The Maker of Bangles


Art historian Pramod Chandra describes this scene:
A lady, who has taken her seat opposite the craftsmen, is trying on bangles. The various tools of the trade are laid out before the man, including a fire used to shape lacquer. In the foreground is an aged duenna, the lady’s escort, and a woman nursing a child, apparently the bangle maker’s wife. In the background is a tiled cottage and a creeper wound on a bamboo scaffolding. The miniature is still close to the traditional style, but the rather cool colors represent an adjustment to British taste.

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This Indian miniature painting was a gift from Earnest C. Watson and Jane Werner Watson to the Chazen Museum. Jane Watson and her husband, who was working at the time as a science attaché to the United States Embassy, purchased this work during their stay in New Delhi, India (1960-1962). The prior owners of this painting are unknown. (Provenance notes, Chazen Museum)
October 29, 1971 – January 2, 1972: Indian Miniature Painting from the Collection of Earnest C. and Jane Werner Watson, Chazen Museum (known as Elvehjem Art Center during the exhibition), Madison, WI, USA no. 73.
During the time this image was created, Britain established a centralized government in India. Because it is unknown who the artist was and where he was located during the execution of the work, it is unclear what types of cultural interactions may have occurred between the artist and his patron. Mildred Archer states that Company paintings were made for and marketed to European patrons that were employed by the East India Company (Archer 1-19). However, sultans and princes under British rule may also have been patrons of Company-style paintings, as many Indian princes and rajahs in the late eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries were patrons and collectors of European art (Sutton 15-17). This trans-cultural contact through the exchange of art had an early precedent in the reigns of the Mughal rulers. One of the earliest recorded accounts occurred in 1580, when Akbar (r. 1556-1605) invited Portuguese Jesuits living in Goa to stay at his palace in Delhi. The exchange of engravings, manuscripts, and books led to the production of a panoply of Christian images that adorned Akbar’s court (Bailey 24-5).
This image utilizes a hybrid, Indo-European style that draws its subject matter—a bangle maker—from the classificatory projects of both the British government and the caste system. Similar to the subject of A Painter at Work, both craftsmen wear a short loincloth, a band on their right arm, and a turban on their heads. The only difference is that the bangle maker’s left shoulder is not covered with a shawl, consequently demonstrating his low status in the caste hierarchy. This hybrid style is also apparent in the stylization of the women’s dresses, which is similar to that seen in traditional Mughal and Indian paintings such as Raja Jagat Prakash.
The type of the "bangle maker" as reproduced in Company style images reflects the visual classification that came to dominate interactions in India during the Romantic and Victorian periods. Developing scientific theories such as social Darwinism, phrenology, physiognomy, and anthropology augmented the need to hierarchically classify human beings. (Ryan 156-71). In addition to the racial typing that occurred throughout the nineteenth century, the classification of types by profession appears to stem from the social segregation prominent in the caste system. Rather than determining or identifying social status by means of specific bodily features, the caste system distinguishes status according to the professional class one inherits at birth: Brahmins are priests or teachers, Kshatriyas are rulers, Vaishyas are farmers, and Shudras are artisans (Mitter 41). These distinctions were made visible in the types of clothing, especially the types of headdress, which Indians wore.

The caste system, Bayly articulates, was a fluid system that enabled migration into different social spheres through land ownership, marriage, and political conquest. With colonization, however, the caste system was made static through the implementation of “Hindoo Law” and the subsequent categorizing of people in courts and ethnographic surveys. Fixing the caste system served as a way for the British colonizers to regulate and govern a foreign land (Bayly 138).

After the Indian rebellion in 1857 and the introduction of photography into India, an anthropological photographic work, The People of India, was undertaken by the India Office. This album, edited by John William Kaye and J. Forbes Watson, contains 468 photographs of Indian types. These groups of people were categorized by tribe, facial and body features, costume, and, most importantly, what kind of threat they posed to the government as deduced from their role in the Mutiny of 1857 (Ryan 155).

We see then that, after 1857, the Company shifted its focus from classifying Indian bodies in order to regulate trade and commerce to racially typing groups as a way to minimize threats to imperial rule. Company style paintings that depicted artisans did not simply record facial types as did later colonial photographic projects; instead, these initial depictions based their typing on the categories of the caste system.
Archer, Mildred. Company Paintings: Indian Paintings of the British Period. London: Victoria and Albert Museum in association with Mapin Publishing, 1992. Print.

Bailey, Alexander Gauvin. “The Indian Conquest of Catholic Art.” Art Journal 57.1 (1998): 24-30. Print.

Bayly, C. A. Indian Society and the Making of the British Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990. Print.

Chandra, Moti. The Technique of Mughal Painting. Lucknow: U. P. Historical Society, 1949. Print.

Chandra, Pramod. Indian Miniature Painting; the Collection of Earnest C. and Jane Werner Watson. Madison: Elvehjem Art Center, University of Wisconsin; distributed by U of Wisconsin P, 1971. Print.

Mitter, Partha. Indian Art. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001. Print.

Ryan, James R. Picturing Empire: Photography and the Visualization of the British Empire. London: Reaktion Books, 1997. Print.

Sutton, Thomas. The Daniells; Artists and Travellers. London: Bodley Head, 1954. Print.

Tarlo, Emma. Clothing Matters: Dress and Identity in India. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996. Print.

Vajrācārya, Gautamavajra. Watson Collection of Indian Miniatures at the Elvehjem Museum of Art: A Detailed Study of Selected Works. Madison: Elvehjem Museum of Art, 2002. Print.
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