Rendezvous of the old and new
Rendezvous of the old and new
DISCOVERING AN ART LEGACY - Anil Mulchandani. Pics - Dinesh Shukla.
The Tagore family is known for building an art movement that flourished in India during the early 1900s and influenced modern art in India. The private art collection of the Tagore family is now on public display at the Kasturbhai Lalbhai Museum, housed in the 112 year old ancestral home of the Lalbhai family. When we heard about this museum, we asked for permission to visit the property and photograph the pieces. Just after the Shahibag Underbridge, we turned for the gate of the Lalbhai family’s ancestral house. Built in the early-1900s, the mansion was the residence of Lalbhai Dalpatbhai who founded the Saraspur cotton mill in 1896, thus beginning the family’s foray into manufacturing textiles.
His son Kasturbhai Lalbhai is credited with developing the Lalbhai Group of Mills and foraying into chemicals, resulting in the building of the chemical complex called Atul at Valsad in South Gujarat in the 1940s. From the car parking area, we could see the Indo-European façade and colonnade of the mansion looming up among gardens.
We were pleased to meet Jayshree Lalbhai in the front room of the house. She explained, `in the 1930s and 40s, the Tagore family put up their art collection for sale. The idea was to sell it as a collection and not as individual pieces. Kasturbhai was not an art connoisseur per se but Srimati Hutheesingh, from our family in Ahmedabad, had studied in Santiniketan and married Soumendranath Tagore. This led to his buying the collection.
We decided to exhibit a selection from this art collection that was with our family in the ancestral house, which we have opened as a museum together with the staff building designed in the 1930s by Claude Batley, an English architect who as practitioner, teacher and President of the Indian Institute of Architects from 1921 to 1923, was instrumental in the development of modern architecture in India in the first half of the 20th Century, where we exhibit our contemporary arts collection.
The idea is to make this complex an art and culture hub.’’ She told us that they commissioned Rahul Mehrotra of RMA Architects to renovate the property, Pramod Kumar, managing director, Eka Resources, was given the work of archiving and cataloguing the collection, and the National Institute of Design (NID) team was involved with the design of the museum. ``The brief to the teams was that the look of the historic house was to be maintained, with the pieces evocatively displayed as they would be in such a museum, rather than giving the appearance of a conventional museum’’, says Lalbhai.
The drawing room, for instance, has the placement of furniture as it would be in a house, while showcasing sculptures like Chola bronzes, Pala stone sculptures and a Gandharva bust. Shiva – Parvati bronzes are housed in a wooden shrine that is part of the hall. There is also a pichvai, the religious Vaishnava paintings, from the family collection on one of the walls.
From here, the curators Bhasha Mewar and Niketa Kabra led to us to rooms that exhibit miniature paintings from the Pahari, Mughal and Rajasthani schools. The centerpiece of the collection is the illuminated book, Khamsa of Nizami, which has outstanding Persian calligraphy and miniatures. This is encased in a cabinet adapted for the purpose of exhibiting this illuminated manuscript. Visitors can leaf through the manuscript on a tablet, an excellent example of the use of technology in museums.
Another example of reuse of furniture is a dressing table with bidriware pieces and a display of Rasamanjari paintings by artists from Nurpur, the Punjab hills Pahari tradition. Another showpiece is the Devi painting displayed in a tiered table top. Next to the grand stairway we saw a display of Tibetan Buddhist art like thangkas and idols.
Upstairs is the collection of works of the Bengal artists representing the art movement often referred to as Bengal Revivalism, led by the Tagores, and encompassing artists like Nandalal Bose, Benodebehari Mookherjee, Mukul Dey, Kshitindranath Mazumdar, Sarada Ukil, M.A.R. Chugtai and Asit Haldar. Themes were Indian – history, religion, family, nationalism, social issues, and they followed the principles of painting they could discern in India’s historical art forms like the Buddhist frescoes of Ajanta, miniatures and temple sculptures. They used mediums and Asian techniques.
Rejecting oil painting as being British or western, the water-colour, tempera and ink, Gouache, the Japanese wash technique, graphic art, printing making, lithography, dry point etching, etc. Works by Mukul Chandra Dey, a student of Rabindranath Tagore's Santiniketan and a pioneer of drypoint-etching in India, include portraits of Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore. Ramayana paintings by Nandlal Bose are displayed in a table case. Gaganendranath Tagore’s cubist art is represented by maze like paintings in black and white. Works by Hemendranath Mazumdar show his popular theme, Bengali women draped in saree.
We were moved to see the hand-painted postcards from students of the Tagores to their Gurus. Displayed in a cabinet inspired by the vacuum-tube radios of the 1920s, we could read some of the heart touching messages.
In the annex we saw works of Indian masters like Anjolie Ela Menon, Atul Dodiya, Bharti Kher, Bhupen Khakkar, M F Husain, Francis Newton Souza, among others.
For any art lover, a tour of a museums of Ahmedabad is a must - from the Calico Museum of Textiles, the Jain art and miniatures at the Indology Museum, the folk art of Shreyas Museum, the utensils of Vishalla, the variety is outstanding. Kasturbhai Lalbhai Museum is an excellent addition to this list.