Jiwan Ram: Portrait of a Popular Portrait Artist: The Tribune India
None of Jiwan Ram’s portraits date from before the 1820s and his earlier career can only be guessed, but as an Indian artist he surely would have been aware of the painting revolution in Delhi brought on by patronage. brothers Fraser and James Skinner. The traditional rigid and hieratic portraits of princes and nobility had been transformed into more naturalistic renderings of the human figure… – JP Losty
… The Emperor (Akbar II) asked him (the painter) to remove the large stain under his nose. “May it please Your Majesty,” said the painter, “it is impossible to draw a person without a shadow; and I hope that several millions will continue to rest under that of Your Majesty. “True Rajah,” said His Majesty, “men must have shadows; but it is surely not necessary to put them immediately under their nose! The ladies will not allow mine to be put there; they say I feel like I have used tobacco my whole life; and it certainly looks very dirty, besides, it’s all wrong, like I told you when you started! The rajah was obliged to make the shadow disappear under the imperial nose and certainly very noble …
—William Sleeman in his
“Rambles and memories”; 1834
For many years, the only thing I knew about the painter – whom I write about now – was an obscure reference to him by Emily Eden, Lord Auckland’s gifted sister who accompanied him on his travels to the Punjab. She, herself a painter, spoke in her account of a “native painter”, “Jiun Ram”, whose work she loved, being “the best” among the portraits made during the meeting between Lord Bentinck and the Maharaja of the Punjab in Ropar in 1831. Nothing more than that: no details on his origin, no precise date, no signed work on his part. Even now, virtually everything I know of him is due to the writings of Jerry Losty – indefatigable curator and scholar of Indian visual materials at the British Library, who sadly passed away recently – which shed light on Jiwan Ram’s distinguished work in a long article, just as he had done on another talented but virtually unknown painter, Sita Ram, earlier.
There was a time in the second quarter of the 19th century when Jiwan Ram’s name acquired considerable currency. This, not because he was a great painter of miniatures in the Indian style, mainly late Mughal – he knew the genre, of course, and had worked in it for some time – but because he had learned to paint from oil, in European fashion. , and turned his gifted hand towards portrait painting, mainly of non-commissioned officers then serving in the East India Company. There were others who patronized him, as we know: the Mughal emperor, Akbar II (reigned 1806-1837), among the last of a great line – whose exchange with the painter on the shadow under his nose in the portrait I quoted above – from which he had received the title of ‘Raja’, for one; the formidable Begum Samru of Sardhana, for another. But it was especially the officers of the East India Company who seem to have turned to Jiwan Ram to have their portraits painted. The names read like on a roll call: lieutenants, captains and colonels painted in their dazzling uniforms – Robert McMullin, William Garden, Robert Smith, Edmund Cartwright, Sir Thomas McMahon. There were also European painters active at that time in India – George Chinnery, for example, Robert Home, William Melville, George Beechey, Charles D’Oyly – but Jiwan Ram seems to have been the favorite artist of many. We see it sometimes in Delhi, sometimes in Patna; Meerut was a place he much preferred, but it was not long before he moved to Sardhana or Agra when patronage signaled him. Slowly, after having learned the technique of oil painting, Jiwan Ram develops a style that can be recognized almost by sight: dark background, silhouette up to the waist, face seen up close. Describing his signed 1827 portrait of Captain McMullin, in the context of a church in Meerut, Losty speaks of Jiwan Ram having portrayed “a dashing Irishman, his left hand holding the hilt of his sword and the right the brim of his hat, eyes fixed on something to the left of the viewer. ”From time to time, an air of condescending superiority creeps into a contemporary English description of Jiwan Ram’s work – consider, for example, the note by Captain Mundy, who was Lord Combermere’s ADC, on a portrait of Begum Samru which had been sent as a gift from Begum to the master of Mundy: “The painting, a work of a native artist who resides in Meerut, and has made respectable progress in the art, was a very good resemblance; and my fingers were still itching to turn his hookah-snake into a broom… ”- but it goes without saying that Jiwan Ram’s work was held in high esteem This esteem, one might add , continues to persist: why if not, today, the British Library or the Regents of the University of Oxford would announce with great satisfaction having succeeded in adding works by Raja Jiwan Ram to their collections?
There are certainly gaps in our information on Jiwan Ram. For example, where did he come from? Delhi? Meerut? When was he born and until when was he active? Who did he train with in oil painting? Has he always remained a freelance artist or has he had a steady job with someone, even for a few years? While we are looking for answers, there is at least one little riddle that I think I can solve. Losty said at one point that from an Urdu inscription on one of his paintings, “we learn that Jivan Ram was the son of a Bafalji and resided in Delhi, but it is badly written with many points omitted so that his father’s name is provisional. He was first read as Tulchi… “To me, his father’s name, as stated in this inscription, clearly reads” La’alji “, and neither like “Bafalji”, nor “Tulchi”.