Alexei Saltykov

Uncoloured by colonial prejudices

Print edition : June 14, 2013

The Young Maharaja of Gwalior with courtiers. Lithograph, 1850.

African and Arab guards of the Gaekwad of Baroda. Lithograph, 1850.

Toda couple in the Nilgiris. Lithograph, 1850.

Fakirs at Ratlam. Lithograph, 1850.

Courtier of Maharaja Shersingh of Punjab. Pencil and water colour, 1842.

At Chini-gong, Kinnaur. Lithograph, 1851.

Thug chief at Hyderabad, Lithograph, 1850.

Russian Prince Alexei Saltykov’s paintings and writings on India speak of his admiration and understanding of a colonised people at a time when prejudices ran high among European colonisers.

THE 65th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Russia (formerly the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) and India was marked by an exhibition of the drawings of Prince Alexei Saltykov (1806-1859) and the first Indian limited edition of the drawings and letters of the prince that date back to his visits to the subcontinent between 1841 and 1843 and then between 1845 and 1846.

Saltykov was the scion of a family close to that of the Tzars. His grandfather General Nikolai Ivanovich (1736-1816) was chairman of the war committee under Catherine II and her son Paul I, President of the Council of the Empire and of the Board of Ministers, and finally Field Marshall of the Empire. His background gave him access to the highest colonial authorities of the East India Company, but his self-confidence and courage allowed him to cross the limits imposed on him by the colonial mentality of his hosts and meet Indians of all classes with ease. He also went beyond the limitations of the defensive racism of colonial powers and defied the cultural arrogance that allowed them to plunder colonies savagely and cover up their destructive role in the name of a self-declared mission of civilisation.

Although he was often a guest of the highest authorities of the Company, Saltykov could see through their racial prejudices thanks to his experience as a diplomat of the Russian empire for over 10 years from the age of 23. During this period, he travelled to Constantinople, Athens, London, Florence, Rome and Tehran. He moved to Paris after leaving the diplomatic service of the Tzar in a restless age when Europe’s aristocracy found itself being short-changed by the bourgeoisie at home and forced to look East for vestiges of spiritual solace, nobility and grace, which had almost been exterminated in Europe by the profit motive.

Romantic and humanistic

This bred the romantic vision in the aristocratic class, a vision that Saltykov shares with the English poets Lord Byron and P.B. Shelley, both hailing from aristocratic families. Saltykov’s art was influenced by two schools of painting. The first was Italian Mannerism with its blend of elegant figuration, an inner anxiety to capture the essence of a visual stimulus, and a search for spiritual solace. This he blended with the restless desire for adventure and the exotic that we find in French painters such as Eugene Delacroix, his contemporary, whom he met in Paris. Delacroix also shared Saltykov’s powerful fellow feeling for the poorest of the poor of his own country and for the colonised people. That is why Saltykov was able to portray a wide range of people —from maharajas to mendicants —with the same sympathy. At the same time, we cannot ignore how he was drawn to the image of both the icon and the procession, so strong in the tradition of the art of Russia, both of which are important in Indian art as well. That is why we relate to Saltykov’s drawings with ease and understanding.

His broad humanistic vision, uncoloured by colonial prejudices, allowed Karl Marx to quote him in his most significant article in New York Herald Tribune, “Future Results of British Rule in India”, in 1853, a couple of years after Saltykov’s letters appeared in French. Marx points out how the prince noted that the Indian people, even of the most downtrodden classes, were “more refined and adroit than the Italians” ( plus fins et adroits que les Italians). But more than this quotation itself, a number of conclusions he draws about the British army recruited from among the Indians—the rajas and nawabs and the Mughal Emperor himself—reflect that he had also read the English edition of Saltykov’s travelogue “Letters from India” printed in 1851 in London. Writing on March 18, 1841, during his first few days in Bombay (now Mumbai), Saltykov politely observes how “the English do not take the least pleasure in that which makes up the luxury, elegance and charm of India” as they were “too engaged in positive pursuits”. In fact, this is an understatement, going by the situation he describes in the previous paragraph—what happened at a dance he organised in the house that he shared with Baron Levy of Weimar. He notes: “Men of stern appearance normally go along with the temple dancers and during the dancing they follow the dancers like shadows, ringing their instruments and continually stamping their feet.… But the English are unable to appreciate these Indian Terpsichores [muse of dancing, according to Greek mythology]. Yesterday at my place, the Englishmen grabbed these gentle maidens while dancing and began to waltz them around. This so offended them that they fell to the ground, broke into tears and for a long time did not agree to dance and wanted to leave.”

He appreciates the difference between the dancers who perform in temples and those who dance in ordinary gatherings, and observes: “The ways of the temple dancers are so different from anything which I have seen before: so delightfully free, so distinctive, songs so sad and wild, movements so sensual, soft and lively, their accompanying music so heart-rending that it is difficult to give even an approximate idea about all this.”

Saltykov notes how the colonial mentality was oppressive both for the colonisers and the colonised. He points out: “The grace of the natives, for the English, is like Hebrew grammar: the mind, accustomed to pretentiousness, does not like simplicity. In the meanwhile, what could be sadder than the ridiculous apparel, marring the appearance of our ladies, in comparison with the beautiful pristine clothes of the Indian woman, fashioned and fitted by nature itself.”

He discovers also how in the Indian environment the “canopy” of trees under which people live was better than vast areas of grass open to the sun that the British created around their habitations after chopping down palm trees and tropical groves and planting casuarinas, which lift a lot of water but provide little protection from the heat. His perception serves as a good reminder that “globalisation” cannot be beneficial except among equals who show due care and understanding. His writings clearly favour what we call multipolarity today, a remarkably contemporary outlook.

Saltykov sees colonial rule as damaging to development as a whole. On December 29, 1841, he wrote: “Lucknow is a beautiful city: all the buildings are constructed in brick, plastered and for the most part are painted white, sometimes red or green; the rooms of some of the buildings are built in marble. I heard that in Agra and Delhi buildings are built in the same manner but are by far bigger, more majestic and the material itself is costlier. But Agra and Delhi, both belonging to the British, are somewhat dead cities, while Lucknow is enlivened by the presence of the splendid court.” Clearly foreign control, however modern, takes away the life of a society, however impoverished. This is a lesson we can learn from Saltykov in these heady days of seeking foreign investment at any cost.

Also, we learn how moneylenders do not give loans they cannot secure. The British were obviously already eyeing the prize they looted some 18 years later. The perceptive prince had already noted on December 24: “The King is very rich: his annual income runs up to one and a half million pounds sterling. I was told that the British could have brought their revenue to four million if they had taken possession of the Kingdom of Lucknow.” But what is absolutely clear is that independent kingdoms fare far better than those protected by imperial powers, irrespective of whether the governance was good or bad. Saltykov’s perception that any self-governance is better than the best of foreign tutelage is relevant and valuable for us over a century and a half afterwards.

Grace of untouchables

Another valuable perception we pick up from his writing is the grace and dignity of the subcontinent’s untouchables. Describing his encounter with the Rodis of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), some 9 kilometres from Kandy, he says: “While riding a small horse through the delightful surroundings of Kandy I came on several occasions to a little place called Gatiganawa. I could not understand why the place had a name, as it was no different from the rest of the area: there was beautiful vegetation there, like everywhere. Once while riding along I saw a semi-clad young woman with a strange and completely new beauty. Her movements were very graceful, but it was a grace that was quite different from what I had seen up to then….The inhabitants were outcastes and damned… to identify them, they had been forbidden to cover the upper part of their bodies from the waist up, a ban that was still being observed in 1841, during my first journey, although they were protected by English justice, like the other natives.” Here we see how people living in the same environment as the elite were degraded forcibly by the elite, though they were equally graceful and sociable, and how the colonial powers kept that degradation going despite the nominal imposition of one law for all.

Another very perceptive piece of information Saltykov gives at the end of June 1841 is how “Indians unconditionally submissive to Europeans, as their omnipotent sovereigns… however, in spite of the innate gentleness of disposition … are recruited for regiments here, are striking for their impeccable courage. All local soldiers join military service readily, belong to the top castes and are very happy with their state. But if they are subjected to punishment which may disgrace them in the eyes of their compatriots, which may serve as reason for banishment from their caste, Indians quite often take their lives.” This is a clear warning that a colonial power cannot ride roughshod over the sentiments of the populations it colonises. Force alone is not enough to rule another country.

This perception of 1841 gives us a good idea of how individuals in society may well express despair through suicide and how eventually this despair translates itself into revolt, as had happened 16 years after Saltykov noted these suicides. More important, the system of marginalisation of large sections of the people was shown by him to be utterly wasteful of human potential. That is why a majority of his drawings are those of tribal people, mendicants, craftspersons and peasants. The horrifying things a society that marginalises people does to its people do not escape his eye. The three major evils he highlights are the practice of burning widows, infanticide and sacrificing children to the gods. In the same way, he describes the Thugs, ritual murderers whose activities had become endemic as colonialism began to take over the country. Cults of murder, ritual or otherwise, are no surprise where human life has been rendered cheap by exploitation and oppression, whether at the hands of the local people or foreigners.

It is interesting how the ideology of these freebooters recognises “all means permissible to achieve their goals: deception, perjury; they think nothing of the most terrible perfidy”, is not too dissimilar to that of the European adventurers who became empire builders. And the colonial state recognised this. In fact, after a few death sentences, he noted how British “[J]ustice, not avenged by these villains, contents itself by imprisonment alone and makes use of them for uncovering other accomplices”. In fact, the chief of the Pindaris was made Nawab of Tonk by the British. This makes it clear why states giving a free rein to profit by any means are particularly lax with those who commit crimes against the people.

Regimes based on profiteering on a global scale are not very stable. Even those they co-opt are not willing collaborators. On October 27, 1841, Saltykov recounts dance performances in Kolkata where he describes how he “met many rajahs; they all endeavour to adopt English habits and that is why some of them wear some sort of non-existent, misshapen attire and when they go out they drive their cabriolets themselves. But in their midst was a young man in vivid native clothes who, as if in defiance of the others, tried to make himself out to be a true Indian even if all his own brothers had adopted European habits. Meanwhile, this rajah, Krishna Bahadur, speaks English fluently, he is twenty years of age; he is very handsome, slim and has long hair. He was wearing clothes of gauze in the old Persian style and a salwar.” It is obvious that all sections of the colonised people were dissatisfied, including those who were apparently pampered by the rulers. That is why he is dismissive about the docks and modern amenities the British had shown him. The price the Indian people paid for the amenities was far more than the benefits they got from them. This aspect of reality has to be taken into account in our deals with foreign governments and corporates this day.

Another important lesson one learns is that people and their movements are far more fluid than borders. Describing Rampur, the 18th century capital of Rampur-Bushahr, he notes on October 8, 1842: “Rampore is picturesquely framed by cliffs. The architecture of the town looks Chinese. Strange carved wooden decorations cover dark grey and ash-grey coloured houses. Plaster roofs converging Chinese style in sharp wedges lend even more severity to the general character of the buildings.”

About Chini-gong in the Kinnaur valley, which Saltykov thought was the last outpost before the Chinese border, he says: “But here just as in Palangen it will be useless to look for a Chinese imprint.” So what is obvious is that place names and borders may exist but people on the ground on both sides have their own needs that make such demarcation fluid, and states ought to respect these and not make them a matter of prestige. This, if any, is the best lesson we can learn from one who crossed borders and gave respect to others, getting it in return from them.