Lovers on a terrace by moonlight
Lovers on a terrace by moonlight

Think art and the mind faithfully conjures up images of painted canvases. But ever thought to ponder about the medium of artistic expression before colonial hybridisation ushered in the arrival of the canvas? ‘Before The Canvas’, the ongoing art exhibition at the Piramal Museum of Art attempts to give viewers an introduction to the form and evolution of a few of some of the earliest painting traditions in India.

It looks at the geographically and stylistically diverse works of art c. 16th to 18th century, tracing the traditional practice of making art on materials including paper, wood, cloth, mica and glass, amongst others.

Curator Vaishnavi Ramanathan, Curator & Art Historian, Piramal Museum of Art, explains, “Art is created on different surfaces or supports, each of which gives a distinct quality to the image produced. These supports determine not just the finish of the work, but several other factors such as its size, longevity, as well as price.

In India, paper, palm leaf, wood and cloth were some of the surfaces on which artists painted. Apart from these, novel supports such as mica and ivory were also used by artists. The nature of the support, and materials used on it, were determined by the geography of the region, the purpose of the image and the means of the patron. The introduction of the canvas consisting of hemp, linen or cotton wrapped on wooden stretchers changed image-making practices in the subcontinent.”

Thakur Madho Singh
Thakur Madho Singh

‘Before the Canvas’ presents painting traditions from in and around India on varied surfaces other than the canvas. “These paintings made on paper, wood, cloth, mica and glass as a support addressed secular and religious themes, and were meant for audiences ranging from the courtly to the common man. Originating in different geographical regions and eras, many of these painting traditions continue to thrive till date,” she vouches.

Some of the significant works exhibited in the different traditions include a work from the Razmnama, the Persian translation of the Mahabharata, in the miniature painting tradition. “This painting has jewel like colours and depicts Draupadi with her attendants,” shares Ramanathan. In Tanjore, there is a painting titled Krishna with musicians.

“There is a fine sense of design in the women's clothes. More interestingly, you can see a varied range of instruments, including an Indian bagpipe, being depicted,” she adds. In reverse glass paintings, the depiction of Krishna with Yashoda is evidently significant since it is a representation of a subject that is both divine but also has a lot of human appeal.

Ask the curator to play favourites and reveal which she considers more valuable—the older painting traditions or the more modern canvas, and she smiles, “It would be unfair to call one more valuable than the other. But it is important to know about these traditions. It shows that art is in a constant state of evolution and one of the ways in which it evolved is in terms of materials. Since materials go hand in hand with ideas, this also shows how ideas about the purpose and audience of art shift through time.”

Mica painting
Mica painting

Speaking of the materials used in the exhibition, Ramanathan points out, “One cannot call the materials used in this exhibition as traditional. For example, gouache on paper is used by miniature painters and by artists working in the contemporary idiom. Similarly, artists who are trained in traditional practices now work on canvases too.

So, it is a question of how materials resonate with an artist’s ideas and technical preferences rather than it being contemporary or traditional. Many of the paintings featured in this exhibition belong to living traditions practised by artists who trace their lineage to older times. Contemporary artists also work with some of the supports featured in this exhibition such as paper and cloth since they find them rich in artistic possibilities.”

For a glimpse of traditions that one is already familiar with and some new, which have the potential to resonate with, ‘Before the Canvas’ beckons.

Where: Piramal Museum of Art

When: August 11 – November 15, 2019

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