Portraiture as an art form has thrived for over a millennia. In India, the role of the portraits has been a multi faceted one and has evolved over the ages. Not only it served as an official chronicle or an eyewitness account, but also as a means of revealing the intimate moments of everyday life. A study of this genre is endlessly fascinating for many reasons : the sitter, the technique, use of light & colours, etc. In fact, portraits have even been used to establish authority or as tools of diplomacy (gifts) and even propaganda.
In collaboration with the Archer Art Gallery, we delve deeper into the stories of three Incredible Indians through the portraits in their collection.
But first, the backstory : Miniature Portraits
The origin of portraiture in the miniature paintings can be traced back to the Mughal court in the 16th century. The period marked by the reign of Akbar (1555-1605) to Muhammad Shah (1719–1748), is considered to be the high point of the Indian portrait paintings. The arrival of Jesuits to Akbar’s court, introduced painters of his atelier to European art and sensibilities which further influenced Mughal portraiture.
From the Mughal court, the art of portraiture disseminated further south to the sultanates of the Deccan, as well as in the Hindu kingdoms of Rajasthan and the Pahari region or Punjab Hills in the north. In all of these regions, the miniature painting tradition further developed their own distinct styles, rooted in the local traditions.
Maharaja Ranjitsinhji, Cricket’s first global superstar : arrival of Printmaking
It is believed that the first lithographic press in India was established by Sir Charles D’Oyly in Gaya (Bihar). With the invention of the lithographic press followed by the chromolithographs, printed portraits gained significant momentum in the subcontinent. Instead of being restricted to the elites, they were now readily available to the masses. The advantage of chromolithography was that it allowed the production of colored prints without the cost, time and risk of hand coloring. Eventually, it also served as a replica of the real painting. This ensured that the popularity of prominent figures like Maharaja Ranjitsinhji was propelled to a new height – something which helped him in the long run, especially in the pursuit of reclaiming his right as the Jam Saheb of Nawanagar.
The Maharaja’s popularity is well reflected in the numerous posters, photographs and 3-D portraits of him that emerged in the years to come.
The European Influence on Indian Portraiture & artists like Baburao Painter
19th century India witnessed a remarkable change in the realm of painting techniques, which was also the influx of modernity within the Indian society. As more European artists travelled to India, the interaction between Indian and Western art deepened; increasing patronage of East India Company officials, and the establishment of formal art-colleges specializing in European techniques further led to the development of a new aesthetic language in portraiture. This was a striking shift in the Indian art history which the broke centuries old tradition of the miniature paintings.
The influence of European painting traditions on Indian artists can be the seen in this portrait of Gujarati stage actor Mohanlal Lalji Khusalram. It was painted by Baburao Krishnarao Mistry (popularly known as Baburao Painter), who was a self-taught artist and sculptor in the academic art school style. He developed his own style of portraiture by observing European paintings in the museums and preferred the romantic approach of the Pre-Raphaelite painter of the 19th century. In this portrait you can see how his style also reflects his background as a leading exponent in stage-backdrop painting.
Hukamchand Jain : the advent of photography in India
Photography arrived in India earlier than in other parts of world, mainly due to the enthusiasm of the British Raj. Despite the lack of speedy transport and communication, the equipment for photography was available in India as early as 1850s, courtesy of the East India Company. Historically, before the arrival of camera to the Indian subcontinent in 1840, the camera was already being used in Udaipur by the Royal family.
The adventure surrounding photography was explosive and gradually the new medium found many enthusiasts. Several photographic societies and a number of photographic studios had started mushrooming in Bombay, Madras and Calcutta. After witnessing the popularity and effectiveness of the medium, the East India Company declared photography to be the most accurate and economic means of documenting the architectural and archaeological monuments for official records etc.
Indian kings and princes also started to get themselves photographed and gave away their images as souvenirs to people they met. This was a seen as symbol of their infinite timeless strength. The Indian royalty also gifted their photographs and albums to the British as a gesture of political chivalry.
With the ever increasing popularity of photography, numerous advancements were made in the technology to make it cheaper and easily accessible to the public.
Meanwhile, these developments led to the decline of the traditional portrait painting. Thus arose a need for artists to explore other means to sustain, in order to compete with the commercial photography. Artists started to use photographs to enhance the function of the paintings. As a result, a new aesthetic was developed that integrated the key aspects of paintings and photographs in one image.
Paint gave life to the objects that looked dull in the black and white photographs. Many miniature portrait painters found employment in photography studios as colorists. One great advantage of of hand-colored photographs was that they had a longer shelf life. This archival quality played an important part in their ever-increasing popularity.
Some artists also tried to recreate a visual wonder in photographs by giving a 3D quality to the portraits by pasting cutouts and using embellishment techniques. However, such luxury was initially available only to the privileged.
Painting and photography in India were never considered separate from each other or as competing mediums, but as a part of the larger continuum of representational practices. The photographic technology changed from within the existing painting practices in India and developed local meanings and icons.
Don’t forget to check out our AR Filter on Instagram featuring the 3-d portrait of Maharaja Ranjitsinhji.