Asian and African studies blog

59 posts categorized "Visual arts"

28 March 2022

Photographs of the Government Printer in Tanganiyka

In September 2021, the British Library acquired 10 photographs taken in the 1920s of the Government Printer in Tanganyika (Photo 1403). The items were donated by a descendant of a former civil servant, working at the press. The collection comprises of 9 black-and-white photographs, mounted on a single card, showing the office spaces and printing rooms. The tenth photograph, mounted separately, is a group portrait of the employees. A copy of A History of German East Africa by C. C. F. Dundas, published by the Government Printer in 1923, was also donated alongside the photographs.

Photo 1403(3)
View of the Composing Room – where the typesetting took place, Govt. Printer, Tanganyika, 1920-1930. Unknown photographer. British Library, Photo 1403(3).

The new acquisition enhances the library’s visual materials related to the history of Tanganyika, while also documenting printing technology and machinery in the early twentieth century. The Government Printer was established in Dar es Salaam following WWI, after Great Britain gained control over this area of German East Africa. One of the earliest titles printed by the new administration was The Tanganyika Territory Gazette, with its first issue running in 1919 and its last in 1964. The press also printed annual reports and works related to law, civil administration, agriculture, geology and medicine. A list of the Government Printer’s publications from 1940s onwards is available on Open Access in the Social Science Reading Room (OPL 967.8).

Photo 1403(4)
Employee at Typesetting Machine- Govt. Printer, Tanganyika. 1920-1930. Unknown photographer. British Library, Photo 1403(4).

In 1922, Tanganyika formally became a League of Nations mandated territory under British administration. In 1928, the British government implemented the requirement of a security bond to be payable by any periodical printed as frequently as every fortnight (Sturmer 1998). The ordinance effectively curtailed any attempts at establishing African-language newspapers outside of missionary or government periodicals until 1937, when the Swahili-language Kwetu was finally launched. Kwetu’s founder, Erica Fiah, had circumvented the bond by issuing a print run every 18 days (Sturmer 1998).  

Photo 1403(5)
Press Room- Govt. Printer, Tanganyika. 1920-1930. Unknown photographer. British Library, Photo 1403(5).

Tanganyika gained sovereignty in 1961 and is now part of modern-day Tanzania. For the role Kwetu and other independently-owned presses played in fuelling the independence movement, see Scotton 1978.

All the photographs reproduced above can be consulted by appointment to the British Library’s Print Room. For more information, please contact: apac-prints@bl.uk

 

Bibliography

Brennan, J. R. (2011), “Politics and Business in the Indian Newspapers of Colonial Tanganyika.” Africa: Journal of the International African Institute 81(1), 42-67.

Hunter, E. (2012), “‘Our Common Humanity:’ Print, Power, and the Colonial Press in Interwar Tanganyika and French Cameroun.’’ Journal of Global History 7, 279-301.

Iliffe, J. (1979), A Modern History of Tanganyika. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Scotton, J. (1978), “Tanganyika's African Press, 1937-1960: A Nearly Forgotten Pre-Independence Forum.” African Studies Review 21(1), 1-18.

Sturmer, M. (1998), The Media History of Tanzania. Tanzania: Ndanda Mission Press.

List of Publications published by the Government of Tanganyika, January 1944 [etc.]. (1944). Dar es Salaam: Tanganyika Territory Government Publications. OPL 967.8

Nicole Ioffredi, Print Room Coordinator and Cataloguer Ccownwork

01 November 2021

Reunion of Krishna icons: A painting of the Festival of the Seven Svarups in the Johnson Album

This guest blog post is by Isabella Nardi (PhD, SOAS), an art historian specializing in Indian painting.

In the group of paintings acquired and personally commissioned by Richard Johnson (1753–1807) which are now in the British Library there is an unexpected depiction, a congregation of Krishna icons attended by priests in a palace setting (see Fig. 1). The work, originating from Faizabad or Lucknow, has been dated to c. 1770–1780, a period of artistic ferment in the Mughal province of Avadh thanks to local rulers and Europeans patrons living in the area. The collector, an East India Company servant who arrived in Calcutta in 1770, served as the Head Assistant to the British Resident of Lucknow between 1780 and 1782; this is probably the time in which he assembled a wide range of Avadhi paintings revealing his interest for the traditions and customs of India (Falk and Archer 1981, 135–136). 

Srinathji surrounded by svarups
Fig. 1. Krishna worshipped under the form of Shri Nathji. Mughal, Faizabad or Lucknow, 1770–80. British Library, Johnson Album 51, 4. 280 x 209 mm; page 287 x 216 mm. Noc

Titled Krishna worshipped under the form of Shri Nathji, the painting has been rightly identified as pertaining to the Vallabha Sampradaya’s cult (Losty and Roy, pp. 180–182). For anyone familiar with this devotional sect, this depiction is a surprising presence in the album for at least two reasons: first, it is a rare representation of a real event, the Festival of the Seven Svarups (Saptasvarūpotsava), which took place in 1739 in the Shri Nathji temple of Nathdwara in Rajasthan. Secondly, this Avadhi painting is found outside the geographical sphere of influence and patronage of the sampradaya which, at that time, covered the land of Braj, Rajasthan and Gujarat, and it was slowly expanding to the Deccan.

To better understand this painting, it is necessary to first introduce the Vallabha Sampradaya and its famous congregations of Krishna icons. This will be accomplished through a detailed iconographic analysis of a representative depiction of the Festival of the Seven Svarups in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). This digression will allow to acquire the necessary information to examine and contextualize the work in the Johnson Album. The Avadhi painting will also be put into conversation with two earlier depictions; whereas established scholarship in the field will locate it within the cosmopolitan culture of circulation and pictorial exchanges in northern India at the time.

The Vallabha Sampradaya is a krishnaite devotional sect – also known as the Puṣṭi Mārg (Path of Grace) – which was founded by Vallabhacharya (1479–1531) in northern India in the sixteenth century. This religious community, subsequently headed by Vallabhacharya’s son, Vitthalnath (1515–1585), had its headquarter in the land of Braj, around the area of Mathura, where it received support from the Mughal Emperors. The descendants of the two founding fathers decided to slowly shift to Rajasthan and Gujarat in search of new patronage hence forming a complex web of temples which map the region’s religious landscape to this day. This influential network is not only formed by hereditary priests – who claim descent from Vallabhacharya and Vitthalnath – but also by the treasured icons in their possession, the svarups (svarūp-s), which are traditionally nine. The nine svarups are considered self-manifested icons which miraculously appeared to Vallabhacharya or one of his disciples and they are therefore deemed to be different from a common man-made statue (murti). The first svarup to manifest itself to Vallabhacharya on Mount Govardhan is Shri Nathji which, in 1672, was installed in a newly built temple in Nathdwara which became the sect’s main headquarter. 

Among the peculiar characteristics of the Vallabha Sampradaya are its sumptuous temple rituals and visual culture. Well-known are the famous temple hangings or pichhwais (pichvāī-s), which are elaborate textiles, painted or embroidered, used as backdrops in opulent performances (see Skelton 1973; Ambalal 1995). One of their most important festivals is the reunion of the sect’s most sacred icons, the svarups, in the Shri Nathji temple. This congregation, known as the Festival of the Seven Svarups, appears in several Rajasthani paintings especially from the mid-1820s. Despite its numerous depictions, this festival has been celebrated only on rare occasions, that is in 1739 and 1822. This is because of the problems encountered in organizing such enormous undertakings, including the logistic problems involving the transportation of the svarups from one temple to another, the occasional tensions between high priests on matters of power and prestige, and the periodic political unrests that punctuated the area of Rajasthan and its neighboring regions. A celebration of the festival took place also in post-Independence India, in 1966, after a lengthy legal battle over the administration of the temple. Its video coverage can be accessed on YouTube.

Available visual evidence suggests that the imagery of the Festival of the Seven Svarups is indelibly associated to the celebration of 1822 which has an established and easily recognizable iconography as confirmed by a comparison of its numerous depictions that survive in private collections and museums (Nardi 2017, 223). Most of these works flourished from the mid-nineteenth century when the Nathdwara painting tradition was in full swing thanks to the patronage of temple priests and devotees. For a critical analysis of earlier depictions of the festival, such as the Avadhi painting in the Johnson Album, we first need to understand its traditional visual formula which originated in its sectarian milieu.

A notable example, which portrays the event in every single detail, is in the collection of LACMA (see Fig. 2). The work positions the viewer’s gaze directly in the sanctum of the Shri Nathji temple, offering an intimate glimpse of the svarups which wouldn’t be possible in real life. On either side of the icons are the temple priests who are involved in various ritual tasks, including the arrangement of a special food offering in front of the icons. This includes baskets of sweetmeats, vessels containing milk products and, in the foreground, a big mountain of rice (annakūṭa or mountain of food).

LAMCA ma-142207-WEB
Fig. 2. Commemorative portrait of Damodarji II (1797-1826) performing the ceremony of the offering of food to the seven images (Sapta Svarup ka Utsava) in 1822. Rajasthan, Nathdwara, circa 1822-1850. Opaque watercolor, gold, and tin alloy on paper. 304 x 247 mm; page 330 x 250 mm. LACMA, AC1999.127.41. Noc

The svarups are meticulously portrayed following their iconographic features, such as emblems (flute, ball of butter) and female companions, so that they can be precisely identified by devotees. The icons are depicted in two colours to indicate the materials in which they are made, that is blue for black stone or wood, and golden yellow for metal. This important and tacit rule indicates that their depiction is an actual likeness of the svarups

For the sake of completeness the icons are identified below (Fig. 3), starting from the top level, from left to right:

Detail 1
Fig. 3. Icons on the upper level of the altar. Detail of LACMA, AC1999.127.41.

  • Madanmohanji, a metal statue of Krishna playing the flute accompanied by two female attendants. Its present location is Kaman, Rajasthan.
  • Dvarkadhishji (also Dvarkanathji), a rectangular shaped stele in black marble representing Krishna with four arms. Its present location is Kankroli, Rajasthan.
  • Shri Nathji, a black marble statue of Krishna with the left arm raised to hold up Mount Govardhan. Its present location is Nathdwara, Rajasthan.
  • Mathureshji, a round-topped stele in black marble representing Krishna with four arms. Its present location is Kota, Rajasthan.
  • Gokulchandramaji, a wooden statue of Krishna playing the flute. Its present location is Kaman, Rajasthan.
  • A metal statue of Krishna playing the flute known as Madanmohan. This is not one of the sacred svarups, it replaces the absent Balkrishnaji (present location Surat, Gujarat), which did not participate to the festival due to a long-standing dispute (Peabody 2003, 75–78).

On the lower level, from left to right (Fig. 4):

Detail 2
Fig. 4. Icons on the lower level of the altar. Detail of LACMA, AC1999.127.41.

  • Gokulnathji, a metal statue of Krishna with four arms accompanied by two female attendants. Its present location is Gokul, Uttar Pradesh.
  • Navnitpriyaji, a metal statue of baby Krishna holding a ball of butter. Its present location is in the Shri Nathji temple premise, Nathdwara, Rajasthan.
  • Vitthalnathji, a metal statue of Krishna accompanied by Rukmini. Its present location is Nathdwara, Rajasthan.

A quick count of the sculptures will yield a total of nine, that is the nine svarups. This tally, however, may be confusing given the name of the festival. The Festival of the Seven Svarups takes this denomination from the seven icons that reside outside the main Shri Nathji temple, which houses both Shri Nathji and Navnitpriyaji. These seven deities are those that have to be carried to such location by their hereditary priests.  

Apart from the meticulous depiction of the icons, representations of the Festival of the Seven Svarups of 1822 are distinguishable for other recurring elements, such as the presence of Dauji II (1797–1826) and of a specific pichhwai. Dauji II, or Damodarji II, is the only recognizable portrait on the upper left of the LACMA painting. He was the officiating priest and organizer of the imposing event of 1822 for which he commissioned a special pichhwai. This is the black textile hanging in the background, right behind the svarups, featuring on either side a tree-of-life design embroidered in gold and pearls (Fig. 5). As Amit Ambalal explains (p. 67), this particular pichhwai was commissioned by Dauji after his mother and other priests donated some of their jewels to the temple on the occasion of the festival. This magnificent ritual hanging, whose whereabouts are unknown, is part of the canonical iconography of the 1822 festival and its fame was such that it was also praised in poetic compositions of the time (Taylor 1997, 83). 

Detail 3
Fig. 5. Detail of the special pichhwai, or temple hanging, commissioned by Dauji for the celebrations of the Festival of the Seven Svarups of 1822. Detail of LACMA, AC1999.127.41.

Unlike the Festival of the Seven Svarups of 1822, depictions of the 1739 celebrations remain exceptional not only for their paucity but also for their variety of pictorial styles, diverging visual elements, and unexpected provenance. To date, there are very few known depictions of this event including drawings, paintings on paper, and murals dating from the eighteenth century onwards. For the scope of this analysis, we will consider the very few eighteenth century paintings on paper that have come down to us, which are only three. Interestingly, none of them was produced in the pilgrimage center of Nathdwara, denoting a circulation of visual information about the festival as well as an interest in documenting it beyond regional and devotional circles.

The first two depictions, published elsewhere, date from the time of the celebration itself: the first is a painting from Udaipur dated to c. 1739 in the collection of the Baroda Museum and Picture Gallery (Doshi 1995, 78); the second, in the Jagdish and Kamla Mittal Museum of Indian Art, is a work from Aurangabad dated to c. 1740 and inscribed to Muttam, formerly known as the Jaipur Painter (Seyller and Mittal 2018, cat. no. 44). Both works can be related to the network of the Vallabha Sampradaya devotees, which included kings and merchants. The painting from Udaipur was probably commissioned by Maharana Jagat Singh II (r. 1734–1751), a patron and follower of the sect whose haloed portrait appears with other members of the royal family standing next to the congregation of icons. The example from the Deccan, on the other hand, can be associated with the community of merchants and bankers that started to settled in the area from 1729 (Shah 2015, 43–44).

The third painting in chronological order is the one in the Johnson Album which – after this lengthy but necessary digression – can be examined from a more informed perspective. The first observation that can be made is that, unlike its two predecessors, this work cannot be related to an established religious network of the Vallabha Sampradaya. In fact, its assessment indicates that its anonymous painter and its commissioner were not familiar with the sect’s ritualistic formalities, liturgical textiles, and iconography of the svarups because the work displays a number of notable imprecisions which wouldn’t be welcomed by a follower of the sampradaya. For example, a missing iconographic element is the pichhwai which has been replaced by a palatial setting, a typical background of Faizabad and Lucknow painting at the time (see Fig. 6).

Detail 4
Fig. 6. Avadhi palace setting used – in lieu of a pichhwai – as the background the Johnson Album depiction of the Festival of the Seven Svarups of 1739. Detail of British Library, Johnson Album 51, 4.

As mentioned above, the pichhwai was an important liturgical element of the celebrations and it also appears in the other two paintings from Udaipur and Aurangabad. Other incongruities can be seen in the depiction of the icons: the stelae of Dvarkadhishji (rectangular) and Mathureshji (rounded) are omitted making their identification impossible. Also the colour of two metal icons on the lower level, Navnitpriyaji and Vitthalnathji, is inaccurate: they should be golden yellow but they are painted in blue (see Fig. 7).

Detail 5
Fig. 7. The metal icons of Navnitpriyaji and Vitthalnathji mistakenly painted in blue instead of golden yellow. Detail of British Library, Johnson Album 51, 4.

These observations unquestionably demonstrate that the sphere of patronage of the painting in the Johnson Album was outside the established circles of the sect and it opens to the possibility that, rather than an acquisition, this work was actually commissioned by Richard Johnson himself. It is well known that pictorial traditions in Avadh flourished thanks to the patronage of Europeans living in the region, such as Johnson and other East India Company officials, and that their commissions included not only portraits but expanded on other themes, such as Ragamalas and Hindu mythology (Losty and Roy 2012, 153). Given Johnson’s demonstrated interest for Indian traditions, he may have wanted a representation of this important event that took place in Rajasthan in 1739 and, considering that he was stationed in Lucknow, he may have hired a leading artist trained in a courtly atelier not specifically familiar with the ritualistic formalities of the sampradaya. Perhaps, the painter was someone who moved to Avadh in the wake of Nadir Shah’s sack of Delhi in 1739 whose incursion and subsequent period of chaos caused an exodus of artists, including writers, musicians, and painters, who in successive waves left the Mughal capital in search of new patronage (Pauwels 2015, 142; Losty and Roy 2012, 153).

A crucial question remains to be answered: how did an artist not familiar with the sampradaya paint a representation of the Festivals of the Seven Svarups? It is plausible that the anonymous artist may have used an unfinished or uncolored drawing of the festival which provided the basic organizational structure for his work. In fact, ateliers kept collections of paintings and drawings from other traditions from which they could reuse selected elements or take inspiration (Aitken 2015, 89). A possibility is that the artist of the Johnson Album may have used a Rajasthani painting depicting the svarups, a subject that was already popular in Kishangarh, a Rajput court known for its patronage of the Vallabha Sampradaya (Mathur 2000, 54).

A Kishangarh connection with Avadh has already been observed by Heidi Pauwels who has tracked a specific visual reference in a painting of Layla and Majnun from Lucknow (Pauwels, Plate 20). The work, dated to c. 1780, is attributed to Ghulam Reza, a master artist also known for his Ragamala paintings in the Johnson Album (Archer and Falk 1981, 170-173; Pauwels, 2015, 204). In particular, Pauwels (2015, 203-205) detects a stylistic reference in the portrayal of the haloed Layla which displays some peculiar visual characteristics from Kishangarh, such as her silhouette and her elongated eyes and nose. This visual connection is particularly relevant to further strengthen the assumption that Rajput painting was not only known but also one of the sources of inspiration for the artists working in Lucknow and Faizabad. As for the painting of the festival, rather than a stylistic citation we can detect a compositional reference in the display of the icons. Their arrangement – which follows an established formula even though some iconographic elements of the icons are not correct – is juxtaposed to a palace setting and range of colours typical of Lucknow and Faizabad in a combination of visual sources that was very frequent in Avadhi painting (Aitken 2015, 81).

Finally, it is also essential to appreciate the creative aspect of the work which denotes some artistic license. The painter added some interesting touches to the composition rejecting the hieratic and stiff postures of the svarups, a common feature of sectarian paintings. In doing so, he endowed the icons with a gentle smile and a human countenance and gave them a sinuous body slightly curved to one side. These innovations produced a graceful and lively compositional effect which remains a unique feature of this painting when compared to its two predecessors from Udaipur and Aurangabad.    

Bibliography:

Aitken, Molly Emma. “Parataxis and the Practice of Reuse, from Mughal Margins to Mīr Kalān Khān.” Archives of Asian Art, vol. 59, 2009, pp. 81–103.

Ambalal, Amit. Krishna As Shrinathji: Rajasthani Paintings from Nathdvara. Ahmedabad: Mapin, 1995.

Doshi, Saryu (ed.). The Royal Bequest: Art Treasures of the Baroda Museum and Picture Gallery. Bombay: India Book House, 1995. 

Falk, Toby, and Mildred Archer. Indian Miniatures in the India Office Library. London: Sotheby Parke Bernet, 1981.

Losty, Jeremiah P., and Malini Roy. Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire: Manuscripts and Paintings in the British Library. London: British Library, 2012.

Mathur, Vijay Kumar. Marvels of Kishangarh Paintings from the Collection of the National Museum, New Delhi. Delhi: Bharatiya Kala Prakashan, 2000.

Nardi, Isabella. “La Miniatura come Documento Storico: Le Celebrazioni di Saptasvarupa Annakutotsava al Tempio di Śrī Nāthjī a Nathdwara nel 1822.” Annali Sezione Orientale, vol. 77, 2017, pp. 215–232.

Pal, Pratapaditya, Stephen Markel, and Janice Leoshko. Pleasure Gardens of the Mind: Indian Paintings from the Jane Greenough Green Collection. Middletown, N.J.: Grantha Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1993.

Pauwels, Heidi Rika Maria. Cultural Exchange in Eighteenth-Century India Poetry and Paintings from Kishangarh. Berlin: E.B. Verlag, 2015.

Peabody, Norbert. Hindu Kingship and Polity in Precolonial India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Seyller, John William, and Jagdish Mittal. Deccani Paintings, Drawings, and Manuscripts in the Jagdish and Kamla Mittal Museum of Indian Art. Volume 1. Hyderabad: Jagdish and Kamla Mittal Museum of Indian Art, 2018.

Shah, Anita B. “Devotion and Patronage: The Story of a Pushtimarg Family.” Gates of the Lord: The Tradition of Krishna Paintings, edited by Madhuvanti Ghose, The Art Institute of Chicago, 2015, pp. 42–53.

Skelton, Robert. Rajasthani Temple Hangings of the Krishna Cult from the Collection of Karl Mann, New York. New York: American Federation of Arts, 1973.

Taylor, Woodman Lyon. Visual Culture in Performative Practice: The Aesthetics, Politics and Poetics of Visuality in Liturgical Practices of the Vallabha Sampradāya Hindu Community at Kota. PhD Dissertation, University of Chicago, 1997.

 

Isabella Nardi, PhD  ccownwork

05 July 2021

Sisters from the shadows – Katsushika Ōi

This is the first in an occasional series of blog posts which will highlight the work of Japanese women artists, whose achievements have often been overshadowed by their male contemporaries.

What helps us to choose a good story to read? Could it be an advertising strapline?  Or the headline in a book review? Or perhaps a hash-tag on Twitter? Of course, the author’s storyline itself is the core stimulus of our curiosity and feeds our imagination. But what about illustrations? Illustrations are unlikely to be produced by the author of the text but they definitely have an influence in attracting people to take a book from the shelves. 

Traditionally in Japan stories for entertainment were accompanied with illustrations to enhance their appeal to readers, and there is no doubt that they also acted functionally as visual aids for instructional books. In the same way, we tend to add images of illustrated pages to our blog posts to assist our readers who are not always familiar with the topics.

The interplay of text and illustration. Two court ladies looking at an illustrated scroll while a third reads to them. Chapter 50 of 'The Tale of the Genji
Fig.1 The interplay of text and illustration. Two court ladies looking at an illustrated scroll while a third reads to them. Chapter 50 of 'The Tale of the Genji' (源氏物語繪詞, Genji monogatari ekotoba), Manuscript, ca. 1665. British Library, Or.1287, f.62r.  noc

The majority of known Japanese artists are male, as in other areas of the creative arts throughout history, such as playwrights, novelists, travel writers and so on. However, there are a few exceptions where we find women illustrators and artists who seem to emerge from the shadows of history.

This article will focus on Katsushika Ōi or Eijo (葛飾応為 or 栄女),  a talented artist who depicted the ‘The Floating World’ (Ukiyo) of geisha and actors, and who happened to be a woman. However, she is better known as the third daughter of the great Ukiyoe master, Katsushika Hokusai 葛飾北斎 (1760-1849), whom she cared for in his workshop in his later years, spending most of her life in close company with him. Hokusai produced a huge quantity of Ukiyoe prints, illustrated books and paintings throughout his artistic life and Ōi is believed to have assisted his creations from her youth by adding figures in his illustrations or colouring his paintings. It was common for artists of that time to establish their own studios, collaborate with their co-workers and produce artworks under the name of famous artists.

‘Sailboats voyaging in the mist’. An illustration by Katsushika Ōi as Eijo
Fig.2. ‘Sailboats voyaging in the mist’. An illustration by Katsushika Ōi as Eijo (栄女). From Kyōka kunizukushi 狂歌国尽 , an athology of Kyōka poetry illustrated by Hokusai and his followers ca 1818. British Museum, [1979,0305,0.411] (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 

Ōi was  rather good at drawing from a very young age. As the daughter of Hokusai, her environment must have given her impetus to develop her skills and career in art.  She married once but found the artist's life far more interesting than that of a doting housewife. In fact, she did not conform to the typical image of feminine virtue that women of her time were expected to live up to within the context of domestic life. She much preferred to dedicate her time and passion to art by assisting her father’s work as well as creating her own paintings and drawings. Although she was not keen on life as an ordinary woman, she depicted attractive female figures in her works with a remarkably high level of skill.

Cover of Eiri nichiyō onna chōhōki  with text Takai Ranzan and illustrations by Katsushika Ōi.
Fig.3 Cover of Eiri nichiyō onna chōhōki  with text Takai Ranzan and illustrations by Katsushika Ōi. 1847. British Library, 16124.d.21  noc

Only two printed books have been attributed to Katsushika Ōi as the sole illustrator.  One of them is Eiri nichiyō onna chōhōki 絵入日用女重宝記, ‘An illustrated handbook on daily life for women’, with text byTakai Ranzan 高井蘭山, published in Kōwa 4 [1847].

Colophon of Eiri nichiyō Onna chōhōki which records Ōi Eijo
Fig.4. Colophon of Eiri nichiyō Onna chōhōki which records Ōi Eijo (応為栄女) as the artist. 1847. British Library, 16124.d.21  noc

Illustration by Ōi Eijo from Eiri nichiyō Onna chōhōki
Fig. 5. Illustration by Ōi Eijo from Eiri nichiyō Onna chōhōki . Women are depicted in traditional female roles, such as playing the Koto, writing, sewing, spinning, and weaving. British Library 16124.d.21  noc

Many of the details of Ōi’s life, including even her birth and death dates are unclear. The total number of works attributed solely to her, as opposed to collaborative works with her father, is a mere ten.  It is as if she was hidden behind her world-famous artist father.  However, she was certainly recognised as an independent artist during her lifetime and has recently been rediscovered by art historians, allowing her to emerge from her father’s shadow.

 

Reference:

Julie Nelson Davis, Hokusai and Ōi: art runs in the family https://blog.britishmuseum.org/hokusai-and-oi-keeping-it-in-the-family/

 

By Yasuyo Ohtsuka, Curator of Japanese Studies  ccownwork

07 June 2021

Portrait of Charles Weston (1731-1809)

In 2019, the Visual Arts Department acquired a late eighteenth-century portrait of the merchant and philanthropist, Charles Weston (1731-1809). Born in Calcutta (Kolkata) of both Indian and British descent, Weston’s portrait is an important document of the Anglo-Indian community in India.

Portrait of Charles Weston
Portrait of Charles Weston by an unknown artist, 1790-1808. British Library, Foster 1104 Noc

His father was William Weston, registrar of the mayor’s court in Calcutta. Little is known of his mother, although she may have been Mrs. Mary Ballantine who married a William Weston in 1731 (Hawes 2004).   

Weston had an accomplished career despite the obstacles he would have faced as someone of mixed ancestry. He began as an apprentice to the surgeon John Zephaniah Holwell (1711-1798), who became a lifelong friend and provided Weston with capital to start his business. Weston accumulated his wealth through commerce, investment in property, and sheer luck – in 1778, he won Tiretta’s Bazar in the Calcutta lottery, which was worth Rs 196,000 and provided him with a monthly earning of Rs 3,500 (Hawes 2004).

Portrait of John Zephaniah Howell
Portrait of John Zephaniah Holwell, platinotype print from a painting attributed to Johann Zoffany, c.1750. British Library, P587 Noc

An eminent Calcutta citizen, Weston’s Lane in the city was named after him. He was also one of two Anglo-Indians to sit on the jury of the infamous trial of Maharaja Nandakumar in 1775 (Hawes 1996, 56). By the 1790s, Anglo-Indians would no longer be permitted to serve on Calcutta juries, and this was later amended in 1827 to allow Christians to serve (Anderson 2015, 14).

Close up of a map of Calcutta showing Weston's Lane
Close-up of a Map of Calcutta showing Weston’s Lane, 1842, British Library, P2348 Noc

Weston was married twice - to Amelia de Rozario in 1758, and after her death, to Constantia Weston. Constantia died in 1801 and was buried at the convent of Bandel, on the banks of the Hooghly River. A portrait of Constantia was published in Bengal Past and Present in 1915.

Weston was an active philanthropist and is said to have donated 100 gold mohurs monthly to the poor. He also served as the parish clerk for St. John’s Church, Calcutta. After his death, he left a charitable fund worth Rs 100,000 to be managed by the church and used towards poverty relief. His will also left bequests to many friends and dependents (Hawes 2004).

WD4381
View of the west end of St John's Church, Calcutta by Amelia Rebecca Prinsep, c. 1830, watercolour on paper. British Library, WD4381 Noc

Another portrait of Weston is housed in the vestry of St. John’s Church. It shows Weston wearing a cotton handkerchief around his head, which he wore to keep warm when in his home as he suffered from rheumatism. A reproduction of this painting also features in the publication Calcutta Faces and Places in Pre-Camera Days produced by the Calcutta Historical Society in 1910.

Weston died in 1809 and his grave can still be visited at South Park Street Cemetery, Kolkata (Calcutta). His epitaph reads: he led a life marked “by benevolence and charity, seldom equalled, and never yet exceeded in British India” (The Bengal Obituary 1851, 94). He was survived by his eldest son, Charles Weston (1763-1813) and by his grandchildren.

The acquisition of his portrait complements archival materials already held within the British Library’s collection that are related to Weston’s life and estate. For instance, the India Office Records and Private Papers Collection contains a copy of his will (IOR/L/AG/34/29/22) and an inventory taken after his death (IOR/L/AG/34/27/41).

 

References and further reading

Anderson, V. (2015), Race and Power in British India: Anglo-Indians, Class and Identity in the Nineteenth Century. London: I.B. Tauris.

Bengal wills (1810), BL IOR/L/AG/34/29/22 

Bengal: Past and Present (1915), vol. 10 (Jan – March)

Wilmot, C. (1910). Calcutta Faces and Places in Pre-Camera Days. Calcutta: Calcutta Historical Society.

Estates and Wills Branch: Inventories and Accounts of Deceased Estates - Bengal: Vol. 1 (1810), BL IOR/L/AG/34/27/41

Hawes, C. (2004), “Charles Weston” in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/63541

Hawes, C. (1996), Poor Relations: The Making of a Eurasian Community in British India, 1773-1833. Richmond: Curzon.

List of Inscriptions on Tombs or Monuments in Bengal Possessing Historical or Archaeological Interest (1896), ed. C. R. Wilson.

The Telegraph India (2013), “New life for church pictures” https://www.telegraphindia.com/west-bengal/new-life-for-church-pictures/cid/1287818  

The Bengal Obituary: Or, a Record to Perpetuate the Memory of Departed Worth (1851), Holmes and Co. 

 

Nicole Ioffredi, Print Room Coordinator and Cataloguer Ccownwork

04 January 2021

Export paintings of Ming and Qing Chinese Interiors and Furnishings

In 2019, Rita dal Martello undertook a PhD placement at the British Library to research a series of paintings created by Chinese artists held in the Visual Art collections. Whilst the primary focus of her placement was a collection of over 300 botanical paintings, Rita also worked on cataloguing a number of artworks that depicted Chinese interiors and furnishings from the Ming and Qing periods. This blog will explore these art works in more detail.

Consisting of 136 paintings (Add Or 2197-2332), this collection contains paintings depicting the interiors of houses and temples, furnishings, including lanterns and displays, and a variety of processional floats used in Buddhist and Taoist religious ceremonies. The objects and interior scenes depicted in these paintings represent the decorative tastes of the educated and wealthy sections of Chinese society during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.

The paintings are opaque watercolours on European paper, including sheets watermarked 1794 and 1805 which have subsequently been bound into a single volume. Whilst the names of the artists remain unknown, it is likely they were the work of painters working in and around Canton (Guangzhou) who were producing works for the export market during the late 18th and early 19th century. The majority of the collection (Add Or 2197-2313 & 2317-2332) were acquired circa 1806 when they are believed to entered the collections of the East India Company Library and Museum, whilst the remaining three paintings (Add Or 2314-2316) were deposited in 1813. Thematically, the paintings can be divided into three groups: Lanterns, Furniture and decorative displays, and ritual furnishings of official residences and temples.

Lanterns

A total of 35 paintings in the collection depict a variety of lantern designs including palace lanterns of square, hexagonal, or octagonal shape; “flower basket” palace lanterns; beaded lanterns and horse lanterns. Most of the paintings show individual lanterns constructed of elaborate wooden frames and panels decorated with landscape or bird and flower paintings, framed by coloured silk, with some having lavish strings of beads or tassels attached. The majority are depicted hanging from a string in the middle of the page.

A Chinese hexagonal palace lantern
A hexagonal palace lantern decorated with blue beads dangling on strings and calligraphic panels on red silk backgrounds, alternating to paintings of bamboo and prunus flowers. The central panel shows Gao Qi (1336-1374) poem "Dweller in the Clouds". Unnamed Chinese artist, c. 1800-1806. British Library, Add Or 2322.

Three paintings bound in this volume are stylistically quite different from the remaining images however (Add Or 2314-2316). In these works the lantern takes up the whole page, and bear front and reverse inscriptions indicating that they were part of a set, possibly coming from the same artist or workshop. This set of paintings were deposited with the East India Company separately from the remainder of the collection and were received as a result of a letter from the East India Company written in March 1812 requesting samples of Chinese lanterns. On 22 February 1813 the Canton Factory replied saying that ‘The Lanterns indented for by the Honourable Court having been reported ready, were this day shipped on the ‘Royal George.’ A description of these Lamps with directions for putting them together drawn up by Mr Bosanquet under whose immediate inspection they were executed will be transmitted, a number in the Packet of that Ships Packet and Captain Gribble has promised that every possible care should be taken of them’ (BL Mss Eur D562/16).

 

Furniture and decorative displays

Furniture and decorative displays are the second most numerous group within the album. 33 paintings depict elaborate wooden furniture of various sizes and shapes elegantly displaying objects typically found in the homes of wealthy and educated Chinese. These objects include archaeological bronze objects, musical instruments, dishes decorated with auspicious symbols such as dragons and phoenix, vessels containing auspicious fruits, such as the Buddha’s hand citron for good fortune, or peaches for longevity, as well as vases with flowers such as lotus for purity or roses to symbolise the seasons.

A further 12 paintings depict speckled bamboo tables, chairs, and stools. These are possibly made of Xiangfei bamboo, which grows in Hunan and Guangxi provinces. According to the legend, the speckled aspect of this bamboo is derived from the tears concubines shed the death of the mythological emperor Shun.

Speckled bamboo Chinese furniture
Depiction of a speckled bamboo table and meiguiyi chair, possibly made of the so-called "Hunanese concubine bamboo". Unnamed Chinese artist, c. 1800-1806. British Library, Add Or 2201.

Whilst a small number of paintings in this group also include decorative screens with landscape paintings or calligraphy scrolls, all of the pieces of furniture are painted in the centre of the page with no surrounding background or further details of the surrounding décor or architecture in which they would have been placed.

 

Ritual furnishings of official residences and temples

A final group of paintings in the album and by far the most numerous, depict a range of ritual furnishings including 3 paintings of government offices furnishings, 35 paintings of processional equipment (Add Or 2236) for both government officials and religious ceremonies, including depiction of processional sedan chairs; 17 paintings illustrating Buddhist and Taoist shrines and sacrificial arrangements and 1 of a liturgical archway celebrating filial piety.

Add Or 2236
Processional model of the Daoist temples of Wudang Mountain, in Hebei province, showing various buildings (pavilions, pagodas, etc) on a miniature mountain. At either side, a pair of matching wooden stands with a lantern and a plaque saying "Spectacular Scenery of Wudang Mountain" (武當勝景). Unnamed Chinese artist, c. 1800-1806. British Library, Add Or 2236.

These paintings once again show the furnishings, shrines and ceremonial emblems in the centre of the page with no background or contextual details. The paintings are not accompanied by descriptive inscriptions or titles and one of the key areas of my work on this collection was to create catalogue records for the individual paintings, researching and describing the subjects of each painting and transcribing any inscriptions found on the objects depicted.

The individual records of these paintings can be found on the British Library's Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue, by searching for the specific references of the collection (Add Or 2187-2332).

 

Reproduction of these paintings and further information can be found in:

Lo, A., & Wood, Frances. (2011). Da ying tu shu guan te cang zhong guo qing dai wai xiao hua jing hua = Chinese export paintings of the Qing Period in the British Library. Volumes III & IV. Guangzhou: Guangdong People's Publishing House.

Bibliography:

Wood F (2011) 'One appreciates the pearls and jade on their stands; fine smoke rises from the tripod and sacrificial vessels in the hall'- Paintings of furnishings. In Da ying tu shu guan te cang zhong guo qing dai wai xiao hua jing hua = Chinese export paintings of the Qing Period in the British Library; Volume IV. pp 6-7. Guangzhou: Guangdong People's Publishing House.

Wang T-C (2011) 'Moral integrity is demonstrated in incorruptibility; the people hope for just officials'- Paintings of Canton governments offices, furnishing, and official processional equipment. In Da ying tu shu guan te cang zhong guo qing dai wai xiao hua jing hua = Chinese export paintings of the Qing Period in the British Library; Volume III. pp 4-6. Guangzhou: Guangdong People's Publishing House.

Lo A, Wang T-C (2001) 'Serene and solemn mountains surround the precious halls; fragrant sacrificial vessels gather on the altars'- Paintings of religious buildings and sacrificial arrangements. In Da ying tu shu guan te cang zhong guo qing dai wai xiao hua jing hua = Chinese export paintings of the Qing Period in the British Library; Volume III. pp 140-142. Guangzhou: Guangdong People's Publishing House.

By Dr. Rita dal Martello, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at Max Planck Institute

 

16 November 2020

Object, Story and Wonder: Museum Collections Revealed with the British Library

Earlier this summer while in lock down, the Bagri Foundation extended an invitation to curators based in the UK and abroad to collaborate on a new digital series to showcase their collections while museums and libraries were forced to shut down and be closed to the public. For this series, Malini Roy, the Head of Visual Arts (Asia and Africa Collections) at the British Library, talks about natural history drawings produced in South Asia during the early 19th century. The video clip is featured below.

The British Library's collection includes several thousand natural history drawings produced in the subcontinent; only a selection is featured in the YouTube video.  In the late 18th century British and Scottish botanists and surgeons led a movement to document the natural history of the subcontinent. The East India Company, initially established as the British trading company and eventually a major governing power over parts of the subcontinent, recognised the need for this scientific research. Its practice was therefore adopted as official policy and resulted in the collection of rare species of flora and fauna. The specimens were preserved in the newly established Royal Botanic Garden in Calcutta and the Barrackpore Menagerie. As part of the documentation process, Indian artists were hired to illustrate the scientific specimens. Sets of the watercolours and drawings remained in archives in India, while duplicates were sent to the East India Company’s Library in London, and are now held in the British Library.

While not all of our collections are on public display, in recent years a range of natural history drawings have been on display in the Library's Treasures Gallery. More recently, the works by Haludar were featured in the Wallace Collection's exhibition Forgotten Masters that ran until September 2020. You can read more about the South Asian natural history collections in the following blog posts and articles:

Mildred Archer, Natural History Drawings in the India Office Library, H.M.S.O., 1962.

Ralf Britz (ed.) Hamilton’s Gangetic Fishes in Colour: A new edition of the 1822 monograph, with reproductions of unpublished coloured and illustrations, London: Natural History Museum and Ray Society, 2019

Malini Roy, Natural History Drawings from South Asia, Asia and Africa Blog, 8 August 2013.

Malini Roy, 'The Bengali Artist Haludar', in W. Dalrymple, Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company, Wallace Collection, 2019.

Malini Roy, Moloch Gibbons and Sloth Bears: the work of the Bengali artist Haludar, Asia and Africa Blog, 7 February 2020.

William Dalrymple (ed.), Forgotten Masters: Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company, Wallace Collection, 2019.

 

Malini Roy, Head of Visual Arts

 

 

26 October 2020

Libraries and manuscripts of Laos (1994-2012)

This blog post is written by guest contributor Prof. Dr. Volker Grabowsky, who has been Professor for the Language and Culture of Thailand at the University of Hamburg since 2009, and advisor to the Buddhist Archive of Photography in Luang Prabang Since 2006.  Grabowsky’s blog looks at the photographs taken by Hans Georg Berger of libraries in Laos, that were acquired by the British Library in August 2020.

 The ancient and exceptional manuscript culture of Laos has survived colonial rule, war and revolution as well as rapid modernization in a globalized world. Unlike in many parts of the world, production of manuscripts did not stop during the 20th century in Laos, where traditional ways of writing have been preserved by monks and lay scribes until present times. The oldest dated manuscript, a mono-lingual Pali palm-leaf manuscript containing parts of the Parivāra of the Vinaya Piṭaka, was made in 1520/21 and is kept at the National Museum of Luang Prabang (formerly the Royal Palace). It is also the first documentary evidence of the Dhamma (Tham) script in the Lao Kingdom of Lan Sang. This sacred script is a special feature of Lao literature. It originated in the neighboring northern Thai kingdom of Lan Na – probably as a derivative of the ancient Mon alphabet of Hariphunchai - in the late fourteenth century and made its way south through the Mekong river basin. As its name indicates, this script was used for the writing of the Buddhist scriptures and other religious texts. Next to this script, the Lao also developed a secular script nowadays called “Old Lao script” (Lao Buhan script).

Cabinet with palm leaf manuscripts
Opening of a cabinet with palm-leaf manuscripts, Manuscript Preservation Project of the National Library of Laos, Vat Muen Na Somphuaram, Luang Prabang, 1996. Hans Georg Berger "Libraries and Manuscripts of Laos (1994-2012)", British Library, Photo 1401(6). Image reproduced by permission of Hans Georg Berger

Lao manuscripts were mostly inscribed with a stylus on rectangular cut and cured palm-leaf sheets varying in length. Each sheet had two holes; a cotton string was passed through the left one, making it possible to bind several palm-leaf sheets together as one bundle, or fascicle (phuk). Recent research estimates that more than ninety percent of Lao manuscripts are “palm-leaf books” (nangsü bai lan). The number of leaves in a given fascicle depend on the length and/or the number of text pages. All fascicles of palm-leaf manuscripts are fastened by a string (sai sanὸng). Generally, numerous fascicles of palm-leaf manuscripts which contain the same version of a literary text are fastened together in bundles, called sum. Two wooden boards are frequently added to such a bundle for protection. The bundle usually is wrapped in a piece of cloth and tied with a cotton string. It is called mat.

Palm-leaf is not only the most widely used but, in this region’s subtropical climate, also the most durable “soft” writing support of the Lao cultural area. It was mostly used for Buddhist text. The leporello format was used for secular texts such as chronicles, legal texts, medical and astrological treatises, official documents, non-religious literary works, and only occasionally, Buddhist texts. For these leporello manuscripts, a cardboard-like paper made out of the bark of the sa tree (Broussonetia papyrifera L. vent.) was used. The grayish sa paper was inscribed on both sides, often with black ink. Sometimes it was first painted with a layer of lampblack and then written on with yellowish ink, or white chalk. The covers of both phap sa, as such leporello manuscripts are called in Lao, as well as palm-leaf manuscripts, were often decorated with lacquer and gold. The manuscripts were kept in elaborately fashioned wooden boxes. In addition, bound books exist, notably in the Tai Lü areas of northern Laos, such as Müang Sing, where each piece of paper has been folded over once vertically, so that it becomes much longer than it is broad. By folding the paper, both the front and the back page of one sheet can be used for writing. These sheets of paper are sewn together along one of the vertical sides. This kind of manuscript is called phap hua. In the manuscript tradition of the Tai Lü, pap sa manuscripts play a very important role and are even more widespread than palm-leaf manuscripts, the latter being restricted to the writing of religious texts.

Sa-Paper manuscripts
Sa-Paper manuscripts of the Lü of Müang Sing at the collection of Vat Mai Suvannaphumaram, Luang Prabang, 1994. Hans Georg Berger "Libraries and Manuscripts of Laos (1994–2012)", British Library, Photo 1401(12). Image reproduced by permission of Hans Georg Berger

The vast majority of Lao manuscripts are not kept in private households but in monasteries. The most precious manuscripts are stored in small and elegant buildings devoted solely to the conservation of manuscripts. They are called hò tham (“House of the Dhamma”) or hò trai (“House of the three [baskets]) because they are dedicated homes to Buddhist scriptures. These libraries are integrated into the monastic site (vat) of which they embrace the organization and architectural style. According to traditional Buddhist belief, no matter whether they were written carefully or not, manuscripts should not be treated disrespectfully, or kept in a demeaning place. The texts that manuscripts contain, especially the ritual ones, should not have any insertions or other writing added to them. Any person who breaks this rule would lose the respect of devout Buddhists. Traditionally, laywomen were not supposed to touch religious manuscripts directly, even if very often they were the persons who donated them to the monasteries. This tradition came to an end during the country-wide effort of manuscript preservation of the National Library of Laos since the 1990s, where laywomen were prominently involved.

Historic wooden Library of Vat Nong Lam Chan photograph by Hans Georg Berger
The historic wooden library of Vat Nong Lam Chan at Ban Nong Lam Chan, Champhon District, Savannakhet Province, 1999. Hans Georg Berger "Libraries and Manuscripts of Laos (1994–2012)", British Library, Photo 1401(21). Image reproduced by permission of Hans Georg Berger

It is the sponsor or donor, not the scribe, who is called the “maker” (phu sang) of a manuscript. Usually, its “making” is recorded in the colophons following the end of the text. Here, the names of the leading monastic or lay supporter(s) or mūlasaddhā who took the initiative in commissioning the writing of the manuscript is mentioned. This person provides the writing support and pays the scribe, usually a learned monk or ex-monk. The main aim of that pious deed is to help support the Teachings of the Buddha to endure for 5,000 years. As such, it is expected to bring in return to the sponsors, donors, and – in the case of manuscripts – scribes important karmic benefit. Scribes were exclusively male; recent research found that a surprisingly high number of principal donors were women. In the case of Luang Prabang, we noted a substantial number of manuscripts donated by royalty and members of the aristocracy.

Between 1992 and 2002 the Preservation of Lao Manuscripts Programme, run by the National Library of Laos and supported by the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, surveyed the manuscript holdings of 830 monasteries all over Laos and preserved almost 86,000 manuscripts. Of these, around 12,000 manuscripts were selected for microfilm recordings which are now accessible in the Digital Library of Lao Manuscripts. More recently, a number of digitization projects supported by the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme (EAP)  and the Digital Repository of Endangered and Affected Manuscripts (DREAMSEA) focused on the particularly rich manuscript collections in Luang Prabang’s monasteries, the royal city which since the 14th century has been the centre of Lao Buddhism.

1018-07
A novice reads from a palm-leaf manuscript written in Tham Lao script, Vat Ban Müang Kang, Champasak Province, Southern Laos, 1999. Hans Georg Berger "Libraries and Manuscripts of Laos (1994–2012)", British Library, Photo 1401(19). Image reproduced by permission of Hans Georg Berger

Hans Georg Berger, a photographer and writer born in 1951 in Trier, Germany, surveyed the situation of Lao manuscripts in the context of his photographic documentation of Lao ceremonies, rituals, meditation and everyday life since 1993. From 2006 to 2011 he was grant-holder of three projects of the Endangered Archives Programme which resulted in the digitization, identification and safe storage of more than 33,000 photographs taken and collected by the monks of Luang Prabang for over 120 years.

His collaboration with the Buddhist sangha, the National Library of Laos and the Buddhist Archives of Luang Prabang created a unique corpus and overview on Lao manuscript culture from which 60 photographs, both digital and printed, were acquired for the Library's Visual Arts collections. Hans Georg Berger's work for the Endangered Archives Programme was documented in the short film "Theravada Vision".

 

By Volker Grabowsky

 

Further reading

Berger, Hans Georg: The floating Buddha: the revival of vipassana meditation in Laos. Luang Prabang: Anantha Publishing, 2009, c2006

Berger, Hans Georg. Meditation colors: nine digital color photographs. Luang Prabang: Anantha Publishing, 2009

Berger, Hans Georg. Sacred dust from the Buddha's feet: Theravada Buddhism in Laos. Ulbeek: Salto Ulbeek, 2010

Berger, Hans Georg. My sacred Laos. Chicago: Serindia Contemporary, 2015

Berger, Hans Georg (photographs), Christian Caujolle et al. (texts). Het bun dai bun: Laos - Sacred Rituals of Luang Prabang. London: Westzone, 2000

Berger, Hans Georg, Khamvone Boulyaphone. Treasures from the Buddhist Archive of Photography : historic photographs taken or collected by the monks of Luang Prabang between 1890 and 2007. Luang Prabang: Anantha Publishing, 2010

Farmer, John Alan. The Self-in-Relation: on Hans Georg Berger's photographs. New York / Luang Prabang: Anantha Publishing, 2011

Lingham, Brian (ed). The learning photographer: scholarly texts on Hans Georg Berger's art work in Laos and Iran. Luang Prabang: Anantha Publishing, 2009

Pha One Keo Sitthivong, Khamvone Boulyaphone; foreword by Hans Georg Berger. Great monks of Luang Prabang 1854 to 2007. Luang Prabang: Publications of the Buddhist Archive of Photography; Anantha Publishing, 2011

 

11 September 2020

eReading Karma in Snakes and Ladders: two South Asian game boards in the British Library collections

This guest blog post is by Souvik Mukherjee, an Assistant Professor and Head of the Department of English at Presidency University in Kolkata. His research looks at the narrative and the literary through the emerging discourse of videogames as storytelling media and at how these games inform and challenge our conceptions of narratives, identity and culture. 

Salman Rushdie, in his novel, Midnight’s Children, writes about the game of Snakes and Ladders that ‘all games have morals; and the game of Snakes and Ladders captures, as no other activity can hope to do, the eternal truth that for every ladder you climb, a snake is waiting just around the corner; and for every snake, a ladder will compensate’ (Rushdie 2016, 160). Whether Rushdie is aware one does not know but Snakes and Ladders indeed has its beginnings as a game of morals, or even more than that – a game about life and karma. When Frederick Henry Ayres, the famous toymaker from Aldgate, London, patented the game in 1892, the squares of the game-board had lost their moral connotations. There were earlier examples in Victorian England and mainland Europe that had a very Christian morality encoded into the boards but the game actually originated in India as Gyan Chaupar (it had other local variations such as Moksha Pat, Paramapada Sopanam and other adaptations such as the Bengali Golok Dham and the Tibetan Sa nam lam sha). Victorian versions of the game include the Kismet boardgame (c.a. 1895) now in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection (fig. 1). There were other similar games such as Virtue Rewarded and Vice Punished (1818) and the New Game of Human Life (1790) although the latter did not contain snakes and ladders on its board.

http://media.vam.ac.uk/collections/img/2006/AU/2006AU4145_2500.jpg
Fig. 1. Kismet, c.1895. Chromolithograph on paper and card. Designed in England, manufactured in Bavaria. Victoria & Albert Museum, MISC.423-1981. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

    In the Indian versions, it was not a racing-game as it became in its Western adaptations. It was a game that did not end in square hundred but one that people could play over and over until they reached Vaikuntha (the sacred domain of Vishnu) after journeying though many rebirths and corresponding human experiences. Every square in the game signified a moral action, a celestial location or a state of being all of which were important in the Karmic journey. Here is the story of two game-boards in the British Library’s archives and how an Indian game designed to teach the workings of Karma and religion became the Snakes and Ladders that children play the world over, today.

    One of the oldest Gyan Chaupar boards that have been traced so far is now in the British Library (Topsfield 1985, 203-226), originally in the collection of the East India Company officer Richard Johnson (1753-1807) (fig. 2). There are claims that the game originated much earlier – in the Kridakaushalya section of his 1871 Sanskrit magnum opus Brihad Jyotish Arnava, Venkatarama Harikrishna of Aurangabad states that the game was invented by the Marathi saint Dnyaneshwar (1275 – 1296). Andrew Topsfield lists around forty-four game-boards in his two articles published two decades apart and these boards belong to multiple religious traditions, Hindu, Jain and Muslim (Sufi). Topsfield mentions older boards that date back to the late 15th century and also ones that have 128 squares, 84 squares or a 100 squares instead of the 72 squares as on the Johnson board. There is, however, another board in the British Library that has probably not been written about yet. Listed as the Paramapada Sopanam Pata (fig. 3), it is described in the catalogue as: ‘Lithograph in Blockwood printing. of the game Paramapada sōpānam, a traditional Indian indoor game: in a chart titled: Paramapada Sopanam, in which the highest ascent indicates reaching Heaven and anywhere else where the pawn lands indicate various worlds according to Hindu mythology. Language note: In Kannada and Devanagari’. These two boards tell the story of the transculturation of a game that started out as a pedagogical tool to teach the ways of karma and ended up as Hasbro Inc.’s Chutes and Ladders.

Snakes and Ladders board game on paper from Lucknow
Designs for a game of snakes and ladders, gyan chaupur, commissioned by Richard Johnson, Lucknow, 1780-82. Johnson Album 5,8.  CC Public Domain Image

Snakes and Ladders board game, printed on paper, from Karnataka, 19th century
Paramapada Sopanam Pata, board game printed in Karnataka, c. 1800-1850. British Library, ORB 40/1046. CC Public Domain Image

    Around 1832, a Captain Henry Dundas Robertson would present what he called the Shastree’s Game of Heaven and Hell to the Royal Asiatic Society in London where the 128-square Vaishnav Gyan Chaupar board can still be seen. Around 1895, when the game was being sold in England as a children’s game, the civil servant Gerald Robert Dampier was sending a detailed report on the game to North Indian Notes and Queries. Around a century before Dampier and fifty years before Robertson, Richard Johnson’s possession of a Gyan Chaupar board around 1780-2 is in itself a curious affair. This board is now part of the British Library’s collection. Johnson, the deputy resident at Lucknow, is among the lesser-known Orientalists despite his prodigious collection of Indian art and his close connection with orientalists of greater repute such as Sir William Jones. Johnson was supposedly a competent official but he made a fortune through corruption and was called ‘Rupee Johnson’; he was also involved in Warren Hastings’s infamous looting of the Begums of Oudh. In his two years in Oudh (1780-82) Johnson was, however, seems to have been popular and was given the title Mumtāz al-Dawlah Mufakhkhar al-Mulk Richārd Jānsan Bahādur Ḥusām Jang, 1194 or ʻRichard Johnson chosen of the dynasty, exalted of the kingdom, sharp blade in war’, 1780 together with a mansab and an insignia by the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam. Johnson was also an eclectic collector and commissioned work by many Indian artists and scholars  of which 64 albums of paintings (over 1,000 individual items) and an estimated 1000 manuscripts in Persian, Arabic, Turkish, Urdu, Sanskrit, Bengali, Panjabi, Hindi and Assamese form the ‘backbone of the East India Company library’ (now at the British Library, see Sims-Williams 2014). While other orientalists such as Jones and Hiram Cox wrote on Chess, Johnson seems to have been interested in other games. Besides the Gyan Chaupar board, the Johnson collection contains the Persian game of Ganj (Treasure) and sketches for Ganjifa cards – the round playing cards that were common in India before the advent of European cards (British Library, Johnson Album 5).

    Johnson’s contribution to boardgame studies is no less important than that of the other orientalists although it has taken over two centuries to appreciate this. The Gyan Chaupar board was in his possession a good century before the game was imported to the West and transformed into a race-game. Johnson seems to have been interested in the original game and besides the Devanagari script, each square also contains a farsi transliteration. The words are not Persian but the script is.[i] It is difficult to identify the painter or the source – Malini Roy points out that ‘artists affiliated with Johnson’s studio include Mohan Singh, Ghulam Reza, Gobind Singh, Muhammad Ashiq, Udwat Singh, Sital Das, and Ram Sahai’ (Roy 2010, 181). Whether Johnson read the game-board is a moot question but he certainly cared to get the words transliterated into Persian. Beginning the game on utpatti or ‘origin’, the player can move to maya or ‘illusion’ (square 2), krodh or lobh – ‘anger’ and ‘greed’ respectively (squares 3 and 4) and ascend higher towards salvation via the ladders in the squares that represent daya or mercy (square 13) or Bhakti or devotion (square 54). Bhakti will take the player directly to Vaikuntha and salvation from the cycle of rebirths and the game ends here. For a game purportedly invented by a major figure of the Bhakti Movement, this is no surprise. If the throw of the dice takes the player beyond square 68, then the long snake on square 72 brings the player back to Earth and the cycle of rebirths continues. Johnson’s board is unique among the Gyan Chaupar boards that are known to scholars in that it contains two scorpions in addition to the snakes and the ladders also look somewhat serpentine.

    One more detail is not obvious from the board. None of these boards comes with playing pieces or dice but writing in 1895, Dampier claims that the game was played with cowrie shells as dice and he also adds that the game is ‘very contrary to our Western teachings […] it is not clear why Love of Violence (sq. 72) should lead to Darkness (sq. 51)’. Dampier notes that the game has been ‘lately introduced in England and with ordinary dice for cowries and [with] a somewhere revised set of rules been patented there as a children’s game’ (Dampier 1895, 25-27).

    Dampier’s short but detailed account of Gyan Chaupar provides a clearer entry point into how and why an ‘oriental’ game of karma needed to be Westernised as a children’s game. The transition from the karmic game to the game on Christian morality and then to a race-game for children embodying competition rather than soul-searching is evident from his pithy notes sent to the journal North Indian Notes and Queries. One might assume that the principles working here would have been very different from Johnson’s approach to the game. The story, nevertheless, does not end here. I was fortunate to discover another game-board in the British Library as I mention above. The Paramapada Sopanam or the Ladder to Heaven is similar to the Johnson board in most ways except that there are only snakes on the board. Some snakes help the player ascend and the others are for descent (I purposely eschew terms like ‘good’ and ‘bad’ here). Square 54 or Bhakti, a many-headed serpent leads the player to Vaikuntha (the board is damaged here) and one might assume that it is Ananta, the celestial snake on which Vishnu reclines. There are some differences with the Johnson board although both relate to the Vaishnav sect of Hinduism. While Gyan Chaupar is largely forgotten in Northern India (except in the Jain tradition where it is reportedly played by some during the Jain festival Paryushan), Paramapada Sopanam is regularly played on the festive day of Vaikuntha Ekadasi in the Indian states of Telengana, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. In fact, Carl Gustav Jung supposedly obtained a copy of the game when he visited Tamil Nadu in 1938 and took it back to Zurich; Sulagna Sengupta concludes that Jung read the matrix of the game as the play of opposites in the psyche (Sengupta 2017).

    From the karmic game to Jung’s model for the play of psychological opposites, Gyan Chaupar in its many forms is certainly much more than the race game that it has been changed into after its appropriation by the colonial apparatus. Recent research has been able to identify many of these game-boards and these two boards in the British Library are crucial for the ‘recovery research’ into Gyan Chaupar and its variants as well as the cultures in which they were conceived. Recent research on games talks of ‘gamification’ or the application of ludic principles to real-life activities – a closer look at the original Gyan Chaupar will show its merit as a gamified text, an instructional manual on the ways of life and on Indic soteriology.

 

Notes
[i] I am indebted to Ms Azadeh Mazlousaki Isaksen of the University of Tromso, Norway, for the translations. Ms Isaksen initially struggled to translate the words as she found them unfamiliar. The reason was that these were Hindi or Sanskrit words written in the Persian script.

 

Bibliography
Cannon, Garland, and Andrew Grout. “Notes and Communications.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, vol. 55, no. 2, 1992, pp. 316–318. 

Dampier, Gerald Roberts. “A Primitive Game.” North Indian Notes and Queries V (1895): p. 25-27.

Roy, Malini. “Origins of the Late Mughal Painting Tradition in Awadh.” India’s Fabled City: The Art of Courtly Lucknow. Ed. Stephen Markel and Tushara Bindu Gude. Los Angeles: Prestel, 2010.

Rushdie, Salman. Midnights Children. London: Random House, 2016.

Sengupta, Sulagna. “Parama Pada Sopanam : The Divine Game of Rebirth and Renewal.” Jungian Perspectives on Rebirth and Renewal: Phoenix Rising. Ed. Elizabeth Brodersen and Michael Glock. London ; New York, NY: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group, 2017.

Sims-Williams, Ursula. “‘White Mughal’ Richard Johnson and Mir Qamar al-Din Minnat.” British Library Asian and African Studies Blog, 1 May 2014.

Topsfield, Andrew. “The Indian Game of Snakes and Ladders.” Artibus Asiae, vol. 46, no. 3, 1985, pp. 203–226. 

 

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