The foreign eye: How international artists have seen India

How international artists have seen India

When they first started coming to India in the 18th century, European artists weren’t prepared for what the country had to offer—neither its rigours nor the extremely lucrative commissions that made them wealthy beyond belief (though payments from royal families did not always come on time and sometimes required a nudge from British officials to materialise).

No matter how long they toured or stayed in India, its impact on their work was obvious. Initially, artists painted only her landscapes and people in the realistic style; later, influenced by local traditions, what emerged was the Company School, and attempts to merge rather than diverge. Lithographs and aquatints of the country were all the rage, but soon Indian artists from the art schools in Bombay and Calcutta began to paint just as well as their Western counterparts for far less remuneration, rendering them, as it were, obsolete. Still, artists have continued to come to work or settle in India, and their engagement has grown to include the native narrative in what still remains an occidental perception of a many-layered land.

Cecil Burns
(c. 1863-1929)
Untitled, 1925

Cecil Burns’s influence on indian art has been greater than what many artists in the country realise. As art teacher as well as head of the Sir JJ School of Art in Bombay (now Mumbai) in the early twentieth century, he was responsible for its strict adherence to the tenets of British realistic art, a tradition that continues till today. Unlike in Calcutta (now Kolkata) where EB Havell replaced strictly academic training with traditional and classical Indian art, Bombay remained the vanguard of European art practice rooted in naturalism. Along with oil painting, Burns was also responsible for introducing drawing classes and a school of architecture. A dedicated teacher, he enjoyed painting landscapes, choosing those around Thane as his plein-air classroom. Among his students was MV Dhurandhar, one of the greatest artists of his time and a rival to Raja Ravi Varma in his success in establishing mythology and history within the prescripts of Victorian realistic art. Unfortunately, most of Burns’s body of work painted in India was lost in a fire on the Bombay dock on his return journey home to Southampton, England

Cecil Burns (c. 1863-1929)
How international artists have seen India

Francesco Clemente
(b. 1952)
Boy, 1985

An italian artist who was born in naples, Francesco Clemente’s unusual journey is a tale of two cities—New York and Varanasi in the 1980s—and an enduring interest in the Indian subcontinent with his series of tantra-inspired work in Tibet and subsequently in India. Described as ‘nomadic’, Clemente’s work cannot be slotted into any easy category. Briefly described as neo-expressionistic, he collaborated with folk artists and craftsmen in India, breaking the shackles that confined them to a less elitist platform. He has worked across genres and mediums, choosing oil, watercolors, printmaking, pastels and photography at different times or together before finally settling on painting as his abiding interest. Sometimes erotic, at other times transformative and fragmentative, he is an unwitting commentator on the digital (and materialistic) age through which his work has informed Indian artists. Shown at prestigious museums in Philadelphia, Paris and Tokyo, his paintings have also been featured at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, as well as at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in Kochi, Kerala. His Inspired by India exhibition ran from September 2014 to February 2015 at Queen’s Museum in New York and has opened a window to Indian art practice from traditional times to its contemporary renderings.

Tilly Kettle (1735-86)
Dancing Girl, 1772

In the eight years that he spent touring India, from 1768-76, Tilly Kettle, unlike other British artists, chose to ignore the landscape for the streetscape. A portraitist, his first port of call was Madras (now Chennai), where he painted the Nawab of Arcot as well as British luminaries, before moving to Calcutta, the capital of the East India Company, which had invited him to tour India. Here, he painted his well-known scenes of nautch-girls as well as sati. He also travelled to Lucknow to paint the Nawab of Awadh. Born in London, he began painting in the 1750s, though his professional portraits began appearing from 1760 onwards. Unlike the Daniells, who preferred to paint landscapes, Tilly Kettle found himself drawn to the stories and people of India, and the street claimed his attention when he was not making portraits of the elite. On his return to London, his marriage to Mary Paine led him to his financial clemency, especially since he seemed to have lost his former patrons in England. Nostalgic for his fame and success in India, he attempted to return in 1786 using an overland route, but presumably died somewhere en route as he was not seen again.

How international artists have seen India

Henry Singleton (1766-1839)
The Last Effort and Fall of Tippoo Sultan, early 19th century

A very significant british artist known for his large compositions from the Bible, Shakespearean theatre or contemporary historical events such as the pictured work alongside, Henry Singleton was a silver medallist from the Royal Academy schools and was commissioned by it to paint a group portrait of forty academicians. He also exhibited regularly there from 1784 till his death, but was ironically never invited to be a member of the Academy. He was in demand as a portrait painter, but it is his theatrical scenes of historical cusps that are considered the most important. In them, he captures the intensity of the moment as well as movement, and despite being a British vanguard, does not show the vanquished—the Indian army of Tipu Sultan in this case—to be either evil or weak, but as an able opponent. There is an inherent nobility in his narrative, even though the results are nothing but death and devastation. The grand sweep of the historical chronicle provides a subject, but the style is not melodramatic; it is heroic—and therefore tragic. The rendition of uniforms and costumes and the nature of warfare mark him out as a painter suited to his other passion—the painting of dramatic productions.

Waswo X Waswo (b. 1953)
Jali, 2013

Richard John Waswo, known by his nom de plume of Waswo X Waswo, was born in Wisconsin, USA, where he also studied before making a home in India since 2001. A master of chemical process sepia-tinted photographs, that has formed part of India’s engagement with the Western eye (and, therefore, debates about exoticisation), Waswo came into his own as an artist who paints miniatures. In his photographs, there is a considered attempt to create an India image that is deliberately recreated, using artistic licence. Besides his sepia studies, he hand-tinted photographs in a tradition in prevalence till the early decades of the twentieth century. But having chosen to live and work out of Udaipur, Rajasthan, Waswo soon moved to painting in the miniature style, initially with R Vijay, and eventually on his own. The miniatures are interesting for their humour, using a male, often American, subject. Whether the American showers money, a la Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, or pulls on his hookah, or makes love in a pleasure bower, Waswo inverts predictability, adding a salacious touch with gay lovers and nudes that can startle for being unexpected and provocative.

Source : Forbes


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