AT Mumbai’s Delhi Art Gallery (DAG) in Kala Ghoda, one can walkthrough the history of Indian portraiture. Expressions, postures, smiles, and hairstyles seen in the 200 paintings across the three floors of the gallery, help unravel the story of this style of painting in India. The works of some of the most prodigious artists are presented, including Jogen Chowdhury, M F Husain, Jamini Roy, F N Souza, Abanindranath Tagore, Rabindranath Tagore and Raja Ravi Varma.
“The gallery has a huge collection of art that spans across centuries. We have documented genres such as landscapes, portraits and abstracts, to arrive at an understanding of how these themes were represented in India over a period of time,” says Kishore Singh, the curator of the exhibition. “With this exhibition, titled ‘Indian Portraits: The Face of a People’, we wanted to track how the genre originated, and then changed over three centuries,” he says.
Direct exchanges between western European and Indian artists in the 18th century introduced a new way of approaching fine arts in India. These interactions brought new technical knowledge, depth and perspective to Indian art. The work of the Europeans was a departure from the portraiture in India, which leaned towards mythological and historical schemes; the sense of physical resemblance was an unexplored tradition.
The exhibition begins with portraits of the Parsi community. Wealthy and educated, they commissioned European artists to paint their portraits. This inspired the rise of local or bazaar artists before Parsi talent in the field came to the fore with MF Pithawala and Pestonji Bomanji. Because of their proximity with the British, their high standards of living and upbringing, the paintings of the Parsis began including Parsi women.
An important part of the documentation includes anonymous artists, those who did not sign their paintings. “These artists mark the transition from the miniature style of painting to the European one, which is why it is very important to document their role in the art history of India,” says Singh.
The exhibition, which records Indian elite and royal families, including the women, contributes to the anthropological understanding of the subject. “M V Dhurandhar, for instance, was asked to paint portraits of Indian women from different sections of society. Besides Parsi ladies, courtesans and street performers were subjects of earlier paintings,” says Singh.
While walking up the exhibition floors, the realistic and mere physical likeness of portraits becomes more expressionistic and interpretive. Juxtaposing and comparing portraits from the first and last stage of the exhibition, the conventional clothing, postures, body movement, gaze and colour palette, helps one observe how the artists have interpreted their subjects. For instance, the portrait of a girl in Waiting at the door (Santal maiden) by Kisory Roy resembles the Tahitian woman series painted by Paul Gauguin, a French pioneer of Expressionism. But unlike in the West, where an intimate relationship existed sometimes between the artist and the subject, “artists in India were treated as craftspersons, and there was a social distance between the artist and the sitter that was difficult to bridge”, says Singh, “An artist was expected to deliver according to a patron’s requirement, so there is a forbidding demeanour in, especially, in the early portraits.”
The exhibition will be on display until June 30. DAG offers a book documenting over 150 artists, which allows one to explore the history of portraiture in India. Diverse renowned contributors have written essays on the different stages of development and aspects of portrait image making.