Jagdish Mittal, Connoisseur, collector, artist and historian-scholar, brings rare delight to Delhi with an exhibition of folk paintings from his renowned collection. The treasures of the Jagdish and Kamla Mittal Museum of Indian Art, gifted to the nation, lie in special store in Hyderabad, and every display from this hoard is worth any effort involved in visiting it.
His preliminary slide lecture emphasized the tantalizing varieties in folk styles, often dismissed as ‘looking alike’. If anything the opposite is true. The untutored folk painter has produced eccentric, iconoclastic images of arresting boldness. One stunning example of such pictorial magic is a leaf in this exhibition of the Bhagavad Purana from Gujarat, dated 1600. In this Vasudeva carries Krishna through the storm. The colours are electric: red, navy, black, ochre. Against the dark sky the torrent falls in short, energetic, white strokes, rain seen as though under a flash of lightning. Few contemporary painters would not be proud of similar painterly abandon, of not actual result.
In addition to mythological scenes there are secular subjects of unusual mood. (One painting shows a ‘sick’ man attended by hornplayers: This is one of 24 leaves from a Sakunamala, or Book of Omens, from Basohli, with such joy in the line drawing and composition that one almost doesn’t mind that they measure only about 23cm by 13 cm.). Folk paintings, pictures of archaeologists and anthropologists alike, interest Mittal primarily for aesthetic reasons. The history of style has to a great extent been the history of patronage, and Mittal’s passion behind spotting an unusual picture has been further sharpened with miniscule study of local history. His expert eye will notice the tiniest detail, as the design of a hookah, or a different handling of a conventional theme, and trace the reasons for its appearance in a particular region to coincide accurately with migrating artists following an itinerant - or demanding - patron. As examples he cites the appearance of Bikaneri conventions in Deccani pictures as the result of Aurangzeb’s shifting base from north to south India; and in another case the patronage of a Raja of Chamba who, in addition to his own retainer-artists, also employed the talents of painters from Guler, to produce a combination of styles which would be otherwise unexplainable.
However, such methodology is only one factor towards skilful choice, for the other is the ability to respond to the visual delight that can only come from empathy with the act of painting. In Mittal’s case there is an interesting support to this: he was a student of painting at Shantiniketan under Nandalal Bose, among others, and was a contemporary of K.G. Subramanyan.
What is it that makes classical art appear remote, and the folk so curiously familiar? Could it be that changes and quirkiness of direct speech that folk and popular art is inseparable from? At their best, folk and what we call ‘high’ art have never lost sight of each other. A single example of a fusion of the two is seen in the great Hamza Nama painting done for Akbar. Mittal reminds us that the vitality of these paintings depends in great measure on the pictorial ‘asides’ of local Indian artists who painted details as trees, birds and animals, men in slumber or washing clothes in what me called a ‘finished’ folk style. Under the supervision of the requirements of the story of Hamza, and the result was an album of paintings whose spectacular vibrancy remains unduplicated in the world today. In contrast, later courtly Mughal painting, devoid of this stylistic element, went in a different direction altogether.
Mittal occasionally enjoys pointing out that abstract use of colour and energetic brushstrokes, etc. in folk paintings are similar to modern experiments in European painting, the folk artist’s lexicon being as full of individual mark as any modern painter’s/ However the difference is qualitative. This so for two simple reasons: the status of the artist, and the intention behind the inventiveness. First, the folk artists works as a community-member, with an assured and unassailable work-ethic, and not as an individual who signs his pictures; second his innovation is the result of imaginative playfulness, not the deliberate philosophy of a scientific enquiry into the dynamics of art. We must therefore see the atypical gesture as the specific personal expression of artist-craftsmen who had the lack of guile to include the effects of weaving, block-printing, wall decoration - and direct observation - into their pictures, mostly made for a mass market. The modern artists has made a visual statement; the folk artist revels in unqualified expression. In fact if the two are ever compared it is to remind ourselves how much earlier modernism has owed folk art.
Nothing can ever evaluate the questionings of modernism, nor ever truly conclude its endless oscillation between form and content. But it is encounters with art such as this exhibition reveals that have kept the argument in favour of the personal and eccentric alive, and given deviance from rigid convention the status of made on experiment. For this simple and humane reason we may look for fresh responses in these pictures, and never find them lacking.