The National Portrait Gallery recently opened The Indian Portrait 1560-1860, an exhibition showcasing a small, but significant collection of Indian portraits during a period of expansive change in India. Looking at this exhibit, you can clearly tell that the earliest influences on Indian art are symptomatic of ancient styles, think of Egyptian wall paintings for example. That is to say the subjects are all seen side on, in two dimensions – and the detail, care and embellishment is in miniature; quite often through floral –festooning, gilding and bright hues. The collection is almost like a series of illustrations – as opposed to grand artworks made for large spaces. When we think of Indian art in general, this type of miniature style is what comes to mind. Think of all the Bayeux-tapestry-style renditions of the Mahabharat, Ramayan and quite interestingly – the Karma Sutra.
In the grand timeline of art history, styles and methods have varied considerably. Often these have reflected a changing shift in society - but so far, we've come to understand these periods as reflecting the culture of the west (renaissance, baroque, rococo etc). In the east, art has moved at a very different pace – it has still reflected the world in which it’s from but tells a completely different story. The exhibit tells us about the significance of patronage, colonial rule, and the deliberate difference of the ‘real and the ideal’ for example.
With portraiture, something which was usually used to suggest stature, station and narrative, there was an evident global shift into a more natural – life-like study of character, dimension and mood. All of this happened at a very different time to the development of portraiture in the west (where experimentation with depth of field kicked off around the post-medieval period and spread east). In fact, the exhibition mentions that Iranian and European art in general had a strong influence on the earlier, earthier Indian style of painting. Indeed as you move along, it is interesting to observe this gradual evolution.
Two of the paintings I compared and noticed were Tilly Kettle’s painting of Nawab Shah and his sons – bright – like a comic book, but flat; and Kala killing the tiger (1815, The David Collection) – detailed, shaded and realistic. The latter was probably my favourite as the viewer could not only appreciate the detail in the decoration of the work, but also the effort created in representing accuracy and realism. It suggested that realism that was permeating the culture of those in power. If art could hold influence over others – then surely, the more domineering, attractive and impressive it is, the more successful it becomes. Perhaps this vision encouraged the bleeding of realism from west to east, fuelled by the wealth of those with colonial power and patronage to recruit the artists of the Mughal, Rajput and northern dynasties.
Overall, I felt like there was a lot to be learnt from the exhibit, but I wouldn’t necessarily achieve all of this from simply looking at the paintings themselves. They’re too small and require further contextualisation for a better understanding. Understandably, it is difficult to achieve this in small space. I would like to view them online for example, where I can zoom in and out – and learn more about how each portrait was designed to be viewed: in a book, on a wall, in a library? I especially felt this when moving through the brightly lit walls of the National Portrait Gallery and glancing at giant images of Fiona Shaw and Germaine Greer (which you know are supposed to be there). Which leaves you wondering – where were the Indian portraits originally kept and how did the Indian public originally view them?