The British Empire Library

In Pursuit of the Past: Collecting Old Art in Modern India circa 1875-1950

by Pratapaditya Pal

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
Over the last sixty years there have been numerous scholarly publications and catalogues regarding nearly every aspect of Indian Art. But almost nothing has been written about the pioneering collectors in India who started forming interesting collections of the subcontinent's Art when it was largely neglected elsewhere. So it was with excitement that Dr Pal's book was keenly awaited by Indian Art lovers and connoisseurs across the world. Sadly it doesn't quite live up to expectations despite the intriguing and often fascinating material contained within it. As we have come to expect from Marg, the book has been produced to a very high standard - it is well laid out, the illustrations are excellent and the script is easy to read. Dr Pal has divided his book into sections. He first considers the early collectors in Calcutta and then progresses to those from Patna and Benares. There is a charming section about the brilliant Russian artist Nicholas Roerich and his sons. The latter part of the book looks at the extraordinary collections formed in Bombay and Hyderabad.

Abanindranath Tagore and his brother Gaganendranath are widely regarded as among the greatest of the Bengal school painters. Abanindranath's work has a subtlety and sometimes melancholy beauty unmatched by his rivals. His brother's work is often strongly influenced by Japanese painting. Pal reveals that they were also collectors in their day. But despite some interesting anecdotes on their collecting habits, we learn rather little about the collections themselves - indeed if the few paltry items that are illustrated from their collections are anything to go by, it suggests that the brothers were unable to afford great art - even when prices were so low. On the other hand works from the collection of Ananda Kentish Coomeraswamy are world-renowned, as are his impressive publications. He was of Sri Lankan origin (then Ceylon) and came to Calcutta early in the 20"* century and frequented the Tagore house. We learn fascinating details of his rivalry with other collectors in the city and how he put together one of the greatest collections of Indian paintings ever formed. But for me the third chapter on the bhadralok collectors of Calcutta is much more interesting as almost nothing was previously known about collectors like the Ghose brothers. 'Bhadralok' is a Bengali word which refers to highly cultured and educated gentlemen. The Ghoses were an old and distinguished family from north Calcutta and the two brothers Anu and Ajit were professionals who spent their lives collecting. The breadth of their collections was extraordinary - it encompassed Mughal paintings and manuscripts including the magnificent Tarikh-i-Alfi, dozens of Rajput and Pahari paintings as well as those from Orissa and of course Bengal. His Akbar period painting of King Solomon and Animals from the manuscript lyar-i-Danish is among the finest paintings of the period that exists. Similarly Ghose's Chola bronze Nataraja is superb.

On reaching the end of the third chapter, which closes the discussion on the Calcutta collectors, one is immediately aware that Pal has entirely ignored the great collectors of Anglo-Indian paintings in Calcutta. The Tagore family of Pathuriaghata were formidable collectors of art from the early 19th century. Gopi Mohun, with the help of the artist George Chinnery, assembled a magnificent collection of European paintings including many Anglo-Indian works. His descendant Sir Prodyot Coomar Tagore visited London in the early 1930s and augmented the collection with exceptional paintings by the Daniells, William Hodges, Thomas Hickey and, although unrecognized at the time, a superb pair of landscapes by Zoffany. The Kejriwal family acquired some of the collection but also bought great works by Ravi Varma, magnificent Bengal school paintings and fine early Pala sculptures. One has the impression that Pal has studiously avoided discussion of these and other collectors with British connections in the city.

On the other hand the most enjoyable chapter considers perhaps the most interesting collector in India in that period - Rai Krishnadas. He was of a distinguished Benares family and was a man of the most refined taste. He assiduously collected both Indian art and Antiquities from his early youth. Have assembled a collection worthy of a great museum he himself donated his collection to the Banaras Hindu University. For anyone visiting the holy city, a visit to see that collection is a real treat. Beautiftilly displayed, the collection contains world renowned freasures - great Mughal works and superb sculpture from all over India. Pal rightly devotes two whole chapters to the Bombay collectors and particularly the Parsees. The Tata Brothers, Sir Dorab and Sir Ratan inherited both a sizeable business that included the famous Taj Mahal Hotel, and also a vast fortune. It enabled them, within a surprisingly short space of time - the first twenty years of the 20thCentury - to put together a huge collection of over 5,000 works of every description. The diversity is staggering - they acquired the finest Indian paintings available including fabulous works by Nainsukh. In addition they bought huge quantities of Chinese and Japanese porcelain, religious objects from neighbouring Tibet, Nepal and Burma, and and three dimensional objects of every descript!on. Pal only mentions in passing the European paintings but they include four works by Constable and other fine paintings. The brothers bequeathed the entire collection to the Prince of Wales Museum of Western India for us all to enjoy. The Tatas weren't alone in Bombay as formidable collectors -: Sir Cowasji Jehangir with his wife favoured Mughal and Deccani paintings and formed a collection of great aesthetic merit - his early 17th century portrait from Golconda of a young Prince with a parrot has few rivals. They also bought the best Chola bronzes then available.

This book is well worth acquiring. It is enjoyable to read and certainly contains a wealth of material that one doesn't find elsewhere. One just wishes that Pal had been rather more balanced in his approach rather than concentrating on the collections he admires while excluding anything that smacks of colonialism. India would be so much the poorer without the splendid European paintings of its landscape and people. Today most of the collectors of Anglo-Indian paintings are Indians themselves and don't share the author's obvious prejudice.

British Empire Book
Pratapaditya Pals
First Published
Marg Foundation
Review Originally Published
Spring 2016 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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