Miniature mica paintings is an ancient form that was quite popular in the 19th century. Done on the transparent sheets of the mineral mica, the subjects it portrayed were Hindu gods and goddesses, caste, occupations, religious events, tradespeople and flora and fauna of the sub-continent.
Some depict court scenes, while others appear to be sets of costumed characters or Indian pastimes and trades. A woman peeks through the curtain of a wagon, rich men parade on a bejewelled elephant and a scholar clutches the tools of his trade.
This form of painting was so popular then that it was sold to British tourists as a souvenir. Unfortunately, very few have survived.
Perhaps its importance was well understood by Union Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Sanjay Gandhi a long time ago, as she has been collecting this rare art form for decades.
Now the minister is selling her personal collection in order to raise funds for her People For Animals (PFA) organisation’s hospital.
Gandhi unveiled all her mica painting at her residence, 14 Ashoka Road. “I knew it is a very rare, ancient art form and very few are left. This drove me to collect the paintings,” said Maneka Gandhi over the phone.
Mica is a transparent mineral, which is found throughout South India and Bihar. It is painted in gouache on one side of very thin, flexible sheets.
The appeal of mica as a support for painting is due to its very smooth surface: the paint sits on it without sinking in, making the colours very intense. However, Mica paintings are very small in size like a playing card and very brittle also.
Therefore, most of the Micas art were damaged and couldn’t survive time and bad handling. It is estimated that there are less than 7,000 left in the world, many of which have disappeared into the hands of major collectors.
Now the minister has a personal collection of 212 Mica Paintings from different provenances, including Patna, Varanasi and Thiruchirapalli School, depicting scenes like Outdoor Scenes from Contemporary Life in South India, Different types of Palanquins, and Hindu gods and goddesses.
“When I was collecting them, I never had it in mind that one day I will be using it for animal welfare. Eventually, it happened as somebody has to do something for them,” informed Gandhi.
Mica sheets have a slick, transparent surface like glass and to get the paint to stick to the surface, it is necessary to add some kind of adhesive to the watercolour used for the painting.
In some paintings, this paint flakes off either due to bad handling or because a thick coat of colour was used instead of thin coats. In such cases, the paintings need to be properly conserved by an expert.
However, the minister never had any problem while handling or collecting these art forms. The only thing she had to keep was patience. “The only problem I faced was to keep patience. Sometime, it took six months to get one piece of this art form,” she added.