digital Manuscripts Viewer.

Further Reading

Ginsburg, Henry, Thai art and culture: historic manuscripts from Western collections. London, 2000. (Chapter on Fortune-telling, pp. 120-129.)  

Pattaratorn Chirapravati, Divination au royaume de Siam: le corps, la guerre, le destin. Manuscrit siamois du XIXe siècle. Paris/Geneva, 2011.

Wales, H. G. Quaritch, Divination in Thailand: the hopes and fears of a Southeast Asian people. London, 1983.

Jana Igunma, Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian


03 January 2014

A year of blogging on Asian and African Studies

Our Asian and African Studies Blog is one year old! What started as an add-on to our 2012 exhibition ‘Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire’ soon grew into a full scale departmental blog. During the past year we have written 108 posts and thanks to you, our readers, have had more than 92,000 visitors!

BrothersThe English ship Brothers and members of its crew depicted by a Japanese artist in 1818, from ‘Japan400 – Hirado and the British in Japan’
Or.14755  Images online 

Extending beyond ‘Mughal India’ our posts have covered: Art, Digitisation, Exhibitions, Islam, Zoroastrianism and other subjects, together with geographical areas, which can be accessed by clicking on the links in the dedicated ‘Tags’ box. A search window at the top of the page also allows readers to collect posts on other subjects. For example ‘Persian’ brings up all the blogs on Persian manuscripts and similarly ‘Acquisitions’ brings up recently acquired collection items.

During the last week we’ve been tweeting our ten most popular blogs, but anyone who would like a complete record with links to the individual posts can download a list by following this link: BLAsia and Africa Blogs-2013.

Your comments over the past year have been really encouraging. Please continue to contact us, either in the comments box or by email to any of the editors:

Annabel Teh Gallop, South-East Asia:
Malini Roy, Visual Arts:
Ursula Sims-Williams, Persian: