From cave paintings and murals to grand paintings and painted photographs, portrait-making in India has undergone a massive change over a period spanning 30,000 years. Sahapedia.org and DAG trace the influences and transformations in the tradition of portrait-making in the subcontinent.
While the development of portrait-making in India, as we know it, can be largely attributed to British colonization, the practice of documenting ourselves—in the context of the world around us—is as old as humanity itself.
Around 30,000 years ago, human beings living in the rock shelters of Bhimbetka (Madhya Pradesh) drew images of themselves as hunters, villagers and of celebrations on the cave walls. Jump to about 4500 years back, to the Indus Valley civilization, and we have the iconic statuette of the Dancing Girl and the Priest-King sculpture. While the former is often casually referred to as the ‘first red-carpet pose’, the latter is arguably one of the first busts we know of.
Closer Home and Closer in Time
The tradition of portrait-making in the subcontinent is a continuous practice, one where often the divine and the human coexist. For example, the walls and ceilings of the Ajanta caves (2nd century BCE onwards) are teeming with images of the Buddha, the different Bodhisattvas and humans alike. Hindu temple façades have a series of projections and recessions decorated with relief sculptures; while gods are placed on the projections, human figures are seen in the depressed spaces. Taking another jump forward to the 16th century, the art of portraiture thrived in the miniature tradition under the Mughal sultanate. Govardhan and Basavan were famous artists in Akbar’s court, while the latter’s son, Manohar Das, worked for Jehangir.
The principal shift in Indian art is seen with the rise of British colonization (18-19th centuries onwards). Around the complete annexation following the failed 1857 uprising, a number of art schools were set up. These institutions—in Madras (now Chennai), Calcutta (now Kolkata), Bombay (now Mumbai) and even Baroda (now Vadodara)—taught European naturalism to locals in order to later employ them to document the local landscape and demography. Over the course of the schools’ existence, the agenda gradually shifted to a complete focus on fine arts, with each site developing unique styles.
With the British invasion, we see the arrival of European travelling artists such as J. Barton and Benjamin Hudson. On the one hand, these artists painted both local royalty, English officers as well as images of British royalty, on the other, artists such as F.B. Solvyns, James Wales, and Thomas and William Daniells made topographical and ethnographical documentation for the people back home.
The rising popularity of European naturalism in 19th-century portraiture affected a decline in the pre-existent indigenous art. As a result, local artists such as Raja Ravi Varma (mainly known for his oil on canvas paintings, especially the Hindu deities) began painting in the European technique.
Amongst the four art major schools/centres, Ravi Varma’s work in Bombay, at the Sir J.J. School of Art, really takes off, plausibly because he was running a printing press in Lonavala at the time, which allowed for a higher degree of movement of his prints. Artists such as M.V. Dhurandhar, J.D. Gondhalekar, S.L. Haldankar, P.T. Reddy, Abalall Rahiman, N.R. Sardesai and M.F. Pithawallaare only a few names from the school, who mastered the art of portraiture. Of these, Dhurandhar—who is regarded as the most important artist of this generation—was directly influenced by Ravi Varma. Additionally, Pithawalla gained fame by painting portraits of men and women from wealthy Parsi business-class families.
Painting a Photograph
A direct challenge to professional portrait-making came with the advent of modern photography, thanks to the Frenchman Louis Daguerre, in 1839. The Daguerreotype arrived in India soon after, presenting a cheaper and quicker alternative to the painstaking process of painting a portrait. As a compromise, photo studios began working with artists, who would colour black-and-white photographs or even paint commissioned portraits from photographs.
For instance, the striking painted portrait of Nawab Ahmad Ali Khan of Malerkotla, Punjab (c. 1930) was referenced from a photograph by the renowned Bourne & Shepherd Studio. This painted reproduction is curiously signed in the studio’s name instead of the original artist(s). Sized at a massive 108x 60inches, with the original frame weighing over 200 kg, this painting is a stunning example of how painters and photography studios worked together. Another example of this style is photos of Maharaja Jiwaji Rao Scindia (1916-61) of Gwalior, which appears both as a black-and-white photograph as well as one hand-tinted with watercolour.
European naturalism also took a beating at the turn of the 20th century. The onslaught of the two World Wars, the struggle for Indian independence and the development of modern art practices began to nullify the need for ‘academic realism’ in art. Portraits became stylized, as can be seen in Paritosh Sen’s Self-Portrait (dated 1948) and Sudhir Ranjan Khastgir’s Untitled portraits (c. 1950). The most striking of such examples, however, is Kisory Roy’s self-portrait, painted at the height of the 1944 Great Bengal Famine, Art, and Famine (c. 1944).
After independence, the centre of art was slowly but surely shifting from the colonial capital of Calcutta to the newer, more metropolitan city of Bombay. Academism and naturalism were also being seen as sedentary modes of expression. The struggle for independence, two World Wars, financial and political struggles of the newly formed nation created anguish within the population, and artists reacted to this emotion by transitioning towards art that was more expressive.
The Europeanised abstractionism of the Bombay Progressive Artists became a canon-forming identity of Indian art in the international market, while practitioners of the Madras School delved into the esoteric ideologies of tantric philosophies, led by the stalwart K.C.S. Paniker. Even though certain artists like Bikash Bhattacharjee continued to use certain naturalistic elements in their art, commissioned portrait-making had by now been relegated to the confinement of history—the only true respect to the genre being shown in officially sanctioned images of prime ministers and presidents.
(This article is part of a Saha Sutra collaboration between DAG and www.sahapedia.org, an open online resource on the arts, cultures and heritage of India. The exhibition, A Portrait of Our People, is on display at the Drishyakala museum, Red Fort, New Delhi, till January 2020.)