Understanding Panipat 1761 through rare paintings

Manoj Dani, an independent U.S.-based researcher of art history, has painstakingly assimilated rare paintings pertaining to the battle and its key players in a work titled Battle of Panipat: In Light of Rediscovered Paintings.

Before Waterloo 1815, there was Panipat 1761 – the dreadful battle where the Maratha army led by Sadashivrao Bhau was defeated by the forces of the Afghan invader Ahmad Shah Durrani, and left an indelible scar on the Maratha psyche. The word ‘Panipat’ has since entered the vernacular lexicon to signify a spectacular debacle.

While the battle and its complicated run-up has been analysed in such monumental works as James Grant Duff’s History of the Mahrattas (1826), the second volume of Jadunath Sarkar’s opus Fall of the Mughal Empire (1934) and in T. S. Shejwalkar’s classic monograph Panipat 1761 (1946), this critical event in modern Indian history has lacked serious visual appreciation in form of contemporary paintings till date.

Now, Manoj Dani, an independent U.S.-based researcher of art history, has painstakingly assimilated rare paintings pertaining to the battle and its key players in a work titled Battle of Panipat: In Light of Rediscovered Paintings. The book, which was recently launched at the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (BORI), casts a fresh light on the fateful day of battle on January 14, 1761 and the politics of the Deccan and North India through rare paintings, several of which are published in book-form for the first time.

The book contains rare paintings from the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF), the British Library, the National Museum in Delhi, Bonhams of U.K. and the Pune-based Bharat Itihas Sanshodak Mandal (BISM).

“There are a myriad of myths surrounding Panipat. Through the course of my research, I discovered that far from a well-established narrative of this pivotal event, we have only scratched the surface of this crucial episode, and that whatever we know is only from a handful or selected sources of dubious veracity,” says Mr. Dani.

While the paintings depict key players such as Ahmad Shah Abdali, Sadashivrao Bhau, Najib Khan Rohilla, Dattaji Shinde, Vishwas Rao, Suraj Mal Jat and other Maratha, Afghan, Rohilla and Jat chiefs, the book deftly weaves analysis from original archival sources, casting a revealing light on the shifting alliances of 18th century Indian politics.

The genesis of the book began when he viewed the famous 1770 Panipat Battle painting at the British Library in London, says Mr. Dani.

“That captivated me. The other epiphanic moment was seeing a painting at New Delhi’s National Museum from the Tuzuk-I-Asafia manuscript, which details the history of the Nizams of Hyderabad,” he says.

This manuscript by Tajalli Ali Shah, a Persian poet-scholar chronicles the vicissitudes of turbulent 18th century Deccani politics with Marathas, the French, the English, Haider Ali and Tipu Sultan, besides depicting social and cultural life of the region.

“What is odd is that it a major portion of the manuscript is about the Marathas and contains 78 full-page paintings depicting Marathas in their combat gear, elephants. What is even more fascinating is that a couple of paintings in it are dedicated to Panipat. These paintings, to the best of my knowledge, have not been published by any historian in texts before,” Mr. Dani observes.

Noting that in Maharashtra, there was a strong focus on textual sources in historical research, he says that other avenues and methods like miniature paintings, architecture and battlefield archaeology were seldom explored.

“For instance, British field archaeologist Phil Harding has done amazing work on the 1815 Waterloo battle with his series ‘Waterloo Uncovered’,” says Mr. Dani.

Stating that it was thrilling to see the visual conformation of the personalities described in texts, Mr. Dani said that the book contained rare contemporary paintings of the Maratha chieftain Dattaji Shinde in battle and that of Khanderrao Holkar (the only son of the astute Malhar Rao Holkar), who was killed in the Battle of Kumher in Suraj Mal Jat’s territory.

There is also a painting of the Dilli Darwaza (Delhi Gate) of the Shaniwar Wada – the seat of the Peshwas in Pune before it was burnt by a mysterious fire in 1827.

“One can see how the Dilli Darwaza looked like in the twilight of the Peshwai era in the 1820s. There is also a picture depicting Vishwas Rao, the son of Nanasaheb Peshwa who was renowned for his good looks and was killed along with Sadashivrao Bhau in Panipat,” says Mr. Dani.

Observing that in Maharashtra, people were emotional about this traumatic event, the conflict has often been framed stereotypically with Sadashivrao Bhau cast as the ‘hero’ and Ahmad Shah Abdali as the ‘villain’.

Remarking that the book was a useful contribution to further unraveling the reasons of the battle, acclaimed historian Uday S. Kulkarni, an authority on 18th century Maratha history, said that a unified projection of Maratha history from 1647-1818 was lacking in historical studies which resulted in Maratha history not getting projected on the national stage.

“In mainstream historical studies, which has often been Delhi-centric, the Maratha Empire which came between the Mughal and the British ones has been ignored,” he observed.

Debunking myths about the battle and its run-up, Mr. Kulkarni, who launched the book, said that Sadashiv Rao’s letters to his agents in the north stressing the need to win Shuja-ud-Daulah of Awadh to the Maratha side was one of the first enunciations of the Indian ‘Nation State’.

“Here, Bhau makes a distinction between Ahmad Shah Abdali as a foreign invader and Shuja-ud- Daulah, though an Islamic ruler, an Indian one. So, in this sense, Marathas were fighting to safeguard India,” said Mr. Kulkarni, author of such noted works as Solstice at Panipat, 14 January, 1761 and The Extraordinary Epoch of Nanasaheb Peshwa.

Describing the Panipat debacle as Nanasaheb Peshwa’s epitaph, Mr. Kulkarni said that if he only he had been present at the North, then his strategic and diplomatic skills might have ensured a different outcome.

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