Saturday, June 21, 2008
A Portraitist of the Tamil Country
Sepoys of the Madras Establishment
(All images are from the original acquatints, published 1802 in London)
Charles Gold of the Madras Army
I pride myself on being good at deciphering Anglo-Indian spelling of people and place names current in the 18th Century. I could solve with ease such “encrypted” terms as Strepermador (Sri Perumbudur), Jumbokistna (Jambukeshwaram) and Tricolour (Thirukovilur). Why, I could even figure out colloquial speech corruptions in the Tamil language itself, such as Civiltoor (Srivilliputtur)!
But there was one term that laid me out cold for a long time – “A Satadevan and His Son”. This is the letterpress or title to an 18th Century print of an itinerant musician and his child, the artist being one Charles Gold. What kind of Devan could a Satadevan be? The figure in the picture is certainly human although with an other worldly look in its eyes. It is an arresting picture, if not at first glance then certainly on a second look.
A Satadevan & His Son
There is the itinerant musician, the “Satadevan”, tall and muscular, a stringed instrument in hand and a far away look in his eyes. He is sporting a broad Namam or Caste-mark. And skipping along at his heels is his chubby kid, happy as the day is long. Looking at the picture, one cannot help contrast the solemn, dignified bearing of the Satadevan with the happy-go-lucky exuberance of the boy – Slice of Life indeed! But then Gold certainly knew a thing or two about portraiture.
As a matter of fact, I have quite a few Charles Gold prints with me, another favourite being the “Cuisinegerra and Soldiers' Cook-boys”. A Cuisinegerra is, of course, the Malayalam “Kushinikaran” or Army cook. This Gold print is, to my mind, the best portrayal, by any artist, of the Camp-followers of the 18th Century Madras Army. By all accounts, such Camp-followers made up a splendid phalanx of their own that included cuisinegerras, barbers, water-carriers, camels and laden ox-carts not to mention beef on the hoof.
A Cuisinegerra & Soldiers' Cookboys
Our Cuisinegerra is an engaging fellow and very much his own man. Gold has given him a priceless gravitas, a demeanour that at once lifts him above the scene of the unseemly altercation - with more than a hint of fisticuffs to follow – taking place just to his rear. Indeed, it seems the Cuisinegerra knows that a lofty indifference to the utter banality of his context, the ducks strung up on a pole, the pots and pans and his piratical crew, is the only policy consistent with dignity!
Capt Charles Gold was an artillery officer in a detachment of the Royal Artillery which saw sevice with the Madras Army of the East India Company from 1791 to 1798. He had joined the Royal Artillery as a subaltern in 1776 and retired as a Colonel in 1825. He was not a professional artist but his book “Oriental Drawings”, consisting of 49 aquatint prints, was published in London in 1806. And Gold says in his book that he allowed “none to pass his quarter, without an invitation to walk in, which they always accepted and most readily permitted him to draw their portraits …. (Subscribers) may be assured, that the dresses are minutely attended to, and characters strictly preserved, ….”. Little else is known about Gold except that he saw action in Lord Cornwallis’s campaign against Tipu, fought around the turn of the 18th Century. This was his opportunity to march or ride through the Tamil Country and to produce his memorable drawings.
Women at Work
Indeed, Gold seems to have been the earliest, if not the original artist of the Tamil Country and his portrayals of Tamil people from all walks of life are unsurpassed for authenticity and for a certain empathy with his subjects. For example he shows us, in his studies of the Cuisinegerra and the Satadevan, that the poor are not without an essential dignity and poise. Similarly his soldiers of the Madras Army stand tall and proud, ebony complexions shining in the sun and contrasting with the red and blue uniforms. There are timeless scenes portrayed, such as country women pounding rice with a roly-poly baby at their side.
Officeers & Private of the Gun Lascar Corps, Madras Establishment
A Naigue of the Bombay Grenadier Battalion
One reason for the enduring appeal of his drawings is Gold’s ability to portray his subjects true to life and in the round, as it were. Not only are the characteristic features and gestures of his subjects executed faithfully but the drawings have movement, action and humour as well. This is all apparent in the squabble portrayed in the Cuisinegerra, the carefree gait of the Satadevan’s son and the native pelting a stone at the crocodile in the moat at Vellore Fort!
The Fort at Vellore
I have more than a few of the 49 prints published in “Oriental Drawings” and am looking to add more. There are some with titles redolent of the Tamil countryside, such as “Ramalingom Pandaree”, “A Peesash” and “A Pandarom” that I would love to get my hands on. Gold’s spelling may have left much to be desired but his heart and his eye were very much engrossed in the Tamil countryside.
Oh, I nearly forgot to explain the reconstruction of “Satadevan” as I finally deduced it. The answer was staring me in the face all the time but I twigged nothing until I rolled the word around in my mouth a few more times. The penny finally dropped when I was reading the histories of Tirumala and Sri Rangam temples, tomes replete with Vaishnavite terminology. Yes, Shatthadhavan it was – meaning a Shatthadha Vaishnavan or a Vaishnavite who does not sport a sacred thread. This, apparently, was common usage in those days when a man was identified more by his sectarian leanings than by his profession.
It is not difficult to conjecture what happened. One can imagine Gold asking his Tamil assistant or Dubash for a description of the Satadevan’s profession. The only response that the bored and unsympathetic Dubash thought up must have been “a Shatthadhavan”, a mere typecasting common enough in those times. Never mind the etymology, never mind the atrocious spelling and the mindless description. Charles Gold has imparted a timeless feel to the Satadevan. My favourite artist.