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Monumental Indian miniatures from the James Ivory collection
An exhibition entitled ‘Garden and Cosmos: The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur’ at the British Museum last year provided a great opportunity to experience the unique art tradition, which flourished in the royal courts (17th- 19th centuries), ranging from monumental artworks to miniatures. Simultaneously, The Peabody Essex Museum hosted ‘ReVisions: India’s Artists Engaging Traditions’ that presented leading contemporary artists working in tandem with traditional pieces exemplifying their source of inspiration like medieval temple sculpture and Mughal court painting. Earlier this year, London’s National Portrait Gallery hosted a unique show that narrated the tale of the Indian portrait over three centuries, tracking the role of portraiture in Indian art history.

Now, another significant exhibition courtesy Francesca Galloway in London celebrates the beauty, power and humanity intrinsic to miniature art form, serving as a record of a complex and rich history. Initially a director of Spink & Son, Francesca Galloway set up her own venture in 1992. She has been dealing in courtly Indian art and Islamic textiles traditions since 1974, having become renowned for handling the best Indian paintings and helping to create several major collections in this arena.

The James Ivory collection on view at the venue contains several interesting paintings which shed light on their evolution in the both the Mughal, Maratha and subsequent British era in the 18th and 19th centuries. It explores the rich, dynamic and powerful Indian miniature painting tradition in its majestic glory. According to Sandhya Jain-Pate, the associate vice president (Christie's), the market remains quite strong for these precious jewel-like images.

The expert in Indian & South East Asian art mentions in a recent column (Publication: India Today), “International bidding at auction encompasses collectors in India, the Middle East, Europe and the US. It reflects the breadth and depth of this beautiful field's appeal and the continuing relevance of this masterful art form in the present context. Both seasoned and new collectors alike are now rediscovering the rewards for investing their knowledge and passion in Indian miniature painting, where their devotion gets infinitely rewarded.”

Of course, all collectors are understandably different from each other. If some of them gather only rare pieces of the highest quality, others set out to collect comprehensively. Notably many collectors of Indian miniature painting also widely buy across other areas like modern & contemporary painting. If a section of them is greatly fascinated by the Mughals, others relish the brio and swagger of the ravishing Rajput schools. James Ivory’s artistic taste apparently inclines towards the latter, and also towards the light that his captivating collection sheds on the then Indian life and culture. “It’s no surprise hence that it’s largely built around later paintings showing Indian artists’ increasing interest in naturalistic expression of scenes of everyday life,” a curatorial note elaborates to add: “Personal taste in collecting works of art can be dictated by many considerations, but the fact that this collector is a film director of great distinction no doubt influences the way he looks at paintings.”

Incidentally, it was the 18th century Venetian painter Canaletto who happened to introduce him to Indian miniature painting, and thus to the country and even his entire life to come, as James Ivory reveals. While making a film on the artist, he visited a San Francisco based print dealer, also dealing in Indian miniature paintings. The collector noticed the dealer showing them to a buyer. Reliving the defining moment of a new turn to his art collection, he recounts: “I moved from picture to picture, taken from a manuscript. On the spot, possibly rashly, I decided to make a film about this new world I had come across. I also bought two of the pages from Ragamala, and so this collection began.” He luckily met art scholar Stuart Cary Welch during his early collecting days in India. As he developed an understanding with the different gallery owners, the filmmaker came to be considered as someone serious in the domain of art.

Here are some of the highlights of the exquisite collection:
• There are three 16th century paintings in it. The first of these is done in the early Rajput style form as early as 1491.

• As the collection reveals, subsequent concept of paintings illustrating stories rather than iconography was perhaps awakened in the Hindu mind by the influence of paintings illustrating Persian texts. The development of this new style broadly coincided with the establishment of the Mughal dynasty in India in 1526 by Babur.

• Akbar’s (1556–1605) rapid expansion of Mughal power was accompanied by an equally rapid development in the arts and especially painting.

• Paintings from Mewar form one of the most important groups in this collection. It throws some interesting light on styles allied to that of Mewar that was influential far beyond its borders, particularly in southern Rajasthan and Gujarat. The great shrine at Nathdwara in northern Mewar had its own artistic style.

• The James Ivory collection is also comprised of a very interesting group of portraits picked from the late 18th and the 19th centuries. It includes a small, albeit important group of Pahari Rajput paintings from the same period.

Bringing out the nuances of the captivating collection, an essay by J. P. Losty reveals, “It contains an interesting group of portraits from the late 18th and the 19th centuries. From the middle of the 19th century, most styles of Indian painting outside of Rajasthan were increasingly affected by renewed European influence. Indian artists worked in a wide variety of styles and techniques during this period, all showing the influence of European art to different degrees. In fact, from the middle of the 18th century, most styles of Indian painting outside of Rajasthan were increasingly affected by renewed European influence.”

In essence, ‘Indian miniatures from the James Ivory collection’ celebrate an amazing art tradition. This magnificent showcase is an excellent means to understanding Indian miniature art that may seem like derivative of Western contemporary trends at first glance, but in fact is inspired by rich indigenous artistic traditions.