"The Mahout," Charles William Cain (1928)
Charles William Cain
This etching depicts a mahout, or elephant driver, sitting atop an elephant with his hand waving up. The mahout is wearing traditional Indian clothing, including a turban and loose pants, while the elephant is adorned with decorative fabrics and bells. The Mahout is leading the elephant to perform a task by following his verbal orders, an activity that is not being approved by two other larger and untrained elephants that happen to be walking out of the shadows to witness the scene. In India, riding an elephant was traditionally a privilege reserved for the few. Yet, in this print, the use of this naturally gentle animal for forced labor can be interpreted as one of the pervasive effects of colonization, where both the mahout and the elephant appear to be involved in a form of entertainment that turns them into exoticized and colonized subjects. This etching is notable for its intricate details and crosshatching, creating depth and texture. The Mahout is an example of the artist’s interest in depicting scenes from India and other parts of Asia. Born in 1893, Cain was an English artist known for his etchings portraying foreign people and places. He traveled extensively throughout his life and spent time in Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Turkey, which inspired his many renditions of everyday life and the customs of the people he encountered during his travels. His use of dramatic shadows and dark gradients of tones contribute to the naturalistic portrayal of unique subjects and adds nuance to the picture’s message and narrative.