Tucked away in one of the numerous rooms at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the 18th century Chinese oils lay forgotten for decades until a couple of years ago. “The two pieces, depicting a funeral and a wedding, complete a set of four works. The other two, probably depicting seasons, are on display near the marble staircase at Rashtrapati Bhavan,” says Venu Rajamony, press secretary to the President, who is leading the arduous task of cataloguing the art collection at the President’s home.
Using the detailed 1931 catalogue prepared by Lord Irwin, then viceroy of India, he has initiated the process of digitising the artwork. As many as 113 pieces of the 3,700-plus collection have been put up on an e-catalogue — opened to the public in December 2014 — on the official website of the Rashtrapati Bhavan.
“The e-catalogue also provides a brief background for each piece. Since the pictures can be enlarged, each piece can be viewed in detail,” says Rajamony. Showing a painting of Persian ruler Fath Ali Shah during a hunt, he says, “It is on the ceiling of the central square at the Ashoka Hall. The details are impossible to view from a distance. This was a gift from Shah of Iran to King George IV and definitely a historically significant work.”
Mahatma Gandhi stands tall on a RH Miller canvas in the Banquet Hall at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. The red of his blood is splashed across a gory canvas, where a crowd follows two women carrying the Mahatma’s shroud in a 1946 painting by Polish-born British artist Feliks Topolski. A sculpture of the Father of the Nation was added to the Rashtrapati Bhavan collection only in 2013, when artist Ram Sutar was commissioned to design a life-sized statue of Gandhi in bronze. Dressed in his trademark dhoti, the bespectacled leader holds the walking stick, one leg forward, giving the impression that he is in motion.
Stationed on top of the steps that lead into the portico is the 3rd century Rampurva Bull in sandstone, borrowing its name from its place of origin. The Ashoka pillar bull stands on an inverted lotus, and its body — broad, with a zebu hump and erect back — suggests authority. “In an exhibition of Indian antiquities held in London in 1948-49, this was one of the two exhibits that were retained in the Rashtrapati Bhavan collection, the rest were transferred to the National Museum,” says Rajamony.
The second exhibit is that of a serene Mathura Buddha. Now at the historic Durbar Hall, it represents the golden age of Indian history, the Gupta period. The right hand and feet of the statue are missing, while the head is framed in a halo with floral patterns.
Chandernagore was considered the commercial centre of the East at the time of the 1757 battle between the then ruling French and the East India Company. After the war, the British were to transfer several artworks, including that of Carlo Van Loo, the Flemish painter in the court of Louis XV, from Chandernagore to Delhi. Two of the 18th century oils by Loo are now placed in the Marble Hall Museum. In one of them (see left), the emperor is in his coronation robe, one hand on the feathered headgear, other below his waist. The blue velvet stands for royalty, as do the gold tassels of the cushioned tables. An adjacent canvas (see above) has Queen Marie against a deep backdrop, in a gold gown.
Possibly the finest and oldest surviving pictures, the tale of Ajanta’s dilapidation and restoration is well chronicled. The Rashtrapati Bhavan has a reproduction of the historic paintings in the caves by artist Syed Ahmed. The paintings were commissioned by Ghulam Yazdani, the first director of the Archaeological Department of HEH the Nizam’s Dominions (Hyderabad state).
“Many of the originals have deteriorated, and it is difficult to see them in such light,” says Rajamony. In the 1935 temperas, Ahmed’s bodhisattva padmapani or the lotus carrier has a strand of pearls around the neck. In another work, celestial beings surface from beneath the clouds and Queen Maya, the mother of Buddha, is seen standing between two lacquered pillars.