Face Value

Over two centuries of portrait painting in India is chronicled through the works of 150 artists.

Written by Vandana Kalra | Published:September 29, 2013 4:52 am

His name might not feature in the list of stalwarts but JA Lalkaka was an artist of repute in colonial India. The first Indian deputy director of Sir JJ School of Art,he painted the portrait of King George V that hangs at Buckingham Palace. Having specialised in portrait painting in London for five years,now,more than four decades after his demise,Delhi Art Gallery (DAG) has recognised his work and those of 150 other artists in the exhibition “Indian Portraits: The Face of a People”. “It’s a part of art history. Portraiture in its true sense is dead now,” says Kishore Singh,head of exhibitions at DAG and the curator of the exhibition.

The advent of photography might have hindered portrait painting,but Singh says its development led to alterations in the art. “Earlier,we showed attributes of a person,not necessarily the physical likeness but also the nature of the person. After photography,there were several changes,including psychological portraits introduced by Rabindranath Tagore,” says Singh.

In a book published alongside the exhibition,Singh traces the history of royal portraits in India,from portraitures under the Mughal rule to the arrival of Jesuit priests and European merchants who introduced more naturalistic depiction of the noble visage. The exhibition comprises a work of Benjamin Hudson,who arrived in Calcutta in 1854,almost 100 years after Tilly Kettle,the first European portrait painter,came to India.

Photographers were preparing enlargements,which were painted in oil by artists who added elements and architectural details. The Raja Ravi Varma school is represented by a series of artists,as are anonymous artists painting royalty and religious leaders. In 1965,Fatima Ahmed was commissioned by Air India to do a mural in Rome. Portraits of victims of the 1943 Bengal famine are documented by Gobardhan Shah and Chittaprasad. We also see a 1896 pastel of a young girl by Abindranath Tagore’s mentor,O Gilhardi. First principal of Kala Bhavan in Shantiniketan,Asit Kumar Haldar,has a bust of Rabindranath Tagore. There are portraits of political figures as well — from early-mid 20th century wood engraving of Gandhi by Ramendranath Chakravorty to Jawaharlal Nehru’s oil by KS Kulkarni and KK Hebbar’s 1972 oil of Indira Gandhi. Wasim Kapoor paints former President of America,Gerald Ford.

It was while researching for the show that Singh discovered artists lost in time. “There were several oils in our collection which were anonymous and while preparing for the show,we discovered signatures. No one knew about these artists,” he says. Among them is Parsi artist Koulji Ardeshir Tachakra who was active in late 18th century.

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