Ask nine out of 10 Indians about miniature paintings and chances are we’ll yawn elaborately and look at you in mild reproof for suggesting that anything so boring should remotely interest us. And who shall blame us?
Our eye has grown accustomed to the miniature look: we are laidback legatees of the pioneers of the last century who rescued everything from the dustbin of our colonial history, in the teeth of racism. It now takes the news of a death like Stuart Cary Welch’s, two days ago, to make us think of the Mughal elephant.
Giranbar in the fighting pit, as drawn in the Akbar Nama (anyway, didn’t we just see Mughal elephants far more vividly in Jodhaa Akbar, in our modern medium, the movies?).
But miniatures can have a reposeful charm of their own as past art and are worth keeping safe and knowing well, as much as records of our past as for the unexpected pleasures they bestow.
Humayun brought painters to India from his exile in Persia and set up the first Mughal miniature atelier. The Rajput kingdoms brought their own local dash, verve and colour to the art, transforming the pale, elegant Safavid originals of the Persian style into a vibrantly desi bandwidth of styles. The British grabbed as many muraqqas (albums) as they could lay hands on, like the Padshah Nama, for that robber’s cave of theirs, the British Museum.
And in the early 20th century, a maverick like Ananda Kentish Coomara-swamy (died 1947) who belonged to both worlds as the son of a Tamil father and English mother, put Indian miniatures on the world art map, donating his own massive collection to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston since nobody wanted it in India.
It is remarkable that Stuart Cary Welch, with hardly anything in his native United States to inspire him, should have fallen so much in love with this distant world of refined enchantment, where as Coomaraswamy put it, “men are always heroic and women always beautiful.” Welch died of a heart attack in Hokkaido, Japan, on August 13 at age 80, though his family made the news public just two days ago.
Welch was a self-taught phenomenon who was curator emeritus of Indian art at the Harvard Art Museum and formerly in charge of the Department of Islamic Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. He wrote, taught, built museum collections and organized exhibitions in the US and elsewhere, giving more than 300 works from his collection to Harvard.
I grew up seeing his book on Mughal miniatures around the house, and it was joined years later by Paintings from the
Akbar Nama by Dr Geeti Sen, art historian. It just so happens that Sen’s professor, Dr Niharranjan Ray, had suggested Welch as the external examiner for her PhD thesis at Calcutta University.
Sen’s outstanding memory of Welch is how he constantly re-wrote his own notes, always ready to learn anew, with no false ego but the excitement of a sincere scholar.