Revisiting old India, and finding Dhaka in two 18th Century paintings

A few evenings ago, I attended a presentation by British Art Historian Charles Greig, who specializes in British paintings of 17th and 18th Century India, where he talked about his recent discovery of two paintings by German-born Johann Zoffany, a celebrated court painter in London and Vienna who traveled to India and spent two years at the court of Lucknow in the late part of the 18th century. He was also one of the founders of the Royal Academy of Arts, in London.

Greig is himself a descendent of General William Palmer Sr, whose family portrait I had already encountered in William Dalrymple’s extraordinary biography set in Hyderabad, “White Mughals.”

The Palmer Family

Apart from the fact that Dalrymple’s book recounts a tragic love story set against a fascinating backdrop of political and historical intrigue, it also explains how the rather strict divide between Europeans and the native population that we’re used to seeing depicted in movies and books about the British Raj was not something that happened immediately and as a matter of course. On the contrary, it would seem that the men (and some women, too, he gives a few examples of ladies who married Indian noble men) who first made their way to India around the 1600s, whether they hailed from Portugal, France or England, easily and naturally slipped into habits that had been totally foreign to them prior to their arrival. Not only did they develop a real taste for local customs, they often embraced them, wearing light, cotton pyjamas, smoking the hookah, eating spicy foods, even engaging in Hindu or Muslim rituals (when they did not convert), and last but not least, entering relationships with local women, marrying them and having children who were later sent to school in Europe. This rather satisfying state of affairs started changing in the late 1780s, with the arrival of the new Governor-General, Lord Cornwallis, who’d just been defeated by George Washington at Yorktown. “He was determined to make sure that a settled colonial class never emerged in India to undermine British rule as it had done, to his own humiliation, in America,” says Dalrymple. This new kind of “order” was mostly enforced in Calcutta, while the Residencies attached to the different Indian courts like Delhi, Lucknow or Hyderabad, were somewhat spared a little while longer, but the road was paved, and the appointment of Lord Wellesley as new Governor-General of Bengal and head of the Supreme Government of India, in 1897, built upon this foundation. “His imperial policies would effectively bring into being the main superstructure of the Raj as it survived up to 1947 ; he also brought with him the arrogant and disdainful British racial attitudes that buttressed and sustained it.”

The painting above shows Palmer with his family, in Lucknow, in 1785, and what a lovely, loving scene it is. William Palmer Sr was married to a Moghul princess, Fais Baksh, and they had six children together, one of them, the young child standing on the left, who went on to become a famous banker in Hyderabad.

Charles Craig’s own mother hailed from an old Zamindar family in Purnea, Bihar, and his vast knowledge and curiosity have led him to discover two paintings that he believes (and others with him) to be from Zoffany, and set in Dhaka. They will soon be part of an exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, in London, where they should hang side by side.

One is a cremation scene on the bank of a river, with the moon parting the clouds, and the light of the fire reflected on one of the walls of a tomb. I was not fast enough to take a picture of the slide of that painting, unfortunately, nor do I know its name, but it would seem to be the Wari Christian Cemetery in Narinda, Dhaka. I went on Google Earth and searched for the river, all around the cemetery, which used to be huge (the equivalent of three football fields, I read somewhere) and is still quite large, but there is none. Then again, many rivers and waterways in Dhaka were filled up over the years.

I did find pictures of a tomb that could be the one on that painting.

Wari Christian Cemetery, Narinda, Dhaka

And here is a an old 1875 picture of the cemetery from the British Library’s website. It doesn’t look as overgrown as it is today, and we can see, on the left,  a structure that looks like a tomb, but I’m not sure it’s the same one.

The second painting that Charles Greig has attributed to Zoffany shows the South gate of the Lalbagh Fort, in Dhaka (or rather Dacca, as it used to be spelled, and actually, as it continues to be spelled in French).

Again, I searched the internet for other images of the fort and here is what I dug out.
Another one (both circa 1885) :
Another one, dated 1904 :
And finally, a more recent view :
I must now go in search of that south gate, and the tomb at the Narinda Christian Cemetery, but of course, I need to do this on a Friday, or on a holiday, when traffic is not so bad.
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5 thoughts on “Revisiting old India, and finding Dhaka in two 18th Century paintings

  1. Hi, I just happen to come across this. I am a Palmer that grew up in Narinda very much in the vicinity of the Wari cemetery where many of my Palmer family members are buried at.
    Just a wild guess here about the “water” you are looking for. the Buriganga may a little too far to the south, but try looking up “Dolai Khal” which I think today is covered up. I’ve been living in Toronto, canada for the last 25 years.

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