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    Colonial Influence on Indian Art

    Map Academy

    Articles are written collaboratively by the EIA editors. More information on our team, their individual bios, and our approach to writing can be found on our About pages. We also welcome feedback and all articles include a bibliography (see below).

    The impact of European colonial presence on the production and consumption of visual art in the Indian subcontinent between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries has varied with the size and intention of the power in question. 

    From the sixteenth century onward, Portuguese colonies, most significantly Goa, saw a distinctly religious form of intervention and cultural mixing between the coloniser and colonised, in the architecture, food and music of the region. Churches in Portuguese-administered Goa, Diu and Daman show heavy Rococo and Baroque influences, as in the murals and the gilded, ornately carved interiors of the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Goa and the Chapel of Our Lady of the Rosary in Daman. This influence was likely a result of the growing strength of these styles in seventeenth-century Europe as a result of the sponsorship of the Catholic Church, which extended to colonies under Catholic powers. The Indian artisans who built and decorated these churches added elements from their training in non-Christian art as well as representations of local communities in figural imagery. Apart from church art, Goan homes became larger, with a more expansive and decorated exterior after colonisation, and have since been seen as a characteristic feature of the state.

    French towns in India, particularly Pondicherry (now Puducherry) in Tamil Nadu and Chandernagore (now Chandannagar) in West Bengal, were divided into a French and an Indian section, with the former having the more distinctly urban French architecture and modest Rococo churches. The style was relatively understated compared to that of most major British and Portuguese projects, as these French territories were essentially trading posts. As Dutch presence in India was also limited to a handful of trading towns, their architectural activities were minor, and largely concentrated in Cochin (now Kochi), in Kerala, which they controlled from 1663 to 1814. Danish India, consisting of Serampore in West Bengal and Tranquebar (now Tharangambadi), in Tamil Nadu, reportedly had some notable buildings before the outposts were abandoned by the early nineteenth century. Up until the early to mid eighteenth century, while the future of colonial control over India was still uncertain, high-ranking colonial officers aspirationally commissioned grand homes and administrative buildings as a means of staking a claim to the region. A few decades later however, occupation by rival colonial forces and shifting trade interests led to the eventual destruction or dilapidation of much of the architecture in the Dutch, French and Danish territories, and to some extent also the secular structures in Old Goa.

    British architects operating in India during the colonial period introduced a style commonly — although erroneously — labelled Indo-Saracenic architecture, which combined the Indian Islamic and Neoclassical Victorian styles to create large, imposing, and in some cases elaborately ornamented administrative and political buildings, particularly in major cities where British power was concentrated, such as Bombay, Calcutta, Madras and later New Delhi. These cities also saw infrastructural projects that would not only reshape their economics and politics, but also continued to expand under Indian rule to the present day, particularly in the cases of land reclamation in Bombay and the construction of Lutyens’ Delhi. Colonial rule invariably exposed Indian architects to Western architectural movements and histories in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, leading to the emergence of unique homegrown region-specific styles, such as the Gothic-Islamic Mahabat Maqbara complex in Junagadh, Gujarat and Bombay’s Art Deco buildings. Palace architecture in Princely States under British rule saw a turn towards opulence and luxury rather than fortification, and often even incorporated Victorian or European influences.

    One of the most prominent colonial-era artistic traditions is Company Painting, which dates to between the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These paintings were commissioned largely by independent patrons associated with the British East India Company and other foreign institutions conducting natural, scientific and historical research in India. Colonial officers, soldiers, merchants and travelling scholars living in other European outposts in India — such as territories controlled by the French and Dutch East India Companies — were also frequent patrons of local artists, often commissioning portraits of themselves in marketplaces or against natural backdrops as mementos of their time in India. A number of commissions were also motivated by the growing market for orientalist imagery that depicted the everyday life of India or picturesque scenes reminiscent of the landscape paintings of Thomas and William Daniell. Company painters were commissioned from centres of colonial rule, like Calcutta, Lucknow, Madras, and Patna, as well as existing centres of traditional court painting such as Tanjore and Delhi. Most of the paintings were rendered in watercolours in a highly naturalistic style, although this was largely dictated by the intended purpose of the image and varied with the artist, region and court traditions that the painters were trained in.

    Company Paintings were replaced by photography to a large extent following the latter’s introduction to the subcontinent. The camera was also used by ethnographers primarily to document the lives and cultures of indigenous communities, and later, for anthropometric and racial analyses. The iconographic markers of such photographs — callipers and yardsticks aligned with human heads, frontal shots of lined-up figures and other compositional elements of anthropometric study — were appropriated by later Indian artists such as Pushpamala N to highlight the weaponisation of photography and the apathetic scientific processes of colonial agents.

    Photography was initially an extremely expensive and technically difficult practice, limited to officials acting under the British Crown and other institutions or individuals with wealth and leisure time. Photographs were developed and printed in the main centres of Madras and Calcutta, particularly at the Madras School of Art and the School of Industrial Art, after which they were compiled into books to be sold in Britain or, in the case of portraits, retained by the subjects of the photographs themselves. The introduction of photographic film in the late 1880s made photography accessible for the first time, allowing smaller studios to be set up across the country and middle class families to commission portraits. 

    At the institutional level, British rule laid the foundations for how Indian society engaged with the arts. Organisations like the Asiatic Society and the Archaeological Survey of India played a major role in creating the frameworks through which the history of art in the subcontinent was written about and taught. Museums have been at the centre of this engagement: collections at the earliest museums in India such as the Prince of Wales Museum (now Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya) and the Indian Museum comprised archaeological artefacts excavated and categorised by colonial officers and Britain-educated Indian scholars working with them. The narrative of Indian art history — its segmentation and evaluation along religious lines, the application of Victorian ethical models of interpretation and the attempts at drawing parallels with European art — was constructed through the curation of these objects in public museums both in India and the West.

    Colonial presence also shaped much of early Modernist art in India, extending its influence even after Independence. The lenses through which pre-modern Indian art has since been viewed were the direct result of scholarship supported and disseminated by the Company, and later, the British Crown. The economic, social and pedagogical structures introduced by colonisation and Eurocentric globalisation form the foundation of contemporary Indian art. Various movements developed in response to colonial rule and the application of Western value systems to Indian artistic traditions, notable examples of which include the revivalist Bengal School and the Contextual Modernism movement at Kala Bhavana, Shantiniketan. Decolonisation would continue to be a prominent area of thought in Indian Modernism, leading artists to further inquire against the hierarchies and inequalities in Indian society that were retained from colonial rule.


    Anand, Mulk Raj. “In Praise of Christian Art in Goa”. Marg vol 32, no. 4 (1979): 2–24.

    Anand, Mulk Raj. “The Place of Christian Art in India”. Marg vol 8, no. 1 (1954): 2–12.

    “Company Painting in Nineteenth-Century India”. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accessed November 24, 2022. 

    Desai, Madhavi, Miki Desai and Jon Lang. The Bungalow In Twentieth-Century India. New York: Routledge, 2017.

    Ghosh, Paramita. “The French lieutenants’ paintings.” Hindustan Times. November 29, 2019.

    Gordon, Sophie. “The Colonial Project and the Shifting Gaze.” Marg vol 59, no. 4 (2008): 40–53

    Guha-Thakurta, Tapati. Monuments, Objects, Histories: Institutions of Art in Colonial and Postcolonial India. Columbia University Press, 2004.

    Mitter, Partha. “The Bengali Artist Who Popularised the ‘Wet Sari Effect’ and Invented a New Genre of Figure Painting.” Scroll, 2019. Accessed November 24, 2022. 

    Noltie, H.J. “Moochies, Gudigars and Other Chitrakars: Their Contribution to 19th-Century Botanical Art and Science”. Marg vol 70, no. 2 (2018): 34-43

    Sen, Siddhartha. “Between Dominance, Dependence, Negotiation, and Compromise: European Architecture and Urban Planning Practices in Colonial India.” Journal of Planning History vol 9, no. 4 (2010): 203–231.


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