The Indian Portrait 1560-1860

Ram Rao Phalke, Gwalior, circa 1865, San Diego Museum of Art, Edwin Binney 3rd collection 1990:1022 © San Diego Museum of Art

AN EXHIBITION AT the National Portrait Gallery in London opens in March and aims to trace the history of the Indian portrait over three centuries, from the Mughals to the Raj. Bringing together 60 works from international public and private collections, The Indian Portrait 1560-1860 celebrates the beauty, power and humanity portrayed in these works of art.  By gathering these paintings as a cohesive group, the exhibition shows that Indian portraiture – an area of artistic achievement often overlooked in Britain – should be seen alongside other outstanding portraits from around the world.

The works range from formal portraits of the Mughal emperors to penetrating studies of courtiers and holy men, as well as candid depictions by Indian artists of Europeans living in India. These paintings are a record of a rich and complex history, embracing influences from Iran and Europe as well as local Hindu and Muslim traditions. They not only show a growing self-awareness of how Indians saw themselves, but also how they wished to be seen.

As Kapil Jariwala explains in his comprehensive introduction to the subject in the accompanying catalogue, that the exhibition explores the development of the genre within the vast body of Indian painting itself. It looks at the different ways in which Indian artists have approached the portrait over a 300-year period and at various places across the geography of the Indian subcontinent.

The story of the Indian portrait is a fascinating journey, encompassing notions of the real and the ideal, the observed and the imagined. The selection on show consists mainly of paintings of known people and documented portraits, but also includes some that remain anonymous. These images reveal the history of the period, the role of patronage in driving innovation in artistic representation, and the emergence of the artist as an observer with a distinct and subtle vision. Many of them also illuminate the personal histories of the individuals they depict. These works are a record of a rich and complex past, embracing influences from Iran and Europe as well as local Hindu and Muslim traditions. They not only demonstrate the growing self-awareness of how Indians saw themselves, but also how they wished to be seen.

The role of the portrait in India is many-faceted – it serves as an official chronicle or eyewitness account, and as a means of revealing the intimate moments of everyday life. The portrait as a tool of propaganda is not unusual in the history of art, but its proliferation and mastery in the Mughal and Rajput courts brought it to a new level of artistry and style. The rise of the ‘observed’ portrait, instigated largely by European influences, enabled the Mughal artist to address realism, and in turn brought about the ‘empathy’ portrait. This depicted the sitter, for the first time in Indian art, as a psychological entity, revealing their fallibility and compassion, or simply how they really looked.

Developing from its origins at the Mughal court under the emperor Akbar in the 16th century, portraiture spread to the Islamic sultanates of the Deccan and to the small Hindu kingdoms in Rajasthan and the Punjab Hills. In all of these regions, distinctively local styles were overlaid on essentially Mughal prototypes until European influence returned during the so-called Company period, when Western concepts of realism were applied by Indian artists to local subjects.

The high point of Indian portraiture is, arguably, the part of the Mughal period that spans the reigns of the Emperors Akbar (1555-1605) to Muhammad Shah (1719–1748), but the catalogue puts the paintings in the exhibition in context by beginning this journey by looking at the role of the portrait in Indian art and literature before the Mughal conquest of 1526. It then charts the portrait’s development from its origins at the Mughal court under the Emperor Akbar, and the peak of its development under Jahangir and Shah Jahan. From the Mughal court, the art of portraiture spread to the Islamic kingdoms (sultanates) of the Deccan further south, and to the small Hindu kingdoms in Rajasthan and the Pahari region or Punjab Hills. In all of these regions, distinctively local styles were overlaid on essentially Mughal prototypes. European influence, which had contributed to the initial emergence of the documentary portrait at the Mughal court, returned emphatically in the 18th century during the so-called Company period, when western concepts of realism were applied by Indian artists to local subjects.

Most early representations of people in Indian art were generalised types rather than accurate likenesses of known individuals. It is important to make a distinction between the portrait that is observed from life and the stylised or stereotype portrait. In both forms, the intended function is worth considering. The stylised image has allusions to the ‘ideal’ representation, and an idea of physical or moral perfection that can be symbolically conveyed by a gesture, by the type of eyes and mouth or by skin colour. The ideal attributes of heroes and heroines in early Indian art and literature were categorised and prescribed in carefully laid-down canons, which were adhered to faithfully by artists and sculptors. Images of lowlier people, while less frequently painted, were less subject to these constraints. The countless portraits of unknown people, images that have lost their historical and literal name tag, can still be judged to be ‘true’ on an instinctive level, even if this form of appreciation may be subjective and relies on the viewer’s empathy towards the representation. Anonymous portraits populate the history of art of all periods, and it would be a mistake to dismiss them.

Painting in mediaeval India had various functions: it often served to illuminate and illustrate manuscripts, which were generally only accessible to a few. Wall paintings such as the mural paintings at Ajanta, on the other hand, were intended for public consumption. These were rich in symbolism that would presumably be understood by the average viewer, who would be acquainted with their meaning. In contrast to these large-scale works, there were also decorative paintings on wooden panels and miniature or small-scale pictures on palm leaf and later on paper. These objects were looked at in the privacy of a domestic setting and viewed intimately. These paintings were preserved in some areas in book form but also as single folio pages or stacks of paper or palm-leaf folios sandwiched between wooden book-covers. Others were stored in boxes or simply piled and wrapped in a piece of cloth, and brought out specially to be seen. The convention of hanging paintings permanently on walls for display was alien: thankfully this has meant that many of these miniature paintings have survived, their colours vibrant and generally in a state of good preservation.

New ideas, new painting methods and new materials for artists entered India with successive waves of incomers. Ancient India was an important world trader from time immemorial. The great trade routes such as the Silk Road and the Grand Trunk Road connected India to China, the Mediterranean and the rest of the world; these routes became the conduit for material goods as well as ideas. The Roman writer Pliny the Elder complains at the cost of imports from India to Rome in his Natural History written in ad 77–79, whilst African giraffes were brought to Konarak in eastern India in the thirteenth century – as we know from an unmistakable giraffe depicted in a stone relief panel in the Sun Temple.

The selection of Indian portraits brought together here does not claim to be comprehensive; it is, however, an attempt to tell the story of the portrait in India – from the sumptuous Mughal courts to the hermit’s cave, from the imposing presence to private intimacy. It aims to celebrate the beauty, power and humanity of these works of art, showing that the Indian portrait at its best can stand shoulder to shoulder with outstanding examples of portraiture from around the world.

There have been a number of important loans to the exhibition, including two pages from the Padshahnama made for Shah Jahan, now in the Royal Collection in England; a huge Mughal cloth painting of the Emperor Jahangir; and a pair of images of the Mughal courtier ‘Inayat Khan close to death’, which have never previously been shown together in the UK. There are also striking portraits such as those of Amar Singh II of Mewar taking his ease, and the Maratha general Ram Rao Phalke, which call for a re-examination of portraiture in India. Other exhibits include loans from the Metropolitan Museum, New York, the MFA, Boston, the San Diego Museum of Art, the V&A, Musée Guimet, Paris, the David Collection, Copenhagen and the British Library, the British Museum and the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

To complement the exhibition, selected works and a trail by The Singh Twins (who work in the traditional miniature style) are showing a contemporary response to the exhibition and the gallery’s permanent collection. Contemporary Connections: The Singh Twins in the Studio Gallery at the museum runs simultaneously with The Indian Portrait 1560-1860. The London-born twin sisters are internationally acclaimed contemporary British artists whose award-winning paintings explore issues of social, political, religious and multicultural debate. Using a narrative, decorative, symbolic and witty ‘Past Modern’ (as opposed to Post Modern) style, they have initiated a new movement in the revival of the Indian miniature tradition within modern art practice. For more information on their work visit www.singhtwins.co.uk.

To coincide with the exhibition, there is a season of events. Highlights include a Singh Twins masterclass; a major two-day international conference in partnership with the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), the first to focus on South Asian portraiture; and a contemporary South Asian literary season programmed with The Asian Word. Speakers include, Fatima Bhutto, Kamila Shamsie, Daniyal Mueenuddin and Neel Mukherjee who will explore a diverse range of contemporary issues and subjects including cultural identity and representation, migration and displacement, Kashmir, Pakistan and Indian crime fiction.

From 11 March to 20 June, 2010, at the National Portrait Gallery, St Martin’s Place, London, WC2H 0HE, www.npg.org.uk. A catalogue by curators Rosemary Crill and Kapil Jariwala accompanies the exhibition, including over 100 portraits and essays by J.P. Losty, Robert Skelton and Susan Stronge, as well as analysis of painting techniques and materials.  ISBN 978 1 85514 409 5, £25 hardback.