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The suppression of the Indian uprising by the British

Painting, 1884

Description of the artwork «The suppression of the Indian uprising by the British»

In October 1882 Vasily Vereshchagin turned 40. He just had another bout of chronic fevers, his old wounds ached, and midlife crisis seized him by the throat. The artist said, "my strength has gone and the purpose of life is lost". Having broken down his nerves while he painted the horrors of war, Vereshchagin sworn not to paint battle scenes, and he did not know what to do. He needed new stories and new experiences. After the murder of Alexander II of Russia, the police regime strengthened and Vereshchagin feared to travel around. "They will take me to the police stations – the artist shared his concerns to an old friend, the critic Vladimir Stasov. – And my lively nature will make me rush at someone or spit in one's face". So Vereshchagin decided to go back to India, where he had traveled eight years earlier.

Having arrived in Agra, Vasily continued moping for some time, but he had to come out of retirement as the spleen retreated. "Of course, the Indian subjects do not interest me," he said in another letter. "However, there is one that attracts me; it will hook not only Englishmen".

Vereshchagin did not keep to his word not to paint any battle scenes. This time he turned to the subject of the suppression of the British revolt of the sepoys in 1857. The Indian uprising of mercenaries against the colonists employers last but not least been successfully suppressed due to the public executions that received a poetic name "the Devil's wind." In 1857, the People's Rares newspaper described those highly effective interventions as follows: "The British in India invented a method of execution so horrific that all of humanity was shocked. These merciful Christians invented a subtle execution: they tied living people to the muzzles of the guns, and then fired, ripping people to pieces, spraying blood rain of the pieces of the human body and guts at the audience".

Vereshchagin could not see "the Devil's wind" in action, as he came to India much later. However, being not only an artist but also a passionate ethnographer, he tried to figure out every detail: what kind of gun was used, what uniform wore soldiers and officers, what trajectory the severed head of the sepoys fell.

When (two years after the return of the artist from India) "The suppression of the Indian uprising by the British" was finished, Vereshchagin commented: "Modern civilization scandalized mainly about the fact that the Turkish massacre happened so close, in Europe, and the means of committing atrocities reminded the times of Tamerlan: they cut the throats as if people were sheep. The English were not the same: first, they were doing the work of justice, the matter of retribution for the violated rights of the winners, and that was far away, in India; secondly, they did the thing with grandeur: they tied hundreds of the rebelled sepoys to the muzzles of their guns and shot them using gunpowder, and that was already a great success if compared to cutting throats or ripping the bellies".

Of course, the public perceived such words as a mockery to the British, who imagine themselves enlightened and civilized nation, and yet capable of such atrocities. The irony of this statement is obvious. However, one can guess something akin to respect for the ingenuity of the Englishmen.

Not so long ago Vereshchagin participated in the Russo-Turkish war, so he saw a lot of bloody horrors, compared with which an instantaneous death from a powder charge looked almost compassionate. In addition, the indifference of the Indians to death was well known. What scared them so much in this method of murder? "They are not afraid of death, and the execution means nothing to them, – wrote Vereshchagin. - But what they avoid, what they fear, is to stand before the highest judge in a tormented state, without a head, without hands, with a lack of limbs. Naturally, then they are buried together, without rigorous analysis of whom exactly of those yellow gentlemen belongs one or the other part of the body. The Europeans can hardly understand the horror of the Indian high caste to touch the compatriot of a inferior caste: he has to bathe and to offer sacrifices after that without end to save his soul. And here it can happen that the head of a brahmin will fall to eternal rest near the spine of a pariah".

A curious paradox: the British managed to suppress the rebellion due to their interest and attention to the Indian culture and religion.

Vereshchagin was an experienced soldier, so he criticized the battle painters, who defended and attacked "by the book" - neatly and smoothly, as if on the parade ground training. He drew the war without embellishment – with all its turmoil, confusion, absurdity. "The suppression of the Indian revolt by the English" differs from most of his works as it is drawn with a relatively cold heart. A high-pitched content is embodied in a cold shape. The strict geometry of the composition emphasizes the indispensable elements of the action. Drama was trampled by the iron of the British order.

However, with this invisible gunfire Vereshchagin managed to touch the English. There is a legend saying that this picture (some time it was located in the United States) was bought by the British government. And then it was destroyed – it may have been shot from cannons.

Written by Andrew Zimoglyadov

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About the artwork

Art form: Painting

Subject and objects: Historical scene

Style of art: Realism

Technique: Oil

Materials: Canvas

Date of creation: 1884

Artwork in selections: 9 selections