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  • Shivani

Anonymity, Art & The Indian Painter

Updated: Oct 19, 2020

Raja Ravi Varma - Shakuntala (Public Domain)

As a child growing up in India, my experience with art came from my household and surroundings. I trace my love of art to the love of art I saw within my family. My mother, aunts and uncles all drew and painted in their spare time. Through them, I was exposed to oil paints and paint brushes, sketches and paintings. I loved seeing the colors and paints and the process of an image emerging on canvas or paper out of one's imagination.

Art was also experienced in my everyday life. During my childhood, my mother sewed my clothes, knitted my sweaters, embroidered, cross-stitched, and explored several artistic embellishments to the clothes she created. Her repertoire included crocheting, knitting, smocking, mirror and bead embroidery. She made matching dresses for my sister and I. She took wool out of old sweaters, dyed them anew to knit updated ones. I also remember sitting next to her and spawning my own tiny creations, a colorful purse or scarf made out of leftover wool.

Art was also expressed in many handicrafts and textiles around me. Indian wear exhibits artistry in its various weaving and print styles. Madhubani and Bandini prints come to mind. I recall a trip to a Kalamkari weaver in Machilipatnam as a child where I saw how Kalamkari prints were made. I was captivating by the natural dyeing and block prints of animals, birds and plants that were used to create beautiful images on fabric. As a twenty something, I had the pleasure of visiting Warli painters painting their designs near the town of Dhanu, Maharashtra. The use of earth, brick and rice flour paste to create scenes of village life and the humble surroundings was very different from the art studios of the West.

In India, we didn't live in a culture replete with paintings made by famous artists. In the Indian cultural aesthetic at the time of childhood, there was no local Picasso, Michelangelo or Rembrandt. Indian painters were more craftsmen and did not enjoy the stardom and popularity that Western painters did or as I had come to expect in the U.S.

As a teenager, upon my arrival to the United States, I had the opportunity to take art classes. I did take as many as I could, compared to my peers, I lacked the skill. However, the love of painting and art history was innate.

Nainsukh- Raja Balwant Singh of Jasrota(Public Domain)

Indian Miniatures and Discovery of Painter Nainsukh

As an adult, I moved to San Diego, California, where I learnt that the San Diego Museum of Art has the world’s largest collection of Indian miniature paintings. It was impressive to know that across the world from India in a vault in a museum there was the largest collection of Indian miniature art. I was amazed at the prospect that an American with a peculiar hobby could amass such artistic wealth and cultural heritage that once belonged to various rajahs and kingdoms.

Edwin Binney the Third, an heir to the Crayola fortune and resident of La Jolla, California was an avid collector who earned a PhD at Harvard for Romance Languages. He forayed into South Asian paintings after developing an interest in Persian art. As someone who wanted an encyclopedic collection, South Asian art at the time was more suited for his financial means. By the time he died, he had collected 1,453 miniature paintings from India and bequeathed them to the San Diego Art Museum.

Due to the museum’s vast Indian miniature painting collection, renowned Indian Art historian B.N. Goswamy was regularly invited to provide context and a greater understanding of the works within their vaults. At one of these occasions, I first learnt about how rare it was to be able to identify painters who made the thousands of miniatures from medieval to nineteenth century India.

In a lecture, Dr. Goswamy charted the course by which he found the name of one of the nameless Indian artists. He was successful in tracing some of the miniature paintings of Kangra District in the Pahari style to Nainsukh. Even though Nainsukh painted hundreds of paintings only four bear his name. With this discovery, we began to have one Indian painters name unearthed from antiquity and oblivion.

Upon hearing about Dr. Goswamy’s quest to learn more about the painters who created the works of art and the complexity in doing so (he had to teach himself the obscure Pahari script and go through funeral records in Haridwar to learn about Nainsukh’s family), it dawned on me that I had grown up without any knowledge or cultural understanding of the producers of Indian art. I lacked the cultural cachet inherent in knowing famous painters and one’s art history. Where are India’s Van Gogh’s, Rembrandts, Degas’s, O'Keeffe's and Michealangelos? Why don’t Indians have collective knowledge of their painters and revered paintings such as Van Gogh's “Starry Night,” Klimt’s “The Kiss” or Degas’ “Dancers?”

Indian painters who painted miniatures belonged to painting families or caste. They worked for patrons who were often kings or wealthy merchants. The paintings were not hung on walls but were part of folios or albums to view privately. The house or style of painting often worked collectively on a scene, a painter may work on one aspect of the painting, there may have been an assembly line of painters that worked on specialized areas of the paintings so the work is not attributed to one painter but to the patron who commissioned the work. Patrons often employed painters to capture life’s moments and milestones much like we do now with our cameras. Miniature paintings of medieval India served the function of todays photo albums.

Since Dr. Goswamy's pioneering work, many other researchers have identified several other painters. The anonymous Indian painters who were no longer anonymous had even become a subject of a show entitled "Wonder of the Age: Master Painters of India, 1100-1900," at the renowned Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2011.

Contemporary Indian painters starting with the Tagores have created works of art more in style with western notions. Their names are now attributed to their works. The Indian painter is no longer anonymous. A few Indian painters have even achieved celebrity. However, even their works lack the iconic status that western painters enjoy.

Modern Indian Art and Celebrity

Amrita Sher Gil - Group of Three Girls (Public Domain)

Recently, I have begun to study more contemporary Indian artists such as Raja Ravi Verma, Amrita Sher Gil and M.F. Husain. Now I too have a lexicon of names and artwork related to India. I find security in knowing that there are names and titles of works that we recognize as Indian artworks with meaning that reflect our values and sensibilities. In a discussion about Indian art, I can participate with my knowledge of Raja Ravi Varma's “Lady with a lamp” or Sher Gil’s “Self Portraits” or Husain’s “Mother India”.

As I began to acquire this knowledge, I was surprised to learn that American collectors Chester and Davida Herwitz accumulated one of the largest collections of modern and contemporary Indian Art outside of India. They also bequeathed their vast collection to yet another American museum, Peabody Essex Museum located in Massachusetts.

Learning about these collections and the museum’s showcasing of these works in their galleries fills me with curiosity. I have developed a thirst for more knowledge and understanding of Indian painters and their paintings. I also marvel at the journey these paintings have made. What curious combination of economics, artistic sensibilities and globalization has enabled this moment? Hundreds of medieval and modern Indian paintings have found homes in American galleries. In a way I relate to the painting's journey as my own -- of discovery and assimilation.

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