Indian Life and Landscape by Western Artists at The National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi

The National Gallery of Modern Art in collaboration with the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, presents “Indian Life and Landscape by Western Artists”, an exhibition of more than ninety paintings and drawings from the V&A 1790 – 1927, at National Gallery of Modern Art, Jaipur House, New Delhi from October 27, 2009 to December 6, 2009.

The exhibition is a collection from London’s Victoria and Albert Museum which shows rare and interesting watercolors, sketches, aquatints, lithographs and engravings by European artists who visited India between the 18th- and 20th-centuries.

Says Prof Rajeev Lochan, Director, NGMA: “The first visual representations of India by western artists were of imaginary landscapes and settings. They were based on the written accounts of travelers to India from across Europe. It was only after professional European artists began to travel to India that they painted, for the first time, scenes based on direct observation. Their passionate interest in this new and exciting land led to the creation of a comprehensive pictorial record of India, in a visual style familiar to western audiences.”

James Baillie Fraser
James Baillie Fraser – View of Garet House

India’s spectacular architecture, the immense natural beauty of her landscapes, and the great diversity of her people have inspired many artists world over. The exhibition is divided into four sections showcasing the works of various schools of art. The exhibit begins with a ‘Picturesque’ tour of India through dramatic pictures of splendid forts, temples, and palaces. The second section showcases works by amateur artists who were captivated by the landscape and architecture of India. Many of these amateurs were East India Company employees, who transferred to canvas their personal experiences. The third section is dedicated to the Romanticism of Indian art that depicts striking, decorative paintings entirely from the imagination. For instance, on view is a panoramic view of the Taj Mahal, paintings of busy street scenes, majestic princes, and doe-eyed nautch girls. The fourth section, based on realism, documents the social life and people engaged in various professions during that time.

Section 1: A Picturesque Tour of India
From the mid-eighteenth century, professional European artists began to turn to India for their inspiration. They were attracted by the opportunity to explore unfamiliar lands, to make their fortune, and to further their reputation.

The beginning of The Picturesque, a major literary and aesthetic movement in England led to a revolution in western art and promoted a particular way of observing and depicting landscapes. A typical picturesque scene included elements of roughness and irregularity, the inclusion of old ruined buildings or impressive architectural structures added variety and created an evocative atmosphere. India offered an infinite range of subjects to depict in this manner. The picturesque tradition of the 18th-century helped create the order, balance and serenity of the magnificent aquatints of Indian scenery and architecture created by artists such as Thomas and William Daniell. The uncle-nephew duo traveled widely in India, painting magnificent buildings that have now crumbled to dust. Hence, these paintings are a priceless record. Ruins of the Palace at Madurai, Fortress of Gingee, in the Carnatic and Hindu Temple at Agouree on the River Soane are few examples of their noteworthy works.

Section II: Amateur Artists
While professional western artists continued delving deeper into their Indian subjects, amateur artists as well tried their hand at drawing India. These artists sketched and painted for their own private pleasure, rather to earn a living through it. The majority of amateurs were servants of the East India Company or worked as civilians in the army, using their leisure time for painting. They sometimes formed social groups to share their knowledge. Many worked outside the artistic conventions of the time and had very different levels of skill. Their work also forms an important part of the display, as a record of personal experiences. “The Taj Mahal” by Thomas Longcroft, “A Natch Party” by Robert Smith and “Suspension Bridge at Alipore” by Charles D’Oyly are few examples of works by amateurs that were in no way inferior to their professional counterparts.

Section III: Romanticism in India
A different view of India was presented by those influenced by the succeeding Romantic movement, which emphasized the wildness and drama of the natural world resulting in some of the most striking and evocative paintings of India. The movement encouraged artists to focus on their intuition and imagination and create paintings that evoked strong emotions. Elements of the picturesque remained within the artist’s repertoire and at the same time, they embraced another aesthetic theory of the period, ‘the Sublime’. This favored the depiction of subjects in a way that intended to produce a sense of great awe and wonder in the viewer. The dramatic mountainous regions of India and the grand architectural monuments lent themselves to Romantic interpretation. People were often idealized and portrayed in an enchanting manner. Artists used their imagination to enhance their work, some, who had never been to India, embellished the sketches of others and created engaging and powerful images. Perhaps the most striking of such paintings on display are William Carpenter’s glowing rendition of the marble interior of the Neminath Temple, titled “Interior of the Neminath Temple, Dilwara, Mount Abu”. “Ancient Observatory” by William Simpson, “A Hindoo Female of the Konkan” by Robert Melville Grindlay and “A Leopard Attacking an Antelope” by Samuel Howitt are other examples of the romantic school of practice.

Section IV: Realism and the Indian Student
From the 1860s, the arrival of photography and increased access to western illustrations, cultivated a taste in the Indian public for real-life pictures. Indian artists began to use western modes of representation which included figure drawing. This trend was encouraged by the schools of Art in Bombay, Madras, Lahore and Calcutta which had come under the control of the colonial government. Artist John Lockwood Kipling (1837-1911), the father of Rudyard Kipling and John Griffiths (1838-1918) were appointed as the dean of the J.J School of Art in Mumbai, which produced many top Indian artists, including M. F Husain and F.N Souza. Kipling was commissioned by the government to produce a series of studies of crafts people, some of which are displayed in the exhibit. His sepia-toned images conjure up an age gone by, with sweetmeat sellers almost hidden behind mounds of sweets, farmers harvesting cotton by hand, and weavers creating fabric on the loom. One of John Griffiths’ most memorable paintings titled A woman holding a fish on her head, Bombay is his lifelike sketch of a local fisherwoman balancing a massive fish on her head, a classic Bombay scene that can still be seen today.

The charm of the exhibition, thus, lies not just in being able to travel back to a period in history that will never come back, but also get an invaluable sociological document from centuries ago.