Many of us fell victim to a hoax that went viral a few weeks ago. Apparently, the American Psychiatric Association had declared that taking selfies was a mental disorder. Some thought the association was going a bit too far while others found validation of society's increasingly narcissistic tendencies. If you're tired of craning your neck to get the perfect light/angle/filter for freeze-framing your face, there is an art form inviting lesser reproach. Portraiture has played a radical role in the history of art, and niche art studios have come up in the country to study, preserve, and reinvent its evolution, offering bespoke services to buyers such as customised and vintage portraits.
"An artist and a patron's relationship has often started with a portrait," says Sakhshi Mahajan, economics and art history graduate from the University of Chicago, who launched the Portret Project in Delhi in November last year, commissioning artists for exhibitions as well as personal portraits. The novel gallery concept looks at how portraiture as a medium has transformed over time: from facial and bodily representations in traditional oil and charcoal portraits to abstract ink on paper and video art. After travelling to art schools in Santiniketan, Vadodara and Ahmedabad, Mahajan, along with curator and critic Anirudh Chari, has brought together young portrait artists like hyper realist oil-on-canvas painter Sagar Bhowmick, threadwork artist Alpesh Dave, canvas collage maker Pulkit Prajapati and abstract ink and acrylic artist Susmit Biswas. These homegrown artists can be commissioned to capture you at a live sitting, though in this fast-paced day and age, most clients prefer sending photographs, says Mahajan.
Mahajan's collective exhibits the regular works of these artists, with the first exhibition held at Stainless Art Gallery in Delhi and titled 'Out Of/In Countenance'. It featured contemporary works in a variety of mediums such as lithographs, video art, oil on canvas, ink and charcoal on paper, water-colours, among others. It moved to Mumbai at Ellipsis restaurant recently, and is now back at home at the Vasant Vihar studio space. The second show is still being conceptualised, but Mahajan says they plan to explore the role of miniatures in portraiture.
It is at these exhibitions that you get a chance to see the works of your prospective portrait painter. You can buy the exhibited canvases or commission some artists to do your own. Clients can pick the artists who they feel will be able to express their personality best. "Art is personal after all, it needs to be seen physically for it to do something to you, and when you commission an artist you commission his or her expression," says Mahajan. She advises people to book appointments and evaluate the artists' styles for themselves so that they can make up their minds about which artist to commission.
The price for commissioned portraits can be obtained on request, but can range from Rs 30,000 to Rs 5 lakh, depending on factors like the number of elements, sitters, size of portrait, medium and the artist chosen. They can take three to four weeks to complete.
A lot of people want to surprise their loved ones with a portrait gift, sometimes with a twist. This is where Mumbai-based Indian Hippy comes into play. Started by computer engineer-turned-entrepreneur Hinesh Jethwani in 2009, Indian Hippy was conceived as a way to revive a very specific art form - hand-painted vintage Bollywood posters. After having rounded up the last of the remaining Bollywood poster painters who were working odd-jobs after printing took overtook their art, Jethwani set up his e-commerce portal only to realise that there is a huge demand within the customised space.
"Today clients are looking at photo-realistic options; a personalised Bollywood themed portrait is a status symbol that they can flaunt on their walls," says Jethwani. He has received rather creative requests from people, such as the man who wanted a portrait of his wife as Mona Lisa but captioned "The Original Mona Lisa". Katie Wiseman from Delhi is one satisfied customer. She gifted her husband a custom-made family portrait painted in the manner of the Lagaan film poster, and says her husband "really loves it and keeps showing it to everyone. The workmanship is truly impressive and it is such a personal and special item for us to cherish." What she holds most dear is how different it is from conventional portraits. Indian Hippy can boast about international as well as celebrity clients such as Karan Johar and Mandira Bedi. Bedi recently commissioned a portrait of her and her husband as Veeru and Jai in Sholay as an anniversary present.