Gilded treasures: Inside a museum of gold-tinted Mysore paintings - Hindustan Times
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Gilded treasures: Inside a museum of gold-tinted Mysore paintings

BySukanya Datta
Jun 21, 2024 07:07 PM IST

Works from this school of art date to the 16th century and the rule of the wealthy Wodeyar kings. See how one man amassed a collection of 600 such canvases.

There’s a building full of Mysore paintings in Mysuru and, intriguingly, it is not a palace.

A painting of Vyasa, Parvati and Ganesh, 1925. Faces were often modelled after members of the Wodeyar family. (Courtesy Ramsingh Museum) PREMIUM
A painting of Vyasa, Parvati and Ganesh, 1925. Faces were often modelled after members of the Wodeyar family. (Courtesy Ramsingh Museum)

This school of art dates to the 16th century and the rule of the lavishly wealthy Wodeyars (who reigned, more or less uninterrupted, until 1947).

The canvases, typically tinged with gold, depict deities and, sometimes, imposing rulers.

Most of the works that survive are in the collections of museums such as the Sri Jayachamarajendra Art Gallery (formerly the Jaganmohan Palace) and in situ at the Mysore Palace, the erstwhile seat of the Wodeyars.

But every once in a while, a piece ends up at an antiques shop, an art gallery or a local estate sale. These are the paintings that R Gyaneshwar Singh, 57, has been collecting for nearly four decades. His Ramsingh Museum is named after his late father, who bought him the two-storey bungalow in which it sits. There are now 600 Mysore school paintings preserved here.

“In all my travels across India, I noticed that only a few museums in Bengaluru had sections dedicated to this school of art,” Singh says. “In other museums where these paintings are displayed, they are clubbed together with works from Thanjavur or other south Indian schools. But the Mysore style has its own sensibilities and history, and demands to be celebrated by itself.”

Hence the museum.

Singh, 57, has been collecting such works since he was 19.
Singh, 57, has been collecting such works since he was 19.

In a particularly interesting twist, Ramsingh Museum houses about 200 pieces created recently, between 1995 and 2024. The new works are often reproductions of old masterpieces, but many are distinctive, bearing the names and unique styles of their creators. Some of these artists are fourth- to seventh-generation descendants of traditional “chitragars”. The collection thus represents the wide breadth of this school and its evolution, says art historian Raghu Dharmendra, curator of the museum.

Walking through the halls, then, one sees row after row of deities with oval faces, almond-shaped eyes and protruding chins, all designed to bear a resemblance to the Wodeyars themselves.

Rare works include landscapes commissioned by Krishnaraja Wodeyar III (who ruled from 1799 to 1868) that tell an interesting story. This was a Wodeyar king who had been reduced to the status of nominal ruler, by the British. “He rarely left Mysore,” says Dharmendra. “So he sent his confidantes on pilgrimages to sites such as Kashi and Tirupati, and he sent artists with them, so they could bring back for the king idealised representations of the places they had visited in his stead.”

A rare landscape depicts the mausoleum of Tipu Sultan (1751-1799). (Courtesy Ramsingh Museum)
A rare landscape depicts the mausoleum of Tipu Sultan (1751-1799). (Courtesy Ramsingh Museum)

One such landscape tells a story within that story. It depicts the mausoleum of Tipu Sultan (1751-1799), the son and successor of Hyder Ali, a former Wodeyar commander who declared himself ruler, also turning the Wodeyars into nominal kings for a time. “I got the Tipu Sultan painting in the 1990s, for 2,000, from an old Mysuru family who was demolishing their home,” he recalls.

Another unusual set of works consist of sketches of the wall and ceiling decorations of the Mysore Palace, made by artists of this school as part of a restoration effort, after the palace was damaged in a fire in 1897.

What did it take to bring 600 such art works together? Singh says he wouldn’t have dreamed it possible, and didn’t set out with that aim.

He started out just being riveted by the play of light on these gilded pieces, when he first saw them as a teenager during a visit to the Mysore Palace.

Then, in 1987, he was sent out to buy himself new clothes for his 20th birthday, when he passed an antique store. He couldn’t believe his eyes. There in the window was a large work with the same oval faces and gilded finish. “It was a painting of Paravasudeva, an aspect of Vishnu, seated on a serpent in his heavenly abode of Vaikuntha,” says Singh.

He added money of his own to the 400 that his mother had given him, and bought the work for 1,000. He rode home with it balanced carefully on his scooter. His parents didn’t know what to make of it, “but it just felt precious to me,” he says.

Time went on and Singh graduated in geology and joined the family’s handicrafts business. But every year since that one, he bought at least a few more works, as they came his way.

He soon developed a network of antique dealers, art collectors, friends and acquaintances who would tip him off when a Mysore school painting became available. “There was no email or WhatsApp through most of these years, so they would call me up and explain the features, show me photographs or send me catalogues by post,” he says.

“An old acquaintance, a silversmith in Mysuru, once told me that some kings kept certain gems in their treasury, believing that they would attract other rare and precious objects. That first Paravasudeva painting, he told me, was that gem in my collection,” Singh says, smiling.

Before his father bought the bungalow for his museum in 2010, the paintings lived in a garage. For years after he had the space, Singh painstakingly unpacked and installed his works, until the museum was finally ready for visitors in 2020. Access is free but by appointment. Free curatorial tours are led by Singh and Dharmendra.

“Currently, only tourists who have read about the museum or art-lovers who are interested in the Mysore style visit us,” Dharmendra says. “We are working on diversifying our reach through activities, exhibitions and collaborations.”

That will be the next step in helping the Mysore school reach a wider audience, says Singh.

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