Reviving the Art of Miniatures with a Global Perspective (Suruchika Chawla, ITP 2018, India)

Written by Suruchika Chawla, Museum Educator, New Delhi (ITP 2018, India)

The essence of miniature paintings in Indian & global collections lies in its exquisite creation, finesse, and profusion of themes and bright colours. The art form that was set in motion in the mid 16th century evolved to its sophisticated refinement as nurtured by its elite patronage. Standing out from other forms of paintings, it was painstakingly made stroke by stroke rather than the wash effect as visible in different painting styles seen today. It took almost 3 to 4 months to complete one painting and at times different artists were involved to contribute to one painting.

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The exhibition The Allure of India – Company Paintings held in the heart of capital of India, New Delhi was conceptualised, researched, commissioned and curated by Dr. Seema Bhalla, who had done extensive research in paintings and textiles in India.  Being a textile expert for 16 years, she has created a layered history by including textiles made in the region of Coromandel in late 17th and 18th century. The exhibition was jointly inaugurated by the British High Commissioner – Sir Dominic Asquith; Ambassador of Netherlands – H. E. Marten van den Berg; Deputy Counsellor for Cooperation & Cultural Affairs French Embassy – Ms Aruna Adiceam and historian Mr William Dalrymple.

The importance of the exhibition lies in the fact that for the first time a collective visual narrative of the Dutch, French and British East India Companies has been created. She used the pictorial language through the medium of 25 exquisite works of art, especially created by talented artists, after extensive research and diligence. The project which was initiated in 2016, had the objective to showcase the magnificence of two exquisite and sophisticated arts: Indian miniature painting and textiles. The timeline taken for this project was the 17th to 19th centuries and material support to research the collection was extended by different organisations namely British Museum, London; Musée des Arts Decoratifs, Paris; Musée la Compagnie des Indes, Lorient; Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Each of the works was made on handmade paper with natural pigments, pure silver and pure gold. The frame of these paintings has three parts to it, with each part correlating and narrating an aspect of history, art and fashion from the 17th to 19th centuries. Each aspect is related to the three companies. Dr. Seema has added a fine flavour to the presentation of painting by adding the designs of kalamkari (a popular textile technique) in a border and spice trade root indicators like motifs of plants and supporting paintings that act as storytellers of that era.

The exhibition was on display from 21st to 25th November 2018 at Bikaner House, New Delhi. It was concluded with a panel discussion by Mr William Dalrymple, author and historian; Mr Bertrand De Harting, culture counsellor from French embassy and the curator Dr Seema Bhalla, which I attended.

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This panel discussion was initiated by a talk by Mr. William Dalrymple who presented the evolution in themes and subjects of popular artists of Company paintings. He emphasised the life depicted in paintings in various parts of India. Artists chose from themes of lifestyle, flora and fauna, and aquatic creatures – apart from the court scenes and standing monuments.  No part of life stood untouched by Company artists. The manoeuvre of the Indian artists in depicting correct botanical details of flora hints towards the awareness and dissemination of scientific knowledge of these species to other countrymen.

It was a time-consuming process – almost 6 to 8 months – and commissioned by officials of the Company era who were trading and travelling around India. These works were meant to be taken back to their home country as souvenirs as well as tools to spread knowledge of the life they had seen in India. The Indian artists reciprocated to the demand by incorporating European sensibility into their art. William even added the connections of linking the floral depiction of some species one sees at Kew Gardens in London today. He hinted towards the European influence in these painting styles.

Mr. Bertrand, adding to these connections, talked about how these paintings were a kind of pictorial depiction that people were using to gather and spread information of India and the lifestyles of people. Exotic India – her people, her architecture, her land and her culture – fascinated Europeans. They wanted to take the images back home to show and to keep as memories. In our digital age one may say Company paintings were like Instagram post: you show it to a mass audience to tell them what you are doing at a point in time. William concluded the talk that with the advent of photography in the mid 19th century: the significance of Company paintings decreased and people were less interested in indulging in the creation of one with the same fervour.

Dr. Seema had a perspective to support the revival of this endangered art and discussed a few highlights of the paintings and their narratives. For instance, a painting that had a Christian procession or a painting that had a story revolving around the tree of life. With another, she emphasised the depiction of trade and market life. Her Ph.D. research was based on identifying and documenting the surviving artists of Indian miniature painting. She involved some of these artists to recreate the history of the Dutch, French and British East India companies. The history that is hidden in the pages of the books has been narrated in a visual language and the medium chosen is Indian miniature painting. This visual language makes the job of creating awareness very resourceful and aids in adding life to this dying art.

In the catalogue of this exhibition William quotes ‘Seema Bhalla has not only reminded us of the importance of this nearly forgotten genre, but by commissioning new work in Company style has kept important artistic traditions alive.’ During the panel discussion, he even compared Seema Bhalla to Lady Impey, the wife of the Chief Justice of Bengal in the late 18th century. Lady Impey had commissioned works by local artists which today command a special position and scholarly interest.

These Company paintings – part of collections in various museums globally – today hold the interest of international collectors as well. The curator quotes that this is ‘an art form that once had its courtly and aristocratic patronage, [but] sadly today is forced to languish in the margins’. These traditions that are landmarks of cultural heritage should be researched and revived in order to keep their antiquity and sanctity alive for generations to come.

Suruchika