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The Rashtrapati Bhavan’s long, rich history of murals

The many murals in Rashtrapati Bhavan, inspired by the Indian epics, as well as the history and natural beauty of this land, are a valuable legacy for the nation

New Delhi |
Updated: February 7, 2021 1:13:38 pm
Pride and joy. (Photo: Rashtrapati Bhavan)

Written by Anjali Bakshi

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In 2019, an email from Isabella Colonnello Canosa, daughter of Italian painter Tommaso Colonnello, inspired me to take a journey back in time, to explore the history of murals in the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Colonnello was commissioned by Vicereine Lady Willingdon to do the paintings on the ceilings of Ashoka Hall and the Long Drawing Room. He conceived and executed Persian-style frescoes in Ashoka Hall, inspired by the Persian-style painting already placed at the centre of the hall’s ceiling, which showed Fath Ali Shah, second of the seven Qajar rulers in Persia, hunting with his 22 sons. The artist extended this theme with animals, forests, floral patterns, royal processions and inscriptions in Persian. The work on the ceiling was done directly on its surface, around the existing painting, while, for the walls, the oil paintings were done first on canvas that was then attached to the walls. He started the work in June 1932 and completed it in October 1933.

Sir Edward Lutyens, the chief architect of the Viceroy’s House, did not appreciate the alteration in his original design but chose to retain the painting in Ashoka Hall. In 1938, he was invited by Lady Linlithgow to restore the original look of what was then the Viceroy’s House. It was then that the frescoes in the Long Drawing Room were painted over. The Viceroy’s Council Room, now called Cabinet Room, was the only room Lutyens approved for mural decoration. Pictorial depictions of maps of the marine and air routes linking India with the rest of the world were proposed and executed by renowned British art and architectural historian Percy Brown.
After Independence, when the Viceroy’s House became the Rashtrapati Bhavan, it was time to indigenise the place. Efforts were made to showcase Indian art — such as the paintings in the Ajanta caves, which had emerged as a supreme example of the Indian tradition — and, thus, infuse the building with the spirit of the land.

Sukumar Bose, an expert in the fresco technique of painting, was the first curator of paintings at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. He knit together themes from the Indus Valley civilisation, Alexander’s invasion of India, ancient maritime trade by Indians and scenes from the epics — the Ramayana and the Mahabharata — for the iconic State Corridor. One of the most beautiful decorations is the calligraphy of shlokas from the Bhagavad Gita in gold paint. Bose tastefully decorated spaces in the corridor with motifs of roses, lotus, conch shells and apsaras to form a complete visual character of that passage.

Jai Prakash Lakhiwal, a miniature artist who was honoured with a Padma Shri in 2016, was chosen for the project. (Photo: Rashtrapati Bhavan)

The murals were done only in the middle part of the State Corridor, in front of the State Rooms, leaving both the ends bare. Looked at from either end, it looked like a work in progress. During the 1970s, artist Jogen Chowdhury, in his capacity as a curator at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, initiated the work of murals beyond the Grey Dining Room in the State Corridor but only a small part was done.

The task to complete the murals from one end of the corridor to the other and in the corridor leading to the Guest Wing was undertaken in the current term of President Ram Nath Kovind, and the necessary clearances from agencies such as the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) were obtained. The challenges were to do it in such a manner that it would be a seamless continuation of the existing work and to select an artist who would do justice to this work. Another big challenge was to complete the task without disrupting the functioning of the office-cum-residence of the President.

Jai Prakash Lakhiwal, a miniature artist who was honoured with a Padma Shri in 2016, was chosen for the project. He had previously done the restoration work of the Ashoka Hall murals. It was decided that the motifs and character of the pre-existing murals would be incorporated in the new design, to make it seem like a continuation of the existing work.

The design pattern was first drawn on chart paper to give an exact impression of how it would look in its final shape and form. Mineral colours and gold leaf were used for the murals, like they had been used before, giving an ornamental look to the most beautiful corridor in the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

The people’s sentiment for the land on which they have lived for generations, and for its culture and history, form a bond among them and inculcate national pride. The mural paintings in the State Corridor are an expression of this feeling. This legacy began with the first president, Dr Rajendra Prasad, and has been carried forward by President Kovind, to bring out the common bond among citizens through national ideals and common history.

Anjali Bakshi is joint director, President’s secretariat

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