The name of Sita Ram is familiar to admirers of later Indian painting as the artist of two albums of drawings of views on the Ganges in Bengal and Bihar and of the monuments of Agra which were sold in London in 1974 and subsequently dispersed. They were sold anonymously without provenance, and it so happened that none of the inscriptions mentions the patron.
Among the paintings in these two dispersed albums are the famous views of the Taj Mahal at different times of day and night, and views of sights on the river between Murshidabad and Patna which were so familiar to travellers in early 19th-century India…
When the first two albums of his work appeared in 1974, Sita Ram was at once recognised as a major artist of the period, who far transcends the limitations of most other Company school artists by combining the manner of the English picturesque with his own Indian perceptions.
Even with this new material, however, his work before 1813 and his career after 1823 remains obscure. His work for the Hastings is instantly recognisable but his known oeuvre does not extend beyond their period in India. Even so, his work gives us some clues.
His basic style indicates that he was trained in the so-called Company style that originated at Murshidabad, the Mughal capital of Bengal, after its artists largely switched from their traditional style to one more in tune with British sensibilities…
In order to inspect the British possessions in India and to meet Indian rulers and notables, and in his capacity as commander-in-chief to keep a closer eye on the current war with Nepal, Lord Hastings made a journey upcountry from Calcutta to the Punjab and back. The party embarked on 28 June 1814 at Barrackpore in a flotilla of no less than 220 boats.
Hastings was accompanied of course by his wife and small children, by his secretaries and ADCs, and no doubt by their wives and children, and by 150 sepoys of the Governor-General’s Bodyguard, and a battalion from the Bengal Army. They all would have needed boats for their luggage and equipment, for their horses, for their food and stores and floating kitchens, while things such as palanquins were stored on the roofs of the living quarters of the pinnace budgerows.
Hastings later estimated there were no less than 10,000 persons in his encampment after he left the river to proceed overland. The flotilla conveyed them up the river Hooghly and over the bar at Suti into the main stream of the Ganges, past Patna, Benares and Allahabad as far as Cawnpore. Such voyages could only be begun at the height of the monsoon, despite the adverse wind and strong current, when the river was high enough to get over the bar at Suti from the Hooghly into the main channel of the Ganges.
Hastings provides many graphic descriptions of the difficulties encountered on the river of fighting their way upstream, of the constant necessity for “tracking”, ie, the boatmen landing and pulling the boats upriver, and of the tedium when they had to wait for changes in the wind to get round promontories.
At Cawnpore they disembarked from their boats and travelled overland to Lucknow to meet the nawab vizier of Oudh. One of the principal purposes of the journey was for Hastings to meet Nawab Sa’adat ‘Ali Khan, but he had just died and Hastings had to meet his son and successor Nawab Ghazi al-Din Haidar, who honoured his father’s promise of “lending” the Company a crore of rupees (over £1,000,000) to help finance the war with Nepal and Hastings’s later military engagements.
The principal members of the party travelled by elephant, camel, horseback, palanquin and all the other means of transport employed in early 19th-century India, whereas everyone else simply had to march. They moved at what seems now an incredibly slow rate of about ten miles a day, starting off before daybreak and reaching their encampment before it became too hot.
By having two complete sets of tents the second set was always available for the principal travellers when they arrived at the next encampment. There they rested during the heat of the day and met the local people, both British and Indian in levees or durbars, having to cater for the needs of his immediate party and of his visitors. There also Hastings could get on with the day-to-day tasks of governing India by reading and replying to the despatches brought to him by the various secretaries as well as keeping up with the voluminous correspondence exchanged with the Company in London.
From Lucknow, the party then marched north-westwards parallel to the Himalayas, passing to the north of Delhi up to Hardwar where the Ganges debouches onto the plains, before turning south into the Punjab and approaching Delhi from the west through Haryana. In the event, questions of protocol prevented Hastings from meeting the Mughal Emperor Akbar II, or King of Delhi as the British referred to him at this time, although Lady Hastings went to Delhi as a sightseer, taking Sita Ram with her.
Lord Hastings busied himself inspecting the garrison at Meerut before meeting up with his wife’s party again south of Delhi. The travellers turned south towards Agra, admiring the great Mughal monuments there and at Sikandra and Fatehpur Sikri, then marched to the British military station of Fatehgarh near Farrukhabad on the Ganges. There they passed the hot weather of 1815 waiting for the monsoon rains to swell the river so that the boats could pass over the bar at Suti and down the Hooghly to Calcutta.
When the river was sufficiently full but the monsoon gales had abated, they embarked on their boats on 21 August and sailed rapidly downstream to Calcutta where they arrived on 9 October 1815. The whole journey took seventeen months. The Hastings’ only son had become ill on the voyage downriver. Lady Hastings took the children home to England in January 1816 but returned alone in 1819 to be with her husband.
Excerpted with permission from Sita Ram’s Painted Views of India: Lord Hastings’s Journey from Calcutta to the Punjab, 1814-15, JP Losty, Lustre Press/Roli Books.