20. Snake Charmers

India, Punjab, probably Lahore, Company School
second half of the 19th Century
Pencil and watercolor with gum Arabic on paper, heightened with gold
10 1/8 by 7 7/8 in. (25.5 by 20 cm.)

Christie’s, London, September 28, 2001, no. 386, illus.

Hinduism has long held serpents to be sacred; the animals are believed to be related to the Nagas, and many gods are pictured under the protection of the cobra.  Indians thus considered snake charmers to be holy men who were influenced by the gods.  In the present example, two snake charmers each play their pungi to rouse the drowsy serpents from their baskets.  The bamboo poles used to carry the baskets from one venue to the next are placed on the ground nearby.

The exact species of serpents used varies by region.  In India, the Indian cobra is preferred, though some charmers may also use Russell's vipers.  Indian and Burmese pythons, and even mangrove snakes, are also encountered, though they are not as popular.

As the British East India Company expanded its purview in South Asia during the late 1700s, great numbers of its employees moved from England to carve out new lives for themselves in India.  As they traveled through the country and encountered unusual flora and fauna, stunning ancient monuments, and exotic new people, they wanted to capture these images to send or take home.  Whereas the modern tourist would rely on his camera for such a task, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century travelers had to hire Indian painters to do the job.  The works produced by these artists, undertaken in a European style and palette, are known collectively as “Company” paintings.  They are characterized in medium by the use of watercolors (rather than gouache) and in technique by the appearance of linear perspective and shading.  Aesthetically, they are the descendants of the picturesque scenes of India created by the likes of Thomas and William Daniell. (Marika Sardar, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, 2004)

A stylistically similar painting of a Family of Tartars, circa 1885, is in The Cleveland Museum of Art (2011.137); also compare Archer, Company Paintings: Indian Paintings of the British Period, London, Victoria and Albert Museum, 1992, p. 128, no. 57, and Welch, Room for Wonder: Indian Court Painting during the British Period, 1760–1880, exhibition catalogue, New York, American Federation of Arts, 1978, p. 172, no. 162. 

Welch notes: “After the annexation of the Punjab in 1849, the English moved there in ever increasing numbers; and just as they had wanted views and sets of pictures of tribes and castes from other areas, now they provided a market for comparable Punjabi subjects.”