The White Mughals of Delhi

William Dalrymple describes some of the "unclassifiable" art and society resulting from Anglo-Indian encounters in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. (8 min., 13 sec.)

NEW YORK, February 23, 2012 — Asia Society Museum opened its latest exhibition, Princes and Painters in Mughal Delhi, 1707-1857, with an engaging talk by scholar William Dalrymple, "The White Mughals of Delhi."

An award-winning historian of the Mughal period and co-curator of the exhibition with Yuthika Sharma, Dalrymple combined firsthand accounts by British patrons and their contemporaries with the portraits and illustrations that they funded to tell the story of Delhi from the time the British arrived in 1803 to the tragic uprising of 1857.  

Dalrymple discussed the evolving attitude of the British administrators, or “White Mughals” as he termed them, toward the Mughal culture by focusing on individuals among them whose approaches to governance seem to reflect those of their contemporaries. The first generation of British administrators in Delhi was profoundly affected by Mughal culture, marrying locals, embracing the lifestyle and, essentially, fusing cultures. Though Delhi was in ruins from constant looting in the late 18th century, this British support of Mughal culture revived the city.

William Fraser, a Scotsman from this first generation, arrived on the scene when this period of integration was ending. He fell in love with Mughal culture and became the patron for the Fraser Album, which includes exceptional psychological portraits imbued with an intimacy and depth for which there is no precedent in Indian art. Anglo-Indian James Skinner, whose father was British and whose mother was a Rajput princess, was a great friend of Fraser and also an important patron of Indian artists.

The 1830s marked the emergence of a new generation; by this time the British were openly flaunting their power, and the number of mixed households had declined. Dalrymple cited Charles Metcalfe’s approach to British governance in India to convey the general British attitude of the time. Metcalfe and his contemporaries took it upon themselves to diminish Mughal power and promote a narrowly British lifestyle, creating a period of rising tensions that ultimately led to the uprising of 1857. Delhi returned to ruins.

Dalrymple pointed out that despite the richness of the material in question, the period’s artworks have been largely neglected by scholars. He attributed this to the fact that the art was produced by the same group of artists working for different patrons, rendering it mostly unclassifiable — and thereby making Princes and Painters the first museum exhibition of its kind.

Reported by Renny Grinshpan