Indian Landscapes: The Changing Horizons”, which opened yesterday at Delhi Art Gallery, is a big show. Not just in numbers, which at 220 works is formidable, but also in its ambition and execution. It documents the evolution of the genre of landscape art in India over three centuries, from the late 18th century to contemporary times. As Ashish Anand, DAG’s director, says proudly, “It’s something that no one has ever attempted before.”
Specialised viewers — art scholars, critics, collectors, connoisseurs and the like — will, of course, find a lot to interest them, but the exhibition also presents lay audiences with a rare opportunity to see at one go some of the best-known painters of the last 100 years represented by distinctive and important works in which they experimented with the landscape genre, and trace the evolution of modern art in India.
“Indian Landscapes” brings together everyone from Raja Ravi Varma, through Bengal School masters like Abanindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose, Ramkinker Baij, Benode Bihari Mukherjee and Jamini Roy, to M F Husain, F N Souza, S H Raza, S K Bakre, K H Ara, and later, Bhupen Khakkar, Bikash Bhattacharjee and Manu Parekh. Besides the acknowledged landscape specialists Nicholas Roerich, Ram Kumar and Paramjeet Singh, it turns the spotlight back on artists who were feted in their time but have fallen off the popular radar since, such as J P Gangooly, Gopal Ghose, Devyani and Kanwal Krishna, Bireshwar Sen, and the Open Air School of painters who worked in Kolhapur and small towns in Maharashtra in the first half of the 19th century, such as S L Haldankar, M K Parandekar, M V Dhurandhar, N R Sardesai, S G Thakur Singh and M R Acharekar. Then there are artists who are not generally known to have painted landscapes — G R Santosh, for instance, who is associated with Neo Tantric Art but began his career painting landscapes for a living in Kashmir. It was here that he met Raza, then on a visit to the Valley, who recommended that he join the Faculty of Fine Arts at M S University in Baroda. The other notable instance is Jamini Roy, who began with painting landscapes in the Impressionist style before he found his métier in his signature Kalighat pat-style. “Indian Landscapes” has two of Roy’s landscapes and three by Santosh.
Another group of rarely-seen works are the “Early Bengal Oils”, so called because these canvases, painted by anonymous artists in Chandernagore and Chinsurah, the French and Dutch colonies in Bengal, sometime in the late 18th century, are the earliest examples of Indian artists borrowing Western techniques of oil painting. Based on mythological themes such as “Krishna and Balaram with Gopis”, “Radha in Jumna” and so on, these early artists were clearly trying to synthesise indigenous painting idioms and colour palettes with the Western techniques of perspective and representation.
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Organising a show of this magnitude is a challenge — how do you hang 200 pictures, some of them postcard-sized? “Indian Landscapes” attempts to solve this problem by hanging works salon-style, and arranging them thematically in separate galleries across the two-storeyed, 8,500 sq ft space. So you have cityscapes along one passage on the lower level, and mountain-scapes and water-scapes (including the many representations of Benares) facing each other along another passage.
On the upper floor rural-scapes hang on one side and representations of foliage and depictions of Kashmir on the other. Some of the larger, more distinctive works by better-known artists, of course, get pride of place by being hung in isolation, which also gives visual relief to the viewer. So, Bakre’s Silhouettes gets pride of place to the left of the entrance while Manu Parekh’s large Evening at Paris graces another wall. Two oils by Husain grace the far wall at ground level. The history of landscape art in India traces a fascinating arc, and reveals what contemporary artist and academician Shukla Sawant calls “the terms and conditions under which the human presence makes itself visible in relation to land”. In other words, innocuous-seeming depictions of natural beauty can be “read” for critical insights into the politics of land and cultural identity. Sawant’s essay forms the introduction to the handsome, 500-page volume accompanying the show; there is another essay by Kishore Singh, DAG’s head of publications and exhibitions, and a useful timeline mapping important dates and artists.
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The first “pure” landscapes of India date back to the mid-18th century, and were painted by itinerant British painters — William Hodges, Thomas and William Daniells, George Chinnery, the Fraser brothers, etc. — who travelled to India to paint the unfamiliar topography, the monuments and ruins, the strange people, and their stranger customs and dresses. They were patronised by senior officials of East India Company — Warren Hastings and Claude Martin, to name two of the most notable — who facilitated their travels, hosted them, and commissioned or bought their paintings. The artists had a ready market, too, back in England, where their sketches and watercolours were used to illustrate accounts of their travels which fed a growing curiosity about the exotic lands that their countrymen were steadily subjugating. Thus these early landscapes of India served a purpose that was as much political — helping to build knowledge about the subcontinent that would help to subjugate it — as it was aesthetic or ethnographic. Indeed, many of the “views” of India, especially the earliest representations of the caves of Ajanta and Ellora and other important archaeological sites, were painted by East India Company officials who were engaged in a systematic and large-scale programme of “surveys”. These officers also commissioned local artists to paint in the European style, giving rise to the “Company Painting” genre.
Several of these early landscapes painted by European artists in the 18th and 19th centuries hang in a separate room. Hodges is represented by “views” “drawn on the spot” “of the city Oud”, “pagoda at Deogur”, “the Gaut [ghat] at Etawa on the Banks of the river Jumna”, etc. Dated between 1785 and 1788, they are fine, detailed studies of once-grand architecture now in ruins. There is also a Daniells watercolour of the “Fort of Krishnagirry”, along with some by less-known artists William Carpenter, Edward Cheney, John Deschamps and Thomas Prinsep. Another rare exhibit is the “Grindlays book”, formally named Scenery, Costumes and Architecture, Chiefly on the Western Side of India (1826-1830).
A majority of the sketches and paintings on which the engraved illustrations in this book are based were done by an officer of the Bombay Native Infantry called Robert Grindlay, who went back to London and established a firm called Lester & Grindlay, which later became Grindlays Bank.
Two other European artists of some historical importance are Walter Langhammer and Olinto Ghilardi. The former, an Austrian who fled Nazi Germany for Bombay, rising to become art director of The Times of India, is an important figure in the history of modern Indian art for the role he played in mentoring artists such as Ara, Husain, Raza and Souza, especially in exposing them to the developments in modernist European art. Ghilardi, on the other hand, was an Italian who started teaching at the Government School of Art in Calcutta in 1866. More importantly, he was a mentor to Abanindranath Tagore, the doyen of the Bengal School, teaching him the techniques of using pastels, water colours and gouache. It’s a reflection of the times, and of the inertia of our official cultural institutions, that a show of such historical importance should be put together by a private gallery. DAG, of course, has been mounting museum-quality shows for some time, backed by well-researched volumes with essays by critics and scholars — The Art of Bengal and the retrospectives of Ramkinker Baij, G R Santosh and Chitta-prosad are some of the most recent.
|A year of seasons and rituals, on a single 78-ft narrative scroll
A rare and fascinating exhibit at DAG is a 78 ft-long narrative scroll painted in 1929 by Bishnupada Roy Chowdhury (1909-2002).
Called Baro Mase Tero Parban, or “Thirteen festivals in 12 months”, the scroll (a section is reproduced below) depicts the flora and fauna, festivals and rituals of Bengal, arranged according to the seasons.
Painted in tempera on paper, Roy Chowdhury’s fine brush picks out vignettes of village life — a mela, a religious procession, communal pujas — in an undulating green landscape.
Trained at the Government School of Art in Calcutta and later at Kala Bhavan in Santiniketan, where Abanindranath Tagore and Nandalal Bose were his teachers, Roy Chowdhury was clearly inspired by the scroll-making traditions of Japan and China.
Rabindranath Tagore had brought back several scrolls with him from his visits to these countries in 1924. The scroll was acquired by DAG director Ashish Anand from the artist’s family in Kolkata where it lay rolled up and forgotten over the years.
Commercial considerations may be the driving force behind these shows — all the works in “Indian Landscapes” are on sale, the most expensive being the Husains and Souzas which have an asking price of Rs 1.5 crore — but that does not take away from the fact that they do Indian art a world of good by turning the spotlight on the past and helping thereby to contextualise the present.
“Indian Landscapes: The Changing Horizons”, at Delhi Art Gallery, Hauz Khas Village, New Delhi, August 18-September 29