Even when MV Dhurandhar was painting a crowd of people, no two faces in that crowd were alike,” says Himanshu Kadam, curator at Mumbai’s Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum. He is taking a small group of us on a walk-through of “M.V. Dhurandhar: The Artist as Chronicler (1867-1944)” exhibition, on display at the museum in Byculla till October 1. In support of his statement, Kadam, who along with museum director Tasneem Zakaria Mehta has curated the exhibition, leads us towards one among a series of paintings by Dhurandhar which depict Maratha history. This particular one, which shows the coronation of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, teems with people. And, as we peer at the work, rendered in the artist’s distinctive fluid style, we realise that it’s true: no two faces in this painting resemble each other.
This nugget could be dismissed as a mere factoid about a long dead and, as many continue to believe, now irrelevant artist, but put it in the context of Dhurandhar’s other great qualities — his diligence and his high rate of productivity — and you might begin to understand why, as the 19th century came to a close and the 20th century dawned, this Kolhapur native became one of the most important and popular Indian artists of his time. “You get a real sense of character for all the people that you find in his paintings, and the coronation durbar painting is a great example of that,” says Kadam.
Born in Kolhapur in 1867, Dhurandhar was trained at Bombay’s Sir JJ School of Art from 1890, where he flourished under the instruction of his teacher, John Griffiths. As art historian Partha Mitter records in Art and Nationalism in Colonial India, 1850-1922: Occidental Orientations (1995, Cambridge University Press), he was smitten by the antiques he saw at the art school and resolved to be an artist. Supported by his father, he went on to hone his talent with a rare single-mindedness, impressing his teachers with his dedication. He won a prize at the Bombay Art Society in 1892, and, three years later, with his oil painting Have You Come Lakshmi?, became the first Indian to win the society’s gold medal. In 1896, he joined the school staff, staying on for 41 years, eventually becoming the headmaster in 1910, its first Indian principal in 1924, and its director in 1930, a journey the artist recorded in his memoir Kalamandiratil Ekkechalis Varshe (Forty One Years in the Temple of Art).
Dhurandhar’s talents as an artist were very much in demand in the wider market and he supplemented his income from his teaching job with printed illustrations, such as those he did for CA Kincaid’s Deccan Nursery Tales (1914) and the Otto Rothfeld book Women of India (1924). He had the gift of working on any scale, from large landscapes, posters to tiny postcards. Mitter says, he was prominent among those who joined the market for cheap prints, becoming the first Indian artist to design postcards for local manufacturers.
In the study of Indian art history, especially in the light of the academic realism of late 19th and early 20th centuries, Bombay painters such as Dhurandhar and contemporaries Pestonji Bomanji and MF Pithawalla have been harshly judged or, worse, ignored, in favour of the swadeshi styles and principles embraced by the far better-known Bengal School of Art and the iconoclasm of the Bombay Progressives, who burst on to the scene in 1947. This, says Mehta, is why the current show was conceived — to encourage a critical reassessment of Dhurandhar (and by extension, other Bombay painters) and rehabilitate his artistic legacy. “We’ve been wanting to do this show for eight years,” she says, “Until now, his work hasn’t received the critical attention he deserves. Dhurandhar was associated for many years with this museum and its curator Cecil L Burns, who was also dean at the JJ school of art, and many of the ethnographic clay models in our collection are based on Dhurandhar’s paintings.”
Kadam says, Dhurandhar was not only a great artist in his own right, but through his works, one also glimpses a changing, modernising Bombay. “There are illustrations and paintings in which you start to see people adopting new lifestyles, the interiors of houses becoming more Westernised. In one illustration, you see an Indian man sitting at a writing desk, and you see the emergence of new urban occupations, such as that of a shoe polisher,” he says.
What really sets a Dhurandhar work apart is his ability to imbue the figures in his works with a distinct individuality. This is evident even in his most minor works, the small watercolours and sketches, creating one of the most visually arresting records of contemporary life in early 20th century Bombay. These are works that were, over the years, printed and reprinted on posters, calendars, and, especially on postcards, many of which are currently on display at Bhau Daji Lad Museum as part of the Dhurandhar show as well as the associated exhibition “Paper Jewels: Postcards from the Raj” which is also on display at the museum till October 1. His postcards depict life as it played out on the streets of the growing metropolis, featuring characters such as the sombre-looking Indian ayah pushing a perambulator along Girgaum Chowpatty, a young lad being pulled along by the dogs he’s walking as they chase after a rooster, and the native gentleman in pristine white clothes, the generous curve of whose belly proclaims his prosperity.
A look at his ethnographic studies of various communities, particularly his illustrations in the Women of India book, depict every woman as a distinct individual, rising above the “type” she is supposed to represent, such as the “Nagar Beauty” looking coyly out from under her veil, or the fashionable Parsi lady, striding confidently in her high-heeled boots, with a parasol clutched in her hands. “They weren’t just scientific or anthropological studies. Each subject had a certain ‘human-ness’ and you could believe they were based on actual people,” says Kadam.