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Visual narratives of the Revolt of 1857.


The Revolt of 1857 will always be remembered as a movement of violent opposition to British authority in India. Its contemporary and near contemporary visual narratives are of considerable importance in increasing our understanding of the occurrences of this historic year. These narratives realistically unfold the significant passages in the Revolt and are in conformity with British written records as they illustrate the works of Colin Campbell (1) and Charles Ball. (2) The illustrations offer visual documentation of the major events and a living record of the times. Further, the works are deeply characterized by naturalism; and their style, being closely related with the High Renaissance art of Europe, lays emphasis on the rendering of physical reality. Accuracy in the depiction of forms and finer details appears to be the hallmark of mid-19th-century British painters. The realism achieved in their work is evident in these visuals which powerfully depict the vigour and strength with which the Indians resisted British power.

Based on drawings executed by the artists, reproductions or prints were prepared from engravings. The use of engravings to make multiple prints had been common in England since the 16th century. The type of the engravings under study is intaglio with soft-ground etching. The effect is like that of a pencil or chalk drawing and in it the ground is mixed with colour, as a result of which the tonal variations as seen in a drawing are successfully achieved in the engraving. The number of illustrations is fairly large, and most of them do not bear the name of the artist or the engraver. Rarely the names of the artists--George Beechey, S. Prout, and W. Purser--and the engravers--C. Mottram and W. Brandard--do appear.

The illustrations depict human figures with great accuracy in the rendering of physical features as well as emotions. In general, the figures are characteristic and appear as individuals; thus the central theme of the picture is better expressed. A sepoy, or a British guard, or an officer is invariably recognizable both by dress and by complexion. The human and animal figures are highly modelled and the whole picture is finished in a continuous range of smoky tones using the device of sfumato. Further, the use of chiaroscuro and scientific perspective to achieve a naturalistic effect of light and shade adds to the artistic merit of these illustrations. Over and above this, the whole drama of the event filled with action and charged with emotions leaves us spellbound, driving us willingly into the past. However, these are not merely entertaining but are of unique documentary value. A few examples are examined here to assess the nature of their contents and the extent of their accuracy.

Much before the outbreak of the 1857 Revolt, the mysterious circulation of chapattis took place (figure 2). In this characteristic representation of the subject in a rural landscape, the expressive figure of the village man receiving the chapattis in his right hand is remarkably realistic. The background of the small mud hut with thatched roof by the side of a shady tree and a banana plant, the charpoy, and the small dog truly picturize the Indian village scene of the mid-19th century.

Though the event of circulation of chapattis was considered a harmless affair, it evoked interest:
 It was reported to the authorities, that the
 chowkeydars, or village policemen, were
 speeding from Cawnpore through the villages
 and towns of the peninsula, distributing on
 their way a symbol, of the origin of which no
 European could at the time form an intelligible
 idea, or conjecture the purpose.... One of the
 chowkeydars of Cawnpore ran to another in
 Futteghur, the next village, and placing in his
 hands two chupatties, directed him to make
 ten more of the same kind, and give two of
 them to each of the five nearest chowkeydars,
 with instructions to perform the same service.
 He was obeyed; and in a few hours the whole
 country was in a state of excitement, through
 these policemen running from village to
 village with their cakes. The wave spread over
 the provinces with a velocity of speed never
 yet equalled by the bearers of government
 dispatches. (3)

The next illustration included here depicts the killing of Colonel Finnis on the parade ground at Meerut on May 10, 1857 (figure 1). With the outbreak of the Revolt by sepoys at the cantonment at Meerut on May 9, the event of the following day is described thus:
 It was about 5 o' clock--church time--when,
 at a given signal, the 3rd Light Cavalry, and the
 20th Native Infantry, rushed out of their lines,
 armed and furious.... They found Colonel
 Finnis haranguing his men, and endeavouring
 to keep them firm to their colours. The men
 were wavering when the 20th N.I. arrived.
 The men of this regiment, whose hands were
 already red with the blood of several of their
 own officers, seeing this hesitation and its
 cause, at once fired at Colonel Finnis. The first
 shot took effect on his horse only, but almost
 immediately afterwards he was shot from
 behind, and fell riddled with balls. (4)

The illustration shows Colonel Finnis shot in the back and falling helplessly from his horse. The sepoys of the 20th N.I. arrived on the scene while Colonel Finnis was addressing the men of 11th Regiment (shown in the background against the barracks) in an attempt to induce them to return to their duty. The sepoys carry a variety of weapons--guns, daggers, and swords. They wear uniforms with either trousers or dhotis. Their headgear also varies from a high oblong cap with flat top to a tightly fitted cap and a ringed turban. Such variation in dress most likely hints at each sepoy's affiliation with his "native place".

The rebels crossed Hindon bridge and reached Delhi on May 11. On their way to Kashmiri Gate they charged against the officers of the 54th N.I. on the move to crush them. The sepoys of the 54th N.I. who had sympathy with the rebels changed sides, and the latter made a sudden charge and shot down the officers of Infantry. The event is described as follows:
 Worse still, on the approach of the cavalry, the
 sepoys of the 54th rushed suddenly to a side
 of the road, leaving their officers in the middle
 of it, upon whom the troopers immediately
 came at a gallop, and, one after the other,
 shot them down. The Colonel shot two of
 them before he fell; but with this exception,
 and one said to have been shot by Mr. Fraser,
 none fell. After butchering the officers, the
 troopers dismounted, and went among the
 sepoys of the 54th, shaking hands with them:
 the fraternisation was completed. (5)


The whole scene surcharged with action shows troopers firing at British officers. Some officers lie dead on the ground and some are shown offering resistance (figure 3). The print of the engraving in black and white clearly depicts the Britishers as fair-complexioned and thus they become recognizable in the crowd of sepoys. The background building, though, remains unidentified. Its Western-style architecture suggests that the event takes place on the road near the British headquarters in Delhi.

Murderous attacks on Britishers followed after the outbreak of the Revolt, and such occurrences at Delhi on May 11 are thus narrated:
 Tortures the most refined, outrages the most
 vile, were perpetrated upon men, women and
 children. Wives were stripped before their
 husbands' eyes, flogged naked through the
 city, violated there in the public street, and
 then murdered.... A man who witnessed the
 last massacre, where he had gone as spy, gives
 a horrid account of it, stating that the little
 children were thrown up in the air and caught
 on the bayonets, or cut as they were falling
 with talwars.

 ... An officer and his wife were tied to
 trees, their children tortured to death before
 them ... then both were burnt to death. (6)


The illustration shows the mutineers torching a British officer's bungalow, attacking the women and children with swords and muskets. The depiction of a British officer tied to a tree, and the women and children being tortured, with a child shown tossed in the air and falling on the points of bayonets, express the horror of the massacre that followed the Revolt at Delhi, Kanpur, Peshawar, and other places (figure 4).

The sepoys of the 54th N.I. at Murdan, Peshawar, who openly joined the rebels were crushed on May 13. They were killed or captured, only to be tried and summarily executed:
 The forty mutineers were in one side of the
 square with irons on. The General came on
 parade, and was received with a salute of
 sixteen guns from the horse artillery. He then
 rode round the square and ordered the sentence
 to be read. The first ten of the prisoners were
 then lashed to the guns, the artillery officer
 waved his sword, you heard the roar of the
 guns, and above the smoke you saw legs, arms,
 and heads, flying in all directions. There were
 four of these salvoes, and at each a sort of buzz
 went through the whole mess of the troops, a
 sort of murmur of horror. (7)

Similar details of this terrible event appeared in Blackwood's Magazine (November 1857):
 It was an awfully imposing scene. All the
 troops, European and native, armed and
 disarmed, loyal and disaffected, were drawn up
 on parade, forming three sides of a square; and
 drawn up very carefully, you may be sure, so
 that any attempt on the part of the disaffected
 to rescue the doomed prisoners would have
 been easily checked. Forming the fourth
 side of the square, were drawn up the guns
 (9-pounders), ten in number, which were to
 be used for the execution. The prisoners, under
 a strong European guard, were then marched
 into the square, their crimes and sentences
 read aloud to them, and at the head of each
 regiment; they were then marched round the
 square, and up to the guns; the first ten were
 picked out, their eyes were bandaged, and they
 were bound to the guns--their backs leaning
 against the muzzles, and their arms fastened
 to the wheels. The port-fires were lighted, and
 at a signal from the artillery-major, the guns
 were fired. It was a horrid sight that then met
 the eye; a regular shower of human fragments
 of the heads, of arms and legs, appeared in
 the air through the smoke; and when that
 cleared away, these fragments lying on the
 ground--fragments of Hindoos and fragments
 of Mussulmans, all mixed together--were all
 that remained of those ten mutineers. (8)

The visual narration of the event in conformity with these details exhibits troops on the two sides of the square, the rebels brought in chains and tied against the muzzles of the cannons, and the guards ready to fire the guns at the command of the artillery-major (figure 5). Another illustration of this event is an elaborate continuous narration of the theme. It shows rebels being brought in chains for their execution, a rebel tied to the muzzle of the cannon, and another already blown to pieces (figure 6). Both these illustrations, though differently composed and independent works of individual artists, carry the same message emphatically.



Accuracy in the rendering of the buildings, forts, bridges, etc. in the context of an event, is faithfully observed. One such illustration depicting the Salimgarh fortress during the storming and capture of Delhi by the British in September 1857, is an excellent example (figure 7). A description of the event follows:
 Through the night and the following day, the
 18th, the fire upon the palace and Selimghur
 was maintained, and the fortress in return
 fired only a few shots, which did no harm....
 Selimghur was silent, and parties of men,
 armed and disarmed, were observed crossing
 from it to go to the other side of the Jumna
 by the bridge of boats. The palace was said
 to be deserted by its inmates, and the whole
 of the rest of the city to be in process of
 evacuation. (9)


It may be compared with another picture executed by a Delhi artist Mazhar All Khan before the outbreak of the Revolt (figure 8). (10) The latter depicts the citadel Salimgarh (founded by Salim (Sher) Shah Sur during his reign 1545-54) connected with the other side of the river (where Shah Jahan later built the Red Fort) by the bridge built by Jahangir. (The bridge has now totally disappeared and, as the course of the river Yamuna has shifted, today a road separates the fortresses.) Here the rubble masonry wall of Salimgarh with massive bastions, and the bridge built in dressed red sandstone, are represented intact and in good condition. However, in our figure 7, the damage caused to these structures during the siege of Delhi (notice here the damaged bridge and the walls of Salimgarh fortress) is clearly reported by the British artist. The remaining architectural details are almost identical in both the examples though the angle of the view is different. Such drawings of buildings seem to have been based on photographs, and are flawless. Artists often used the camera obscura (a box with a lens which reflected an image of the landscape onto a sheet of paper) to trace architectural details, and also capture various views and angles of the subject matter. All this lent their work historical authenticity.

In context of the theme, figure 7 further exhibits fleeing sepoys, armed and disarmed, crossing the bridge and approaching the other side of the Yamuna in boats (the event of September 18), and the British flag flying from a bastion of the Salimgarh fortress after they regained control.

To sum up, these 19th-century illustrations of the Revolt of 1857 are historic records of events and leave a deep impression on our minds. This neglected contemporary source needs to be interpreted in the light of the writings on the Revolt.

The uprising of 1857, considered as India's first struggle for freedom, is an important event in Indian history. It started with the violent outbreak of the sepoys at Meerut on May 10, and attained the character of a major revolt as a result of a popular rising against alien rule. (11) The revolt failed, but it advanced a sense of unity among the people of India. Let us remember the following contemporary elegy Gayi yakbayah jo hawa palat ... (Urdu) as a compliment to the martyrs of 1857:
 In a moment the wind turned, and I have
 lost all calm
 How can I even speak of this injustice, for
 grief has broken my heart!
 The people of India have been ruined: what
 cruelties have they suffered!
 Whomsoever the rulers saw, they put on the
 And yet they go on harbouring hatred for
 the believers.
 Unburied under meadows, nor given a
 Nor gaining their country, the dead lie in
 unmarked graves
 Such is the misery of all. So strange is God's
 Spring has turned into autumn here; there
 autumn has turned into spring.
 Those who day and night were weighed in
 how are they to bear this thorn of grief,
 when they
 receive in prison their chains--is this to be
 their new garland?
 Delhi was not a city, it was a garden. What
 peace there was here!
 But the repute it had has been destroyed; it
 is now only a ruined spot.
 Everywhere there is deep mourning. Such is
 the dictate of fate.
 Neither crown, nor throne, nor king, nor
 country none are left.
 The head rests heavy on my shoulders. I no
 longer fear death.
 My grief will go only when I breathe my
 last; till then life is sheer burden.

--Bahadur Shah Zafar,
after his trial and imprisonment (12)




(1) [Colin Campbell,] Narrative of the Indian Revolt from its Outbreak to the Capture of Lucknow by Sir Colin Campbell, London, 1858. Illustrated with 312 prints from engravings based on British artists' authentic drawings and photographs.

This volume is occasionally wrongly ascribed to Sir Colin Campbell, because of the ambiguous wording of the title page. It was issued in "penny numbers", and then made available, bound, in 1858.

(2) Charles Ball, The History of the Indian Mutiny Giving a Detailed Account of the Sepoy Insurrection in India and a Concise History of the Great Military Events Which have Tended to Consolidate British Empire in Hindustan, London, no date. Illustrated with 83 drawings by British artists.

(3) Ibid., Vol. I, p. 39. See also Surendra Nath Sen, Eighteen Fifty-Seven, New Delhi, 1957, pp. 398-400.

(4) Campbell, p. 14. See also, Ball, Vol. I, p. 57 and pl. facing p. 57, where Colonel Finnis is shown surrounded by angry sepoys. See also Sen, p. 61 ("It appears that when the sowars of the 3rd Cavalry had gone to the old jail, the 20th N.I. moved out to their parade grounds and so did their neighbours, the 11th N.I. Their commander, Colonel Finnis, had hurried to the spot and his efforts to restore order met at first with some amount of success.... From that moment chaos and disorder reigned supreme. A young recruit fired at Colonel Finnis and killed him").

(5) Ibid., p. 20. See also Sen, pp. 70-71.

(6) Ibid., pp. 20-21. See also Sen, pp. 72-3 ("The city had in the meantime been denuded of its Christian population, Indian and European. The Daryaganj area, then largely inhabited by Europeans and Anglo-Indians was thoroughly scoured and every Christian was put to the sword").

(7) Ibid., p. 36.

(8) Cf. Ball, pp. 412-13.

(9) Campbell, p. 161. See also Sen, p. 108 ("On the 16th the magazine was captured. From the 17th to the 19th Selimgarh was bombarded and the English position was steadily extended"). For another almost identical version of Salimgarh fortress, see 1857, A Pictorial Representation, Publications Division, Government of India, 2nd Reprint, New Delhi, 2000, plate on page 12 (from an engraving by John Luard).

(10) See M.M. Kaye, The Golden Calm, An English Lady's Life in Moghul Delhi, New York, 1980, col. pl. on p. 33. Also see Ebba Koch, "The Delhi of the Mughals Prior to Shahjahanabad as Reflected in the Patterns of Imperial Visits", in A.J. Qaisar and S.P. Verma, eds., Art and Culture, Felicitation Volume in Honour of Professor S. Nurul Hasan, Jaipur, 1993, pp. 11-12, pl. I; Ebba Koch, Mughal Art and Imperial Ideology, Collected Essays, New Delhi, 2001, p, 172, fig. 6.2 ("Salimgarh is a small fortress of a segmental polygonal outline enclosed by rubble masonry walls with several bastions, situated opposite the north-eastern corner of Shah Jahan's palace fortress, the Red Fort. Today both fortresses are separated by the road which takes the place of a diversion of the river Jamuna, which in Mughal times flowed between them.... In 1621-22 Jahangir also built a bridge between the south-western part of Salimgarh and the raised ground on the opposite bank of the Jamuna which was later to be occupied by Shah Jahan's Red Fort").

(11) Sen, p. 411, where he writes: "The mutiny became a revolt and assumed a political character when the mutineers of Meerut placed themselves under the King of Delhi and a section of the landed aristocracy and civil population declared in his favour. What began as a fight for religion, ended as a war of independence for there is not the slightest doubt that the rebels wanted to get rid of the alien government and restore the old order of which the King of Delhi was the rightful representative."

(12) Cf. Historic Delhi (Documents), Souvenir, Indian History Congress, 52nd Session, Delhi, 1992, pp. 47-48. Translated into English in 1992. Courtesy: Centre of Advanced Study, Department of History, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh.
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Author:Verma, Som Prakash
Publication:Marg, A Magazine of the Arts
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Sep 1, 2007
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