NEW DELHI, India - In the 18th and 19th centuries, artists with pencils, sketchbooks and adventurous spirits helped paint Britain's idea of India.
More than 1,000 examples of their work are on display at a New Delhi hotel that is, like the collection of engravings and etchings itself, a metaphor for the long, ambiguous relationship between former ruler and colony.
"We've collected the artwork which reflects India as it was 200 years ago," said Harvinder Sekhon, who has become an amateur art historian in the years he has managed the Hotel Imperial.
The private collection, one of the largest of its kind in India, shows the country "before it was colonized, before its perspective was changed. These European painters captured it the way it was," Mr. Sekhon said.
Among the painters who visited India beginning in the late 1700s - when Britain's East India Co. was just consolidating its hold on the region - were men more interested in making their fortune than in documenting history. They returned to England to publish what today would be called coffee-table books, full of exotic vistas to be tamed and "natives" to be "civilized."
But a visitor strolling the Imperial exhibit, which opened to the public in the hotel's high-ceiling ballroom Nov. 26, can also glimpse a richly colored portrait of a maharaja, his haughty self-confidence unspoiled by any thought of losing his realm. Or you can see landscapes that hint at a time before overpopulation and urbanization.
The exhibit is dominated by a mural-length battle scene - the faces of the wounded and dying contorted by anguished cries, smoke billowing from cannons, and the sober caption: "This plate of the last effort of Tippoo Sultan in defense of the portals of Seringapatam."
Like many in the Imperial's collection, it was made from a plate that was destroyed after one use.
William Hodges, one of the first professional British artists to visit India, is represented in prints so exact they could be sepia-toned photographs. Hodges, who died in 1797, came to India after sailing in the South Pacific as official artist for the English explorer Capt. James Cook.
Such work was a natural choice for designers decorating the hotel, an art deco confection from 1935 of gray marble and wrought iron.
Manager Sekhon said that the hotel became a meeting place for prominent Indians working to end British rule. In his office, he keeps a photograph dating from the 1940s of Jawaharlal Nehru, soon to be independent India's first prime minister, slouching on the arm of a chair on the hotel veranda during a political conference.
"They were creating a very dynamic country," Mr. Sekhon said, eyeing the fading photo with reverence, much as he regards the prints from the age of empire.
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