'He said Nana Fadnavis' face betrayed his feelings'

Updated: Feb 02, 2020, 10:47 IST | Jane Borges | Mumbai

A surgeon-historian tracks the life of Scottish painter and compulsive documenter James Wales in Mumbai and Pune, calling his work the most comprehensive on 18th century Indian history

Sawai Madhavrao, Peshwa of the Maratha Empire, with Nana Fadnavis and attendants, in Poona, 1792. Pic/Wiki-Commons
Sawai Madhavrao, Peshwa of the Maratha Empire, with Nana Fadnavis and attendants, in Poona, 1792. Pic/Wiki-Commons

Art is in the details. And if Pune-based historian Dr Uday S Kulkarni is to be believed, the only painter to have managed to capture the minutiae of everyday life, while memorialising the richness of the Marathas in the late 1700s was Scottish artist James Wales. Until then, there were the stray profile portraits of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj and Peshwa Baji Rao that would eventually make their way to the museums of the world. But, it's Wales's "glorious technicolour" painting of Sawai Madhavrao (also known as Madhav Rao II), Peshwa of the Maratha Empire in India, "with its surrounding props and characters that made his subject life-like". "It almost looked better than a photograph," says 63-year-old Kulkarni.

It's this uniqueness of Wales's artistry, which first piqued Kulkarni's curiosity. His previous works, Solstice at Panipat and The Era of Baji Rao, engaged with 18th century Indian history. His new historical biography, James Wales: Artist and Antiquarian in the time of Peshwa Sawai Madhavrao (Mula Mutha Publishers), is no different.

A View from Sion fort by Wales. Pic courtesy/Spl Rare Books
A View from Sion fort by Wales. Pic courtesy/Spl Rare Books

The book, several years in the making, is a first-of-its-kind attempt to explore the repertoire of Wales, who travelled from London to Bombay in 1791, in search of a job as an artist. A year later, he met Sir Charles Malet, 1st Baronet, a diplomat who served in the East India Company and a resident in the court of the Peshwa. It was through him that he'd arrive at the royal court. His paintings of Madhav Rao II, his minister Nana Fadnavis and Nur al-din Hussein Khan, the residency vakil, were undoubtedly stellar. But to see Wales through the lens of art, would be limiting his contribution to Maratha history. He was also a commentator and critique of culture, and an artist who documented almost "accurately and truthfully" what he saw and experienced around him.

Kulkarni, who is also a practising surgeon with over 30 years of experience, managed to get access to Wales works, after he reached out to the Yale Centre For British Art in Connecticut, US, in 2013. The digitised treasure trove, included over six folios, comprising original bound journals, letters, sketches by his assistants Gangaram and Robert Mabon—all from his time spent in India. "A year later, I happened to show an archaeological professor of Deccan College in Pune some of Wales's drawings of the caves [Ellora, Elephanta and Karla] in the region. He told me that these were the oldest available archaeological drawings available on any Indian cave. Until then, it was assumed that the earliest drawings were made by Colonel Colin Mackenzie, who drew pictures of the Amravati structures in Andhra Pradesh in 1796. Wales's paintings were dated 1792."

Pic/Nithin Mohan
Pic/Nithin Mohan

While the professor had suggested a paper on this subject, Kulkarni saw potential for something bigger. He enlisted the help of a friend to acquire copies of the remaining non-digitised folios from Yale, and acquired prints of the landscape paintings (many from Bombay) and completed portraits from other museums. He, however, began work on transcribing the notes only last year.

The book meticulously stitches these diary entries, jottings on the paintings and letters to recreate the life of the painter in India. "Wales jotted down everything from social customs [festivals and sati, for instance], hunting scenes, temple rituals to the weather patterns, and in great detail. He also writes about his impressions of the Peshwa when he meets them for the first time, how the palace looked, and how he is welcomed by the ruler. About Nana [Fadnavis], he says, that his face betrays his feelings, which is not a good trait for a Prime Minister to have. You won't hear these things being said about Nana Fadnavis elsewhere," says Kulkarni, who fans his passion for history and research, post work hours at his clinic.

Wales' stay in India was brief—he died four years after he had arrived on the country's shores. But Kulkarni says there is no painter like him. "He really gives you a composite picture of the life in the late 1790s."

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