James Wales: Artist and Antiquarian in the Time of Peshwa Sawai Madhavrao

Author and Presenter: Uday S. Kulkarni

Review  by :   Latika Padgaonkar
Program date : 09 May 2021

It is not every day that you get books on history written by a practising surgeon and a former naval officer. Uday Kulkarni is just such a person. He retired as a Surgeon Commander from the Indian Navy and now devotes his time to delving into history (Maratha history in this case), a passion he has nurtured since childhood. He is equally devoted to citizen activism.

In yesterday’s Book Club session, Dr Kulkarni (who has already authored four other books) focused on pre-British times (India of the late 18th century) and narrated the story of James Wales, a Scottish painter born in 1747 who began as a landscape artist but would move to figurative art and portraits. Wales made little money from the sale of his works, went to London and, with the generous support of James Forbes, a British artist who had recently returned from India with pictures of the Elephanta Caves and banyan trees, he travelled to the subcontinent to try his luck.

Uday Kulkarni’s book is, thereafter, the tale of James Wales’ journeys in Maharashtra – and the author chose to focus on Bombay, Poona and the neighbouring locales.

Meticulous study, extensive research and a genuine ardour have gone into the making of this book. Kulkarni moved mountains to get hold of the journals and pictures that the artist left behind. Wales arrived in Bombay when Maratha power was at its zenith, began sketching children and different views of the small fishing town that Bombay then was, explored caves and seascapes; he also met Charles Malet, the Resident in Poona, who invited him to the Maratha capital.

Kulkarni showed the Book Club members several sketches and portraits done by Wales – particularly those of three major figures of Maratha history: Mahadoji Scindia, Sawai Madhavrao Peshwa and Nana Phadnavis – as well as some of the jottings and observations that the artist had made in his journals. But before Wales was permitted to draw these great men, he had to prove his worth as an artist, and for that ‘Con Saib’ (Nuruddin Hasan) was the sitter. More than two centuries later, this extraordinarily fine drawing of the Persian translator fetched a most tidy sum at a Bonhams auction.

Wales also drew pictures of temples and ceremonies such as sati at which he was personally present more than half a dozen times. He also depicted Peshwa courts in which minute details are indicated: who sat where, the jewels people wore, how the British sat on the floor alongside the Indians, the decoration in the royal hall and so on.

Wales was so prolific that when it came to selecting which pictures to use in his book, Kulkarni was spoilt for choice. For the Book Club session he selected those works which went along with his story. What we heard and saw then, was, in the words of Kulkarni, a “generally ignored portion of our history which is frequently brushed under the carpet, the years between Mughal India and British India.” India seen through British pictures and accounts can certainly be a feast – and an eye-opener.

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Nityaasha Foundation