Fine Art exhibitions in British India

Dr Renate Dohmen, Open University (Photo: R Raza)
Dr Renate Dohmen, Open University (Photo: R Raza)

Did any of your family members or friends make sketches, or take photographs, in British India? If so, BACSA member and art historian Dr. Renate Dohmen from the Open University wants to hear from you! She is looking for information about amateur artists who participated in one of the many annual fine art exhibitions during the Raj held all over the subcontinent from 1866.

The most prestigious of these exhibitions was held in Simla. Other venues were Bombay, Madras, Poona, Calcutta, Ooty, Nainital and Darjeeling. The exhibitions were organized by volunteer members of local fine art associations, many of them army officers, but also civil servants. Among participants were British amateurs of both sexes, as well as photographers, some professional artists from Europe and a sprinkling of Indian artists. Exhibition openings were society events. The Viceroy opened the Simla and Calcutta exhibitions, and Governors of Madras and Bombay the ones in their presidencies. Exhibitions in Simla showed between 400 to 700 images on average.

Given the sheer scale of the phenomenon, it is surprising that this history has not been documented and how little information has been preserved in archives. Dr. Dohmen would like to write the history of these exhibitions, and the social practice of amateur sketching which gave rise to them. She would like to hear from anyone who knows about relatives or family friends who sketched or took photographs in British India. In particular, she is looking for images which may still be held in families, and information about the sketchers’ lives and their training and interest in the arts. Please email Dr Renate Dohmen at: if you have any information in this area.