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Face-to-face: How portraits were the original selfie

The human desire to capture oneself is as old as the pharaohs. An ongoing exhibition traces portraits as an art form through the ages

HT48HRS_Special Updated: Jul 21, 2016 19:05 IST
Soma Das
Soma Das
Hindustan Times
The Bombay Art Society,Bombay School,HT48Hours
(From left) Portrait of Mr VB Pathare and Mrs Prema Pathare at their house in Mandwa, Alibaug, by GS Haldankar, watercolour on paper and Untitled painting by Vasudeo Kamath, oil on canvas (The Bombay Art Society)

The human desire to capture oneself is as old as the pharaohs. An ongoing exhibition traces portraits as an art form through the ages

A visit to the art complex at The Bombay Art Society can make for an eerie experience. Step inside and you are surrounded by people gazing at you, albeit from their portraits.

The portraits depict gentlemen attired in the costume of the times (coats or a kurta-pyjama), their head gear reflecting the region they belong to (a Sikh or Puneri turban). There are portraits of elegantly dressed women, draped in saris or posing with a shawl around their shoulders, and of young girls exuding innocence.

A total of 103 such artworks are on display as part of The Portrait Show, an exhibition at The Bombay Art Society.

(From left) Portrait of a young girl by Prema Pathare, watercolour on paper and Bani by Manojkumar Sakale, oil on leenon surface (The Bombay Art Society)

Commissioned usually by the rich and the powerful, portraits have been a tool to denote status. On the flip-side, critics are wary of any kind of artistic work that involves money.

The same was true of portraiture, leading some to consider it as an inferior art form. Yet, despite the criticism, portraits have served as individual history, and a record of the changing times.

The exhibits on display include works by Bombay School artists (students of Sir JJ School of Art). The noteworthy artists whose works are featured include GS Haldankar, VA Mali as well as contemporary artists such as Vasudeo Kamath and Anil Naik. The works range from watercolour to oil, pastel, pencil and charcoal on paper. And the paintings have been sourced from private collectors, institutions, and artists.

(From left) Portrait of a young lady with a string of pearls by Stragliati and a portrait by Ravindra Mistry (The Bombay Art Society)

“Portraiture can be seen in the ancient Egyptian wall paintings of gods and pharaohs. The Renaissance led to the reinvention of portraiture in its modern sense,” says Shraddha Purnaye, gallery manager at The Bombay Art Society, adding, “In India, portraiture can be traced to the sculpted images of gods and emperors. It later embraced influences from Iran to Europe, as well as indigenous Hindu and Muslim traditions.”

Indian portraiture also evolved and developed styles of its own. “While the European trend was to make portraits that were based on observation, the Mughal artists developed a form that focused on the individual’s personality, rather than simply recording how they looked,” says Purnaye.

Later, artists like MV Dhurandar, VA Mali, AX Trindade and GS Haldankar reinvented the genre and made it popular, influencing many generations to follow.

(From left) A painting by Shrikant Kadam and Portrait of a Man by Antonio Xavier Trindade, oil on canvas painted on board (The Bombay Art Society)

In the 1960s, the emergence of American artist Andy Warhol, who shot to fame making celebrity portraits, and American pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, who made satirical comic illustrations, saw the re-emergence of portraits as a significant art form around the globe.

The advent of photography (an easier and cheaper way to get a portrait) in the 20th century did lead to patrons veering away from commissioning portraits.

“Portraits struggle to find buyers in an exhibition. Today, commissioned works — by the state or philanthropic individuals — remain a prime source of work for artists practising portraiture,” says Purnaye.

But don’t write off the form just yet. Contemporary artists are redefining it and making it viable for a new audience. While artist Vasudeo Kamath, a passionate advocate of the form, founded the Portrait Artists’ Group to generate awareness, artist Manojkumar Sakale, who has painted legends like Ghulam Ali, holds demonstrations for the public.

(From left) Portrait of Man in Red Turban by MV Dhurandhar, oil on canvas and Portrait of Baburao Painter by VA Mali, oil on canvas pasted on board (The Bombay Art Society)

5 artists you need to know

MV Dhurandhar (b 1867): An excellent illustrator, skilled portrait painter, and figurative artist. In the Portrait of Man in Red Turban (see above), the light is peculiar and perceived as ‘flat’. The transparency of colour is amplified in the face.

Antonio Xavier Trindade (b 1870): A Roman Catholic born and raised in Portuguese Goa, Trindade reveals a mixture of Western and Indian influences. In Portrait of a Man, you see an unglamorous realism which was not much about rendering decorative details but about imitating texture and natural complexion.

VA Mali (b 1911): He did portraits of acclaimed personalities like the Mayor of Mumbai and entrepreneur GD Birla. He is known for his ability to capture human emotions and his clean style of painting.

GS Haldankar (b 1912): Influenced by the lives of Swami Vivekananda and Jesus Christ, he had an ascetic demeanour. He was keen on experimentation and made commissioned portraits of Field Marshal Sam Maneckshaw and Mahatma Gandhi.

Vasudeo Kamath (b 1956): Kamath studied at the Sir JJ School of Art and is known for painting landscapes and portraits. He is a winner of The Draper Grand Prize by the Portrait Society of America.

The Portrait Show is on display till July 27, 11am to 6pm
At: The Bombay Art Society, Bandra Reclamation, Bandra (W)
Call: 2651 3466

First Published: Jul 20, 2016 00:00 IST