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DAG's popular exhibition, Birds of India, travels to Mumbai

The travelling exhibition looks at the evolution of Company Paintings through 125 extraordinary depictions of birds

Detail from depiction of the Oriental Magpie Robin (Copsychus saularis) from the Cunninghame Graham album. Courtesy: DAG
Detail from depiction of the Oriental Magpie Robin (Copsychus saularis) from the Cunninghame Graham album. Courtesy: DAG

The exhibition Birds Of India, first showcased by DAG at its gallery in Delhi earlier this year, garnered such rave reviews and piqued so much interest in this unique aspect of Company paintings that it prompted the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum to take it to Mumbai. It’s on show there from today, the 125 extraordinary paintings standing out not only for the incredible detailing but also for tracing the evolution of the genre, from patronage to popular art, through one theme.

The show is accompanied by another exhibition, New Found Lands: The Indian Landscape From Empire To Freedom, on the evolution of Indian landscape art from 1780-1980. Both are curated by Giles Tillotson, senior vice-president, exhibitions and publications, DAG.

In recent years, a series of exhibitions on the various facets of Company paintings show the rise in interest—both among scholars and art enthusiasts—in this genre. The style traces its origins to the shift in art patronage from Mughal courts to the Europeans, bringing Indian artists under the influence of European counterparts such as Thomas and William Daniell, William Hodges, Johann Zoffany and Frans Balthazar Solvyns. The idea was to faithfully convey scenes of exotic India to Europe.

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As the majority of Company paintings depict botanical subjects, trades and professions, paintings of just birds are rare. The exhibition in Mumbai draws largely from the Cunninghame Graham album (1800-04) of 99 paintings, besides showing later works from The Faber album (1830) and four folios by Chuni Lal of Patna—the only artist to be identified from the 1835 Edward Inge album.

There is a wider context to how the exhibition came about. “DAG, which specialises in the Moderns, wanted to expand its historical context to include earlier material from the 18th-19th centuries. To this end, we have done exhibitions around the Daniells and Solvyns in the recent past,” says Tillotson. One day, DAG CEO Ashish Anand came in with the Cunninghame Graham album. “It just blew me away. Birds are another interest area of mine.... But I had never seen an album with these many images of birds. And I realised this could be an exhibition of its own,” he adds. It was possible to put a date to the Cunninghame Graham album, made in Kolkata, as some of the pages had watermarks and inscriptions, stating “painted in 1804”.

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Initially, Company paintings were created for specific patrons and scientists such as William Roxburgh, who was appointed superintendent of the Calcutta Botanic Garden in 1793 and wanted reproductions of plant specimens. But during the 19th century, says Tillotson, more Europeans became interested in these paintings. More artists started adopting the style, producing work for a wider market. In later years, the quality declined, with the paintings being “mass-produced”. By the 1830s-40s, artists were even copying from earlier paintings. “It interested me that a particular art form with this unique kind of a beginning went on to acquire the shape of popular art,” says Tillotson.

The accompanying show, New Found Lands, on landscape art is divided into three phases: a foreign vision of the picturesque; Indian artists’ assimilation of the Western academic approach; and a move away to a radically different one.

Birds Of India and New Found Lands will be on show at the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum from 27 November-16 February.

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