Portraiture in India

Portraiture in India

The art-historical study of the art of painting in India has been going on now for more than one century. This study carried out mostly through the 20th century has convincingly established how the Indian painters have documented our own culture and society. Simultaneously the involvement with portraiture, the human face, facial features, resemblances and expressions, has been quite considerable. The western scholars in the early years of the 20th century have made certain assumptions regarding the shortcomings of the Indian painters which include two specific aspects. One, that no independent status was given to the genre of portraiture and two, regarding the degree of illusionistic naturalism. The pioneering art-historical scholar, Ananda Coomaraswmy, although had already discovered portrait drawings both in Rajput (Rajasthani and Pahari) and Mughal schools, yet he put forth a theory of 'ideal portraiture', which has been misunderstood and also needs to be questioned. Essentially his concern was how the image of Buddha, just as the image of Christ, are not naturalistic delineations of what are actually historical persons, but idealized portrayals of personages who have been deified. I do not think this can be used as a general theory for the genre of 'portraiture'. Obviously this concept is different than that of the 'body of flesh', with which ordinary portraiture is concerned.

The interest in human physiognomy, features, expressions, the impact of changes in the features due to emotional stress or tension, is reflected in an overwhelming manner among the poets and literary writers' descriptions of characters, appearances and personalities. It is also the challenge to the theatre actors as well as intrinsic to the training of Indian dancers in particular. The mastery to be developed for mukhaja abhinaya in contradiction with the hastas as a distinct specialization, is explained in the highly perceptive text of Bharata's Natya Shastra of the 1st century. How much engrossed the readers, the on-lookers, the audience, feel towards these creative productions is undeniable. How could the Indian painters and sculptors be considered as outside the pale of this human and cultural trait of India. The propensity for human physiognomy by the artists as well as the on-lookers and audiences, should be considered as part of cultural ethos of our nation. The eminent Sanskritist and art-historian, C. Sivaramamurti has brought to light numerous references from Sanskrit literature concerning portraiture. From a study of Kalidasa's Kavyas, this prolific scholar has shown how making portraits of living and dead people was in vogue during the early centuries of Christian era. In Bhasa'a Pratimanataka, Bharata recognized his recently deceased father, Dasharatha, from a portrait statue. Artist had the power to recreate likenesses through a series of sketches gradually coming close to the original, for example, the role of Chitralekha as painter, in the Usha-Aniruddha story. Artist had the capacity to imagine the facial features, from a small indication, even if it be the toe, according to a story in the Jaina text, Trishahthishalakapurushacharitra, compiled during the medieval period.

The popularity that the genre of portraiture gained since the second half of 19th century in the oil medium by Indian painters (which is the theme of the present exhibition) cannot be explained entirely due to the influence of travelling European artists working in India. The western scholars are fond of mentioning this view, which should be considered a reflection of colonial mentality as well as a view completely bypassing what we have now learnt about the capacities of Indian painters through 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. No doubt the advent of Raja Ravi Varma by around late 1870s onwards both as a prolific mythological as well as portrait painter in the oil medium did renew the interest in portrait making. Yet the phenomenon of naturalism ushered in consequent to the new phase of art education in the art school set up by the colonial administration during the second half of 19th century, (in Mumbai, Kolkata and Madras) created opportunities of employment for painters among which portait-making was the obvious one.

It must be noted that it was not the case that Indian painters saw themselves in the same shoes as the European painters, but rather that the training they received constituted what for them was the basic art of painting, viz., object drawing, head study, nude study and landscape. In my opinion, the very perceptive thinker-author-painter of Gujarat, Ravi Shankar Raval, has recorded the mind set of art school trained Indian painters during the first decades of the 20th century. The very first professional opportunity of making an earning was to do portraits, faces, full figures, standing, seated in an appropriate setting. The second possibility was theatre sets and props for drama, the third was the cinema sets as film making expanded. One more possible 'subject' was added with the printing of magazines, to draw illustrations for poetry and short stories.

We are talking of the period when there was no concept of creativity around and such ideas as 'artist's expression' were not inculcated in the art-school art education. In fact even the British organizers of art schools had been debating not only what are the kinds of employment the trained art students would be engaged in or alternatively what sort of professional work could be assigned to them.

As the emperor Akbar's workshop (tasveerkhana) accumulated enough experience during the last quarter of the 16th century, specific paintings required recognizable personalities such as paintings depicting court gatherings. Artists with expertise in making faces and likenesses were assigned to collaborate with the master-painters and along with their names such epithet or term implying specialization was inscribed, for instance, chehranami (known or recognizable faces made by so and so). Individual portraits were identified as sabi'a and the name of the 'sitter' was inscribed. (In Rajasthani and Pahari school portraits often the term used is chhabi). It is significant that right from Akbar's rule through to Aurangzeb's period, many remarkable portrait painters included generations of Hindu artists. Even during 18th and 19th centuries art of portraiture was vigorously persued in Rajasthani sub-schools as well as in sub-schools of Pahari kingdoms, besides the late phase of the Mughal style in Delhi, Audh and Murshidabad.

My contention is that the practice of posing the 'model' in the front 'face to face', is neither derived from European influence nor so the overall concept of 'naturalistic' rendering, because such approach was already familiar to the Indian painters and sculptors. The devices of naturalistic rendering are basically empirical means of visual representation, i.e., what 'eyes perceive'. Such has been voluminously argued by Ernst Gombrich in his world famous book 'Art and Illusion'. The new elements introduced in the art school training in the oil medium were perhaps the rendering of 'light' as an entity (as distinct from 'tonal gradations' to render the 'volume'), besides the sensitivity towards the new ways of colour applications and colour-schemes.

Key words : Portraiture, Portrait in India, naturalistic delineation in portrait, Anand Coomaraswamy, C. Sivarammurti, Kalidasa's Sanskrit Kavyas, Reference of Portrain in Sanskrit Poetry

Categories : Painting, In House Blog, Art History