The English say that India is the brightest jewel in the British crown; the brightest, yes; but the purest? that is the question; it is true that it would be difficult for them to find in the rich jewel box formed by their numerous colonies, a pearl, however small, in which a trained eye could not discover the same number of spots.
English India! What a magnificent theme, and what a favourable pretext for a political dissertation, for a moral and religious thesis!
The ancient splendour of this now desolate land, its marvellous monuments all in ruins, its sacred language, its poetic genius, its religious mysteries, its popular traditions, the thousand revolutions which have turned this cradle of humanity into a cursed land, a gigantic necropolis, what subjects for painful meditation!
But we are forbidden here to stir up its past and to lift even the smallest corner of the veil behind which its future is being worked out.
We are only allowed to consider and study India from the point of view of its products; we have to speak of it only as a workshop and as a centre of commercial production.
Our study, therefore, having to be limited to the simple review of the consignments made by the Indian Department to the Exhibition of the Champ de Mars, cannot be long; for, let us say it, we do not know of a single important curiosity shop in Paris which is not richer and more splendidly assorted than the Indian Exhibition which we have before our eyes, and we must add that the objects found in our lesser merchants are, considering the period to which they belong, of an infinitely purer style and taste.
The decadence of art and industry in India is not to be wondered at, when one thinks of the protective regime under which it is now placed. England is essentially a trader; and wherever she dominates, she is much less concerned, in the interest of her traffic, with the quality than with the quantity of the products.
In perusing the special catalogue compiled under the direction of the Indian Department, one fact struck us, and that is the care taken to keep all the native producers and most of the native manufacturers in the dark. The chiefs of the various districts are the only ones mentioned. It seems that below the great, the middle and the small princes, its loyal vassals and its resident lovers, the Government of India recognises and distinguishes no one.
One hundred and fifty millions of men spread over a space of 340,000 square leagues, working incessantly for the benefit of the metropolis and supplying it every year with the greater part of the rich products which feed its export, import and exchange trade, what is such a multitude in the eyes of the Government? A mere agglomeration of human machines operating in the various provinces, as in vast factories, under the direction of native chiefs, its foremen and agents in charge, not anything else.
Now, so long as the relations of the Government with these are not disturbed, so long as they keep to the terms of their contract, so long as the deliveries of their products are exact and regular, and all the commissions given are fulfilled, what does the rest matter to free England? The army of workers is so numerous that we are perfectly exempt from worrying about its welfare and even from taking its preservation into consideration. Let hunger decimate it by thousands, let pestilence mow it down and thin out its thick ranks, there is always enough left to ensure that there is never the slightest deficit, and that no diminution is possible in the British revenue and cash.
The disdain with which the English Government treats the people of India is revealed even in the official catalogue drawn up by our Imperial Commission.
There, all the other English colonies are accurately listed, and the details of their every product are recorded.
Canada, Mauritius, Nova Scotia, St. Vincent, Victoria, Queensland, the Cape of Good Hope, Malta and the rest, the largest as well as the smallest, appear in all the groups; as for India, it is sought everywhere, and nowhere to be found. In sending the Imperial Commission the documents it needed to establish its immense work, England forgot about it. You must agree that such an oversight, if not significant, is at least very strange.
We are glad to be able to repair an omission and an injustice here.
We have said that the exhibition of the English Indies was very small, and that most of the objects revealed a notable diminution in the skill, care, and good taste which formerly presided over the execution of similar products.
This may be seen from a close examination of engraved, cut or painted ivories, embroidered fabrics, the finest Kashmir fabrics, light gauze embroidered with gold, muslins, wrought leathers, saddlery and weapons. The decadence of the various industries is apparent in every product; and so true is this that the Imperial Commission, who asked for no better opportunity than to show grace and courtesy to England, thought they could do no more than give an honourable mention to the Maha-rajah of Iravacore for its painted ivory fruits, and two other mentions for the ivory carving of Lucknow and Oude.
Mr. Spence, an Englishman resident in India, was also awarded a mention for his instruments of minor surgery.
Let it be said that the Imperial Commission did not do it right!
The furniture of Nowroju Shapojee, an Indian, also seemed worthy of an honourable mention; though elegant and graceful, it could not be given more.
It was difficult for Indian shawls not to be the object of higher honours.
A gold medal awarded to Dewan Sing, of Kachemyr, and a silver medal given to Aseez Khan and Russol Schah or Rasul Shah, two producers from the same valley, saved the honour of the Indian pavilion.
There are in the Indian exhibition a lot of small objects and real little toys which attract the eyes of the visitors, but which did not deserve to stop those of the Commission. We even understand very well that it passed in front of the works of jewellery without paying attention to them and stopping there.
We believe that we are doing the right thing by doing as they did.
A silver medal was given to Captain Mitchell, a brave soldier, who occupies his leisure time in India by stuffing fish. He is truly a master of this industry, and deserved in every way the distinction which was bestowed upon him.
The Indian department also exhibited the numerous vegetable species of the Indian soil; it is well known how fertile and vigorous this land is, which produces of itself, and could do without any cultivation if necessary.
Two honourable mentions were given to a community in the English Indies for tanning materials and medical (sic) and pharmaceutical plants, and two others for the collection of drugs.
Is there duplication here, or has the Commission made a distinction that escapes us? We cannot say.
But one culture and one industry that has been forgotten to be mentioned and rewarded (in a sense of high morality, no doubt) is that of opium, of which two local highnesses have exhibited the purest and most remarkable specimens.
Did the Commission suppose that its silence might discourage these two noble producers? Perhaps; but it certainly counted without its host, that is to say, without England, which will never, without being forced to do so, make the sacrifice of this instrumentum regni, which is just as useful to its trade as to its policy.
The two Maharajahs will be consoled by honourable compensations granted to them by the Government of India for the forgetfulness of the Imperial Commission; the peasants will continue for a long time to collect, on behalf of England, the milky and reddish juice which flows in droplets from the incisions made in the poppy heads, and the interests of the Company will not be compromised.
The English are a great people, but only in their own country; outside their island, everything is extinguished in them; they have no more respect for the dignity than for the liberty of others; and one would be tempted to believe that they only gave up the Negro trade because they could trade in whites with impunity and on a larger scale.
Let us not forget to mention a silver medal, very fairly awarded to Jardine Skine, of Bengal, for the cultivation of indigo.
Let us sum up. The decadence of art and industry in India is due to two causes which, if they persist, must hasten its death; on the one hand, to the contempt in which the worker is held, and on the other hand, to the exiguity of the wage. The weaver and the gold spinner, who work eight hours a day, earn a maximum of nine francs a month. The purchase of wheat flour, which forms the basis of their food, alone takes up more than half of what they receive; how can they provide for the rest? If they are not married, they can still manage; but if they are fathers, they and their families are faced with misery, deprivation and all the evils that follow.
And the weavers are the best paid and the best treated of all. How then can they and the others take the necessary care and delicacy in the perfect execution of their task, and put the least amount of self-respect into doing well?
Need has given rise to all the arts and industries, but there is none that it has perfected.
If one is curious to compare the present products of India with those which date back to times before the patronage of England, one has only a few steps to take in the same gallery, and one will be edified as to the difference which exists between them.
One of the most famous and richest jewellers in London, to whom the jury awarded the only gold medal given to his class, Mr. Philips, has exhibited in a large show-case, and delivered to the examination and admiration of all connoisseurs, a magnificent collection made, on the very spot, after the last Indian war, by an English officer.
There is nothing modern about it, but everything is of perfect execution, of prodigious finish, and according to Mr. Philips himself, there is not a single workman in India today capable of reaching this degree of perfection.
There are boxes of agate set with gold, bowls of jade, necklaces - amulets of emerald ruby, mirrors of engraved and chiselled rock crystal, damascened daggers, mounted in jade with scabbards enriched with diamonds and garnets, Handles of fly-agarics of an insane but admirable richness, and a hundred other specimens of the exquisite taste and prodigious skill of the ancient Hindu workmen, which are nothing less than marvels.
©L'Exposition Universelle de 1867 Illustrée