Gems of art from a private collector

Gems of art from a private collector

An antiquated panel of wood dabbed in evocative red and gold snatches your attention as soon as you enter this gallery. A closer inspection reveals a series of Ragamala paintings – medieval illustrations of the Indian musical notes or ‘ragas’ – from 18th century Rajasthan. Another panel has Makaras (mysterious sea creatures from Hindu mythology)  and lotuses carved on it so beautifully, you can almost pluck the lotuses out of the wooden frame.

These are a part of over 100 pieces of art – paintings, sculptures, masks, manuscripts and even textiles – that have been put on show by the National Museum on Janpath. This is not just any exhibition, but a display of a private collection mounted by the museum for the first time in 65 years. An entire corpus of artefacts collected by Amritsar-based connoisseur Radha Krishna Bharany has been donated by his son Chhote Lal Bharany to the museum.

Each of these is a gem transcending various eras, genres of art from the most far-flung and inaccessible parts of India. Not for any reason has the exhibition been titled ‘Paarkhi Nazar’ in Hindi and in English ‘A Passionate Eye’.

RK Bharany, explains a note, was a man of modest means who developed his expertise while amassing large collections of embroidered textiles and miniature paintings. Some of these, he sold on to leading scholars of his day like AK Coomaraswamy, Karl Khandalavala and Rai Krishnadas who collected for themselves as well as on behalf of major museums in India and abroad. Their pioneering studies of Indian art would have been impossible without the works supplied to them by RK Bharany.

To this effect, there is even a quotation accompanying several ‘Early Bengal’, Pahari, Mughal and Rajasthani paintings on display in the gallery: “The real discovery of the Kangra School of Painting we owe to Dr AK Coomaraswamy who paid a visit to Amritsar and Kangra in 1910 and obtained a large collection of these paintings from the Amritsar dealer RK Bharany.” This was an acknowledgement by no less than the art historian MS Randhawa.

The paintings are interspersed with fascinating sculptures, masks and idols. A ‘Stree Akriti’ (female figure) from 20th Century Maharashtra is erected at a peculiar angle such that it resembles an ornate cornice supporting a wall. An animated Kathakali figure from Kerala, that is assumed to be of Raavan, stares down on visitors; and an antique ‘Dwarpal’ minds a gate that is adorned with an exquisite Toran from a temple in Nepal.

Chhote Lal Bharany’s collection of textiles is another attractive section. The family’s origins in the textile trade as carpet manufacturers facilitated this early introduction. What furthered his interest was his study under some of the giants of Indian art, namely, John Irwin - scholar on Kashmir shawls - and Stella Kramrisch who wrote extensively on Kantha embroidery. Some excellent pieces of Phulkari can also be sampled here.

Dr Giles Tillotson, one of the exhibition curators, says, “One must acknowledge that there is a limit to what the government can do and what institutions alone can do to develop such collections. The purpose of this temporary exhibit is to acknowledge and encourage people like Bharany who have contributed magnificently to Indian Art.”

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