Barrack at Red Fort, Delhi, to host rare artworks
As you make your way into the interior of the Red Fort, lush gardens envelop the barracks, the obvious colonial architectural departure from the grandeur of the imposing fort that Shah Jahan started building in 1638. Many buildings inside this grand fort suffered months after the British took over the city in 1857, overthrowing Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor. Trials were held in the fort, several executions took place and the British army moved into the Red Fort, replacing some of the old buildings by building barracks to house their armies and offices.
Since then, the barracks have been a grave reminder of the destruction that the British unleashed on the city after the 1857 uprising. The Indian Army took over the monument after independence and vacated it in 2003. When the Red Fort was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site over a decade ago, the Archaelogical Survey of India (ASI) began the conservation of the crumbling three-storey barracks so that they could be used as museums of history. Last year, the ASI wrapped up a major clean-up drive of several of the remaining old structures, retaining the ten barracks inside the complex, of which four have been finally converted into museums.
Barrack No. 4, a ten-minute walk from the main entrance, is now home to Drishyakala by DAG, a three-floor exhibition space that houses 450 artworks spread over 27,000 square feet. “ASI had decided to invite public-private participation for organising an exhibition on Indian art from 16th century till the independence of the country in one of the colonial buildings (B4), Red Fort, Delhi. Drishyakala by DAG in collaboration with ASI is a major contribution to the museum hub we are creating for the public of Red Fort,” says Usha Sharma, the director general, ASI on the association with DAG.
The barrack opens officially to the public on February 5, and this is the first time that art on this scale has been made accessible to the public visiting the heritage site. “The fact that we are conducting outreach activities—with children, college students, the visually impaired, among others—in this historic space will further expand the possibilities of making art accessible to a larger audience,” says Ashish Anand, MD and CEO, DAG. As soon as one enters the space, the first room on the ground floor, Navratna showcases nine of India’s leading artists, including the three Tagore brothers Rabindranath, Gaganendranath and Abanindranath. Old photographs, commemorative stamps and artistic objects in glass enclosures line the bright, imposing hallway of the barrack, throwing light on individual artistic practices and styles, thus also looking inward at the socio-cultural practices in India then.
Gaganendranath Tagore’s illustrated works of satire Reform Screams and Birupa Bajra are a fine caricature of the Bengali bourgeoisie in the 1920s and it is hard to not think of Sukumar Ray’s book of illustrated nonsense verse Abol Tabol, which was published around the same, time as a sign of how artists were engaging with society degenerating under the imperialist practices of the British. In Raja Ravi Varma’s Sketchbook lies a passage to the eventual making of his several paintings. Some of the rare drawings comprising barbers, street musicians, women and children adorn a wall that offers valuable insight into his detailed compositions. From Jamini Roy’s early academic realism to Nandalal Bose’s ink drawings from later in life, the considered curation by Kishore Singh of the evolution of individual artist styles within the larger framework of their practice is noteworthy as a historical account of art in India. Also on display is a rare sculpture of two tigers by Amrita Sher-Gil made in 1940 in Uttar Pradesh’s Saraya village.
On the floor above is a room with 24 remarkable photographic portraits of Indian rulers, curated by Pramod Kumar KG, bringing to light the several possibilities of self-representation that photography brought with it as a medium, thereby finding much favour with India’s royal elite. Popular Prints and the Freedom Struggle curated by Paula Sengupta showcases posters that became brands of kitsch and served as nationalist literature and propaganda for India’s freedom movement. In one such poster Hind ke Amar Neta, the Red Fort becomes the centre for power, surrounded by Bose, Nehru, Gandhi and Patel, but not without two Indian gods watching over them.
Oriental Scenery: Aquatints of India by Thomas Daniell and William Daniell, curated by art historian Giles Tillotson is an exquisite room of artistic renditions of the length and breadth of India. “In addition, the 144 aquatints are being shown together as a set for the first time. Collectively, these prints represent the single largest and most impressive project by English artists to depict Indian architecture and landscape,” adds Ashish Anand. The smaller tactile galleries on all floors for the visually impaired are a humane touch to the gigantic space, enabling access to these works using touch and there is also a dedicated space for children to engage with the works. Art would seem like a fine way to rid architecture of its colonial palette.
Drishyakala by DAG will open to the public on February 5 until July 31, 2019.