Robert Melville Grindlay

Birth: 1786


Robert Melville Grindlay (1786-1877) was born in 1786 at St Marylebone, at a time when the British Empire and Governor-General Warren Hastings were enacting controversial policies in Bengal. William Pitt's India Act of 1784 intended to overhaul the management of the East India Company, marking the roots of a paternalistic form of government in India, which also shaped Grindlay's early life. In 1803, his father, a London merchant, secured for his 17-year-old son a nomination as a cadet in the East India Company's military service. A year later, Grindlay was promoted to lieutenant, rising to the rank of captain in 1817, and by 1820, he retired from the Bombay Native Infantry at the age of 34.

During his relatively short military career, Grindlay travelled extensively with his regiment. And on those travels, he produced an opulent volume of sketches and drawings depicting lives and landscapes of Western India. After returning to Britain, he compiled and published them as Scenery, Costumes and Architecture chiefly on the Western Side of India.

Issued in six parts from 1826 to 1830 and comprising of 36 hand-colored aquatint plates with annotations, the album showcases scenes and subjects inspired by the rich architecture, natural scenery and local customs of western India. The specimens in the book include breathtaking depictions of Bombay, Hyderabad and Gujarat; mountains of the Western Ghats; Hindu temples, ancient caves, tombs and fortresses; and cultural practices such as sati - all meticulously represented in the underlying motif of elaborate colouing and deep contrasts, soft mists, golden sunlight and atmospheric effects.

Grindlay was employed as a secretary at the Committee of Embarkation at Bombay, and personal assistant to the governor of Bombay. His artistic and official standing gave him ample opportunity to keep up his correspondences with influential colleagues in the Anglo-Indian Society of India, even after returning to Britain. In 1828, he started an agency house, Leslie & Grindlay, with a partner in Birchin Lane, London.

Initially, the agency helped secure travel arrangements of its clientele, to India and back, procuring sea passages, clearing and shipping baggage. The services graduated to banking operations, including insurance, savings and cashing of cheques and drafts. By 1852, the year Grindlay retired, the firm had become the most distinguished bankers and agents to the civil and military officials of the business community and the British army in India.

Although motivated by classical imperial capitalism, Grindlay's writing tends to betray a rebellious commitment to the emancipation of the Indian economy and infrastructure. His vision for the imperial obligation that Britain owed to India can be best observed in a pamphlet he wrote around 1837, when he was an agent for the Steam Committees of Kolkata and Madras.

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