Rao Raja Bishan Singh Watching an Elephant Fight
Rajasthan, Bundi, circa 1800-1810
Opaque watercolor heightened with gold on paper
14 3/16 x 12 3/4 in. (36 x 32.5 cm.)
From a Private European Collection.
This scene depicts Rao Raja Bishan Singh watching an elephant fight from a balcony in the top right hand corner of the painting. The dramatic depiction of the tumbling elephants and figures is heightened by a strong diagonal composition and the juxtaposition of the enclosing walls.
Elephant combats were described by the French physician François Bernier during his time in India:
“A wall of earth is raised three or four feet wide and five or six [feet] high. The two ponderous beasts meet one another face to face on the opposite sides of the wall… The riders animate the elephants either by soothing words, or by chiding them as cowards, and urge them on with their heels, until the poor creatures approach the wall and are brought to the attack. The shock is tremendous and it appears surprising that they should even survive the dreadful wounds and blows inflicted with their teeth, their heads, and their trunks. There are frequent pauses during the fight; it is suspended and renewed, and the mud wall being at length thrown down, the stronger more courageous elephant passes on and attacks his opponent and, putting him to flight, pursues and fastens on him with such obstinacy that the animals can be separated only by means of cherkys, or fireworks, which are made to explode between them.” (Desai 1985, p. 53).
This painting is a later re-working of a drawing by the “Master of the Elephants” that is now in the Alvin O. Bellak Collection (Mason 2001, no. 65, pp. 158-9). The artist identified by Welch as the “Master of the Elephants” came to the Rajput court from the Deccan in the later half of the seventeenth century as part of the general migration of artists during the Mughal campaigns in the region. His fluid line and dynamic compositions successfully combined Mughal and earlier Bundi elements, developing a distinctive Kotah style that went on to influence artists for over a century. For a further discussion of the development and re-attribution of many of these elephant drawings and paintings at Bundi and Kotah, see Beach 2008 & Beach 2011.
Rao Raja Bishan Singh (1773–1821) ruled the state of Bundi from 1804 to 14 May 1821. His close alliance with the British brought him into conflict with the Maratha Empire and Pindaris who continually ravaged his state and forced the kingdom to pay tribute up to 1817. Consequently, Bishan Singh made a subsidiary alliance with the British East India Company on 10 February 1818, which brought him under its protection. He was responsible for the creation of the pleasure palace of Sukh Niwas on the outskirts of Bundi.