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Stopping by India's history and art

Baishali Adak, April 16, 2013, DHNS: 0:05 IST

The National Gallery of Modern Art features the finest artists India has produced

NGMA houses significant collection of Indias modern and contemporary art.
Passing by the large, Indian flag-bearing Jaipur House near India Gate, it is easy to dismiss it as another sarkari building. Few Delhiites would be remotely aware that this erstwhile royal mansion houses the magnificent National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA). The public can hardly be blamed as neither Delhi Tourism nor the media publicises it enough.

However, next time you drive by the Stately home, do drop in for a dekko at NGMA. Without a doubt, it has the most significant collection of modern and contemporary art in the country. Even if you are not a fan of art, this museum could certainly teach you a few lessons on the socio-political history of India and how art developed alongside.

A pet project of Jawaharlal Nehru, a small collection was inaugurated by Dr S Radhakrishanan in 1954. Since then, NGMA has acquired paintings, sculptures, graphics, even photographs. These stand at 17,000 pieces and are spread over four large floors of their New Wing. They are displayed so neatly, datewise and with explanations, you wouldn’t even require a guide.

The oldest are, of course, Company paintings - artworks commissioned by East India Company officials in the 19th century. Art historian Priya Pall says, “Since Britishers paid local artists to make these, the latter portrayed them in a flattering manner. For example, in one painting the first coach of a train carrying Britishers says ‘Reserved.’ The other coaches with Indians say ‘Third class.”

At the same time, many British artists also came to India and painted all that they found exquisitely Indian – snake charmers, temples, river ghats, yogis etc. The works of these artists - Tilly Kettle, William Hodges, Thomas Daniell, Emily Eden etc. – are also on display.

In the late 19th century, the British set up the first art colleges: Government
College of Art Kolkata and Madurai and Sir JJ School of Art, Mumbai. Some students from here went on to be pioneers of Indian art. Raja Ravi Varma captured the common Indian on his canvas. His oleographs of Hindu gods and goddesses became his signature style later on.

Another such artist, Abanindranath Tagore, with some other patriotically inspired artists, formed the ‘Bengal school of art.’ Angered by Bengal’s partition, they decided to promote Indian art, such as miniatures at Ajanta, only. Abanindranath, in fact, collaborated with Japanese artists to bring about the famous Colour wash technique in Indian art.

Besides the above, NGMA has put up a stupendous collection of Amrita Sher-Gill’s paintings on her birth centenary. These narrate how her short but significant art career developed – her early migration to Paris (portraits of French noblewomen as well as prostitutes), moving back to Punjab (the dutifully covered up Sikh women), exploration of South India (paintings of dhoti-clad ash mark-bearing men) and the works just before her death.

Then there are the works of the first three principals of Shantiniketan Kala Bhavan – Nandalal Bose, Binod Behari Mukherjee and Ram Shankar Baij. Nanadalal’s paintings sport his unique ‘stamp,’ Binod’s pencil sketches are curious and Ram Shankar’s sculptures domineering.

The other significant set of work on display here is of the Progressive Artists’ Group. Priya informs Metrolife, “FN Souza was expelled from JJ School, for participating in the anti-British movement. He gathered a few of his classmates and formed this group.” Souza’s God-defying sketches, SH Raza’s geometric patterns and MF Husain’s famous horses – all form a part of this collection.

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