A calendar printed a year before India’s independence features Mahatma Gandhi and the day of his arrest in August 1942 after announcing that the British must quit the country. A landscape print of Mysore from late 18th century shows a fort atop a hill, but there is no sign of the war raging between Tipu Sultan and the British. A self-portrait by Kisory Roy reveals an artist’s anger at the Bengal Famine of 1943. A solo flute player reflects daily life in the countryside in a 1937 work by Nandalal Bose. The four artworks, which paint a visual narrative of the mood of a nation in the past three centuries, are part of a new exhibition, which opened in the national capital in early February.
Titled Drishyakala, the exhibition, mounted on the walls of a newly-restored former British barrack inside the Red Fort, tells the tale of a rich and diverse land and its people passing through colonial rule. It also celebrates the works of nine artists pronounced as “national treasure” by the government in the 80s—Rabindranath Tagore, Abanindranath Tagore, Gaganendranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose, Jamini Roy, Raja Ravi Varma, Amrita Sher-Gil, Sailoz Mukherjee and Russian artist Nicholas Roerich who lived in India for nearly two decades. A collaboration between DAG (formerly Delhi Art Gallery) and the Archaeological Survey of India, the exhibition marks a transformative experience in the viewing of the Red Fort, considered the symbol of India’s political power. “Art is and has been a part of India’s civilisational values. We are committed to taking art to wider audiences, and facilitating deeper engagement, as the exhibition recognises the value of art in understanding our past, as well as our present,” says DAG MD and CEO Ashish Anand.
Barrack 4 hides as much history as the artworks now adorning its walls. Built by the British army to house its troops after dethroning Bahadur Shah Zafar in 1857, it is one of 10 such structures inside the Red Fort. After the monument was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2007, the ASI launched a massive project to restore the barracks. Drishyakala, on display in the three-stroreyed building until July 31, starts a new life for the colonial-era structures as museums. Three other barracks are already showing exhibitions on Subhas Chandra Bose and the Indian National Army, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and the 1857 First War of Independence.
“We wanted to situate the art within the historical context of the Red Fort,” says Kishore Singh, head of exhibitions and publications at DAG. Divided into four sections—Oriental Scenery, A Portrait of Our People, Navaratna: India’s National Treasure Artists, and Popular Prints and the Freedom Struggle—the exhibition has over 450 artworks. Drawn mostly from DAG’s collection, Drishyakala has works by both Indian and European artists.
The section, Oriental Scenery, showcases 144 aquatint prints from sketches made by British landscape artist Thomas Daniell and nephew William Daniell during their tour of India between 1786 and 1793. “William was only 15 when they came to India,” says British art historian Giles Tillotson, who has curated Oriental Scenery. When they returned to London, they made prints of their sketches and published them in six volumes. One of the volumes is, however, not by them. It is made from sketches of British portrait artist James Wales who was preparing the works for his British employer. “Wales, who had worked on places like Ellora caves, gave the sketches to the Daniells before he died in India,” says Tillotson. “The Daniells made sketches of India while their compatriots were busy conquering the country,” says Tillotson. “It was a period of imperial expansion. But Thomas Daniell thought art was above that. The subliminal message in their works was that here is a country, which is a power like Britain,” he adds.
A Portrait of Our People section, curated by Pramod Kumar KG, has mainly works by Indian artists. “With the arrival of European artists in India by the late 18th century, there was a huge demand for realistic paintings,” says Kumar. “These artists from Europe influenced local artists and, by the 19th century, there were a lot of Indian artists creating portraits,” he adds. The works include many portraits of men and women from the Parsi community in their traditional attire. There are also portraits of religious leaders, saints and Indian royalty.
The section, Navaratna: India’s National Treasure Artists, curated by Kishore Singh, has the works of the nine ‘national treasure’ artists.
The Popular Prints and the Freedom Struggle section shows how printing technology gave a fillip to India’s freedom struggle. “As printing technology advanced, it became possible to supplement text with images,” says Paula Sengupta, who has curated the section. “As the masses were semi-literate or illiterate, the images had greater appeal and wider reach,” adds Sengupta. “The printing technology, brought to the country by the East India Company in the mid-18th century to set up presses, filtered to the Indian workforce by default. Indians started to set up their own presses and, by the late 18th century, Calcutta had become the hub of printing and publishing in India.”
Visitors to Red Fort, Delhi, have to buy a separate ticket (`30 from ticket counter; `20 for online ticket) to view Drishyakala. The ticket also allows them entry to the three other barracks turned into museums
The author Faizal Khan is a freelancer.