From the middle ages to the twilight of the Mughals, classic Indian painting is getting new attention from museums and collectors.
Look once and you’ll look twice. It’s almost impossible to resist the diminutive drama of Indian painting. This incredibly rich but broad category, which scholars now timeline from the 12th through 19th centuries, might be best known to the art world as Indian miniatures, color-soaked, gemlike paintings of courtly, religious and literary scenes, a genre that is generally associated with the period of the Mughal empire (1560–1858). Recent groundbreaking museum shows, gallery exhibitions, scholarship, even long-held important collections coming to auction, however, are bringing much-needed attention to India’s painting traditions both before and after the Mughals reigned.
Unsurprisingly, India’s complex history of religious faiths, geography, ethnicities, and visitors intriguingly plays out in the various schools and dynasties of Indian painting. Buddhist and Jain monastic manuscript illustrations; the hot colors of the Rajput kingdoms; the skills of the illustrators of the Muslim courts; the Medici-like appetite for art of the Mughal emperors; European engravings and Renaissance prints tucked in the rucksacks of Jesuit missionaries; and mannered English and Dutch portraits that arrived with the East India Company, all left their mark on the artists here. While “Wonder of the Age: Master Paintings of India 1100–1900,” a major exhibition that ran last fall at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, identified 40 of India’s great painters, most artists, though valued by their patrons, toiled in humble anonymity. The exhibition catalogue notes that master painter, Abu’l Hasan, a favorite of one of the Mughal courts, discreetly signed one of his paintings of a celebratory crowd scene on a shovel used to scoop up elephant dung.
The Met exhibition, which began at the Museum Rietberg in Zurich and included loans from Iran that couldn’t travel onward to the United States, also broke new ground in acknowledging 18th- and 19th-century Indian painting, an area that traditionally wasn’t well-favored by collector—but that’s changing. This includes Pahari, or Hill School Painting, which developed in the Himalayan hills of northern India as centralized Mughal power declined. The rise of the British Raj, and “Company Painting”—Western portraits and landscapes commissioned by employees of the East India Company—also took place during this era. This transitional time period is explored in yet another much-buzzed about exhibition, “Princes and Painters in Mughal Delhi, 1707–1857,” running through May 6 at the Asia Society Museum in New York.
It’s an exciting time for a collecting category that for decades was solely the province of the specialist buyer. Today, galleries and auction houses say they’re seeing an increasing number of modern and contemporary collectors crossing over into early Indian painting, especially Indian collectors who may own works by such modernists as Tyeb Mehta or M. F. Husain and now see how early Indian painting informed their works. “These collectors’ eyes are going backwards now,” says Sandhya Jain Patel, a specialist in Indian and Southeast Asian Art at Christie’s New York.
“Until recently this field used to be very moribund, with aging private collectors,” says Brendan Lynch of Oliver Forge and Brendan Lynch, London-based specialists in Indian and Islamic art showing this month at New York Asia Week. “Suddenly, in the last two or three years, these young collectors are coming out of the blue.”
“It’s always been a niche market, but now it’s opening up,” says Francesca Galloway, a London-based dealer who has been selling Indian painting since the 1970s and is also showing during New York’s Asia Week. “We’re seeing new European collectors, Indian collectors, Asian collectors. And, of course the American museums and collectors that have always been serious.”
Once exposed to the magical vibrancy of Indian painting, it’s easy to understand the attraction. It typically starts with a colorful aesthetic or enchanting subject matter—a congenial elephant or a dashing maharana in full regalia, hunting wild boar on horseback. The context of the work and its history helps deepen its allure. The more one learns, the more the attraction grows. What’s wonderful about this category is that dealers and auction house specialists don’t expect their buyers to be fully conversant in Krishna’s exploits or Sanskrit love poems. “This area is so specialized, it’s absolutely acceptable to have multiple questions” says Lynch.
The earliest Western collectors of Indian paintings bought for pure love, not bound by a particular school or region. Among them was Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy, the son of a Tamil father and an English mother who amassed an important collection of Indian miniatures that he donated to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, when no institution in India wanted it. Coomaraswamy, who died in 1947, is considered a pioneer of Indian miniature collectors, along with Edwin Binney, the founder of Crayola Crayons, who donated his Indian miniature paintings to the San Diego Museum of Art.
More recently, in autumn 2010, Galloway sold filmmaker James Ivory’s spectacular Indian paintings collection, which he assembled while making films in India and that she also helped build. The California-born director/partner of Merchant Ivory films saw his first Indian miniature by accident when visiting San Francisco dealer Raymond Lewis to buy a Canaletto etching. Lewis had been showing Indian pictures to a previous buyer when Ivory caught a glimpse, bought his first, and was hooked. Writing in the exhibition’s oversized catalogue, Ivory says, “In October 1959 I could scarcely wait to get off the plane that had brought me to New Delhi so that I could go to the Indian Arts Palace in Connaught Place and begin buying miniature paintings.” Ivory’s film, The Sword and the Flute, is based on Indian miniature paintings.
A great friend of Ivory’s, the late Stuart Cary Welch, who died at age 80 in 2008, is another granddad of Indian picture collecting. Welch, a legendary self-taught specialist, headed up the Indian and Islamic art departments at the Harvard Art Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Welch’s extensive collection of Indian and Islamic art sold at Sotheby’s London last spring and summer, making a total of £29.3 million, many lots soaring above estimates. Among the collection were a number of Indian paintings, including Shri Bhairavi Devi with Shiva, an opaque water color and gold on paper from the Mughal era, circa 1630–35, attributable to Payag, that sold for £1.38 million against a $30,000–40,000 estimate.
In March 2008, Christie’s set the record for an Indian painting when Musicians Playing a Raga for Balwant Dev Singh During the Rainy Season (1745–50), a painting in opaque pigments and gold on wasli by Pahari painter Nainsukh of Guler, went for $2.25 million over a $150,000–250,000 estimate. It came from the Pal Family Collection.
This month Christie’s puts another great collection on the block when they offer 500 lots from longtime New York dealer Doris Wiener (March 20), who died at age 88 in April 2011. An Indian and Southeast Asian specialist, Wiener sold to everyone from John D. Rockefeller to Jackie Onassis to major U.S. museums. About half of the sale is made up of Indian paintings. “Strengths of the sale are areas she helped popularize in the West,” says Patel. “Jain art, Deccani painting, Rajasthani painting.” Sotheby’s also holds its Indian and Southeast Asian Works of Art sale this month (March 21), offering A Portrait of the Emperor Farrukhsiyar,” (est. $30,000–50,000) circa 1713–19, a Mughal painting attributed to Bhavani Das or Chitarman II.
The collection of one of the keenest living collectors of Indian paintings can’t be bought, but it can be viewed this spring at England’s Ashmolean Museum of Art & Archeology in Oxford. Through April 22, Visions of Mughal India: The Collection of Sir Howard Hodgkin, includes 115 Indian paintings and drawings collected by the contemporary artist over a lifetime. The highly personal collection includes a variety of examples from the Mughal, Deccani Sultanate and Pahari schools, and reflects the painter’s fondness for elephants.
Back in New York, a little shopping can be done at Asia Week, where one might note a painting that bears a striking resemblance to one in the Ashmolean show. Brendan Lynch will be showing A Lady Singing (circa 1760), a watercolor-with-gold-on-paper portrait of a seductive songstress, attributed to the great Mughal artist Manohar, painted in the Kishangarh, Rajasthan. Indian paintings scholar J. P. Losty believes the sultan of Kishangarh was enchanted with this woman and had her painted again 30 years after her earlier portrait in the Hodgkin Collection. Earlier works will also be for sale during Asia Week, when Galloway offers a rare leaf from the Dispersed Early Rajput Bhagavata Purana, 1520–30, a watercolor with gold.
It’s March madness for Indian paintings collectors. Says Patel, “Once you start, you really don’t stop.”
This article originally appeared in the March Issue of Art & Antiques Magazine as “Passage to India”.
By Sallie Brady