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The face of a people – Art of portraits in India


Portraitures of noted Indian artists on display in a exhibition

NehruNew Delhi: “Nehru before Power”, a large portrait of Jawaharlal Nehru by artist P T Reddy finds itself in an exhibition documents over 250 years of portraitures in India, showcasing the life and times of various historical figures, national leaders, royals as well as the commoners.

P T Reddy’s portrait of Nehru lies somewhere between a realistic painting and a caricature. It is quite different from the other portraits of Nehru or Indira Gandhi which are much more in the literary style. Plus Reddy’s work is very large so it is quite intense to look at,” Kishore Singh, Director, Delhi Art Gallery (DAG) says.

The Delhi-based gallery is presently hosting here the show “Indian Portraits: The Face of a People,” scheduled to continue till October 4. In terms of historical perspective the very large show begins with early 18th century European artists who come to India searching for subjects and commissions. It then goes on to trace the entry of Indian artists into portraiture makings from miniature and fresco art forms and their growth over a period of time to the rise of modernism.

Then there came a time when photography had become a rage and artists started doing psychological portraits something like what Rabindranath Tagore did by getting into the subject rather than portraits that concentrated on physical attributes say like women posing with needlework, a vase of flowers or even a book,” Singh who has curated the show, says.

The current exhibition is third in a series of shows by the Gallery which examine the work of Indian artists within a theme.

Over 150-odd artists have contributed to the “amazing and fantastic oeuvre” says Singh who points out that “placing the together portraits from over such a large period of time gives us a sense of history.”

Initially artists painted women ranging from courtesans to concubines before moving into elite homes. Educated and westernized Parsi women have been captured and later on women from the royal families. There is also a fantastic collection of self portraits by artists like Gopal Ghose, Gopal Sanyal, Abalall Rahiman, Savarkar Savi etc,” the curator says.

Almost 300 years of portraits, by 150 artists, moving from naturalism and realism of the Western style artists to the self taught style of Raja Ravi Varma, who creates slightly heroic characters, to the journey of distortion by M F Husain, S H Raza and F N Souza has been depicted.

Works by art school trained artists like M V Dhurandhar, N R Sardesai, Pestonji Bomanji, M F Pithawalla and J P Gangooly have been included. Portraits by Amrita Sher-Gill as well as Jamini Roy and other modernists to those by Bombay Progressives like M F Husain and F N Souza.

“M F Husain has done portraits like that of Madhuri Dixit but that really like filmography. He usually used to do commissioned portraits. Otherwise he had to know these people personally or be very fond of them,” the curator says.

There is also a collection of sculptures, “torsos and heads” included by noted names like Himmat Shah and Tarak Garai.

“We have a large collection of sculptures. There are some bronze busts by well known British sculptor of Jawaharlal Nehru and Rabindranath Tagore. The sculptures add another dimension to the show,” Singh says.

The exhibition is accompanied with a book, which documents all major artists who are known for painting or making sculptures in the form of portraits. Along with that the Gallery has also undertaken research into the several artists who have remained unknown in the pantheon of Indian art.

“There are three Indian artists in the early portraitures whose names are not known because they did not sign their works. It was a period when they were moving from miniatures to portraits. Their style and sophistication points to a possibility that they were probably artists who were dependent on royal patronage but remained anonymous for the better part of their careers. Our research turned out to be very exciting,” Singh says.


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