Art | Past Masters

Indian miniatures

These exquisite watercolours are captivating collectors with their fine, fantastical detail, says Claire Wrathall.

September 05 2009
Claire Wrathall

“It’s their ability to enchant,” says the London-based gallerist and Indian miniature specialist Francesca Galloway of the exquisitely crafted, formally composed little watercolours that have captivated western Indiaphiles since the 18th century and which, thanks to a surge of interest from Indian collectors, are growing increasingly scarce. The “fabulous” example we’re examining depicts a tightrope strung between two pavilions in a palace garden, on which cavorts a troupe of lady acrobats.

“You can’t walk by an Indian painting,” says Galloway. “There’s always so much detail to draw you in. Indian artists can be quite fantastical: they take you into a different world.” It’s a world conjured by artists who have “been touched by magic”, to quote Rajiv Chaudhri, president of the New York hedge fund Digital Century Capital and one of the world’s most avid aficionados of Indian art, parts of whose extensive collection, miniatures among it, have been exhibited at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

Galloway bought this picture in a country house sale in France last year. Part of a collection acquired by the 18th-century French-Swiss adventurer Antoine Polier, who made a fortune as an officer of the East India Company, it belongs to the Company school – paintings commissioned by the British, who, says Galloway, “wanted to assimilate the traditions of the country and were interested not just in its flora, fauna and architecture, but culture, customs and festivals”.

There is no less demand for miniatures in the other principal styles: the Mughal paintings made for the Muslim courts around Delhi, Agra and Lucknow; the Deccan school in the south; and the Pahari and Rajasthani styles for the Hindu rulers in the north. Examples of some of these can be seen in a survey of paintings from Jodhpur at the British Museum until August 23.

Hugo Weihe, international director of Asian art at Christie’s, attributes the resurgent interest in Indian painting to “the success of contemporary Indian art and the tremendous growth in prices in that area”. Added to which, says Galloway, “They’re actually still quite cheap.” Prices start at a few hundred pounds, “and you can buy a very good painting for £30,000”.

Last year, however, Christie’s New York sold a Pahari miniature by Nainsukh of Guler for $2.225m, and this year’s auctions have seen several dramatically exceed their estimates. At Sotheby’s New York in March, an illustration from Nusrati’s Gulshan-I-Ishq of lovesick Prince Manohara fetched $18,750 against a lower estimate of $7,000. A fortnight later at Christie’s in London, a gouache of an Asian Virgin Mary in an eau-de-nil mantle sold for 3.5 times its £2,500 estimate. That biblical imagery is an occasional theme is a legacy of the Muslim Mughal ruler Akbar, who was fascinated by other religions, and had not only a Hindu wife but a number of Jesuits at his court.

Though Mughal miniatures share something stylistically with Persian painting, they are “a variety of Islamic painting that is neither typically Muslim nor exactly Indian”, says JM Rogers, honorary curator of the immense Khalili Collection of Islamic Art amassed by the British-Iranian property magnate and philanthropist Nasser D Khalili, which includes a number of intricate works commissioned by Akbar, as well as paintings made for Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal.

“I like the more minimalist ones: a Brahmin, maharajah, monkey or the goddess Kali against a plain background,” says Nicholas Coleridge, vice-president of the magazine publisher Condé Nast International, who began collecting miniatures in 1984 when he bought five in Jaipur and now owns “about 60”. He tends to buy in India, which he has visited “40 or 50 times – but they’re actually cheaper at Christie’s South Kensington. You can get a really nice one there for £600 or £700; in India they seem to cost three times that. So many were brought back when the British were out there, but they’re still just scarce enough to make it very exciting when you find one you want.”

Perhaps the best-known British aficionado of Indian miniatures, however, is the artist Howard Hodgkin, who is a particular champion of works from the Rajasthani school of Kotah. Their influence on Hodgkin’s own abstracts is evident in the distinctive borders and jewel colours he uses.

Hodgkin is said particularly to favour scenes with elephants, whereas Neville Tuli, the founder of the Mumbai auctioneers Osian’s, who was narrowly outbid on a spectacular Kotah elephant procession that sold at Sotheby’s for £43,200, “particularly loves great battle scenes”. Indeed, Osian’s has been instrumental in driving the market for Indian modern and contemporary art, collectors of which, says Weihe, “are now looking back towards earlier painting traditions”, not least because an appreciation of “artistic evolution helps to establish the relative quality of new work”.

But then, 18th-century miniatures have long appealed to those with a taste for the new. As a young district magistrate in Patna in the 1930s, William Archer – who later became the first keeper of the V&A’s Indian department – had admired Matisse, Chagall and contemporary Swedish glass, but on his first encounter with an album of miniatures was transfixed: “I saw it as a type of art to which even a hardened adherent of the modern movement could respond,” he wrote. “A new world opened [of] flowing, rhythmical lines.”

Archer was a significant collector of Indian art, with several private clients, but nowadays rising prices are making it harder for experts to acquire works for themselves. “I’d love to collect them,” says Galloway, who in partnership with the dealer Sam Fogg acquired the Archer collection in 2005, which they have since sold. “But the ones I’d want I couldn’t really afford to keep.” In any case, adds Weihe, “There is no longer an abundance of great material, so collectors should really go for it when one they like comes up.”

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