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A new exhibition features master painters who humanised deities

In a new exhibition at DAG, Delhi, one can see works by artists who added a human touch to scenes from myths and legends

M.V. Dhurandhar (1867-1944) ‘Untitled (Keechaka and Sairandhri)’, oil on canvas, 1934. Courtesy.DAG
M.V. Dhurandhar (1867-1944) ‘Untitled (Keechaka and Sairandhri)’, oil on canvas, 1934. Courtesy.DAG

At DAG’s Janpath gallery in Delhi, one can see an array of masterpieces—created between 1797 and 2003—on display as part of the third edition of the Iconic Masterpieces Of Indian Modern Art series. Coming close on the heels of its first two editions—held in April 2022 and February 2023—the ongoing series, showcasing 34 works by as many artists, spans two centuries and focuses on pivotal points in the practice of masters such as Thomas Daniell, Sita Ram, Marius Bauer, Raja Ravi Varma, Nirode Mazumdar, Shanti Dave and J. Swaminathan, Satish Gujral.

One’s eye is instantly drawn to the Untitled (Keechaka and Sairandhari) by M.V. Dhurandhar. The oil on canvas, dating back to 1934, was created as part of a commission of 16 paintings from the Maharawal of Chhota Udaipur in Gujarat. “The story of Keechaka and Sairandhari from the Mahabharata had, in particular, become a trope for colonial oppression and exploitation and was hugely popular among the masses,” writes Tasneem Zakaria Mehta, managing trustee and director, Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Mumbai, in an essay in the book that accompanies the exhibition.

The story had been famously explored earlier by Raja Ravi Varma—a friend of Dhurandhar’s—in his oleograph. While his rendition featured rich, opulent tones, set in the night, Dhurandhar opted for jewel colours, placing his story in daytime. The setting, costumes and architecture in the painting reflected his immediate regional context—with Sairandhari wearing a nine-yard sari popular in the Bombay Presidency. “Keechaka’s half-finished meal sits on the tray and features food typical to Gujarat and Maharashtra. The fruits, including mangoes and custard apples, are carefully expressed, as is the delicate jali work that is a famous element of Gujarat’s Sultanate architecture…,” writes Zakaria Mehta. This painting is a stark example of an artist taking a popular myth and legend and making it his own.

According to Ashish Anand, CEO and managing director of DAG, Dhurandhar’s particular fascination for observing people, almost like a voyeur, led to such extraordinary paintings. The protagonists of his works—mythological and historical figures—appeared entirely human. “Here, Sairandhri/Draupadi appears in the sari that women of the Prabhu Pathake community, to which Dhurandhar belonged, would routinely wear. Keechaka too is depicted not in his court attire but in his under-raiments—probably the first time a figure from mythology was so depicted,” he elaborates. “The interesting thing is that the painting was commissioned for a modern palace built in the Art Deco style in Chotta Udaipur reflecting, already, a yearning for the past.”

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One can see such unique depictions of scenes from Indian mythology throughout the exhibition, which is on view till 16 December. Take, for instance, an oil on canvas of a raas-leela by an unidentified artist from early Bengal school. Unlike other renditions of this theme in which Krishna is shown frolicking in a garden or a forest under the moonlit skies, here he is seen in a “semi-urban architectural aesthetic”.

In the essay about the work, art historian and archivist Sampurna Chakraborty talks about how the artist brought together a legacy of pata art with a newly acquired knowledge of oil paint brought by the Europeans, thereby leading to a unique cultural confluence.

Yet another painting of Krishna and the gopis is an Untitled (late 1920s) work by Pakistani artist Allah Bux, which is completely different in style—it is set against a rocky backdrop with a chhatri (dome-shaped canopies) visible at the back.

In an essay, Krishna, Distracted, in the book, Nilofur Farrukh, managing trustee, Karachi Biennale Trust, Pakistan, writes that unlike other paintings about the raas leela, which exude a sexual tension between Krishna and the gopis, in this painting, women are not objectified but presented with the reverence of a domestic, spiritual painting. “Krishna appears in a pensive mood as he reflects on the existential crisis of simultaneously facing abundance and denial,” she writes.

The painting breaks from traditional iconography, which was used to highlight and amplify the divinity of the deities. It frees Krishna from a sacred pedestal, and is shown in a more natural, human way.

“Allah Bux’s painting is exceptional for its use of soft pastel hues. Continuing in the tradition of Raja Ravi Varma and M.V. Dhurandhar, the gopis are dressed like women one might see on the street or at home. Krishna himself appears less like a god and more like someone who represents the idea of god without the accoutrements of ritualisation. That is where the charm of the painting lies,” adds Anand.

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Then there is a preparatory drawing of Mahishasuramardini by Nandalal Bose. It was made in 1944, at a time when nationalist fervour was high, and the call for freedom had grown stronger. Bose was making posters for conclaves of the Indian National Congress in a bid to provide a glimpse of the real people of the nation—potters, masons, performers, weavers and farmers.

“By drawing attention to them, he was pointing to the goal the leaders needed to set for themselves. The preparatory drawing in this show marks a departure from this ideology but still represents the political voice behind Durga as someone who fights for justice,” says Anand. “The artist draws parallels between power and aesthetics within the same painting with neither subservient to the other.”

The exhibition is on till 16 December, Monday-Saturday, 11am -7pm, at 22A Janpath Road, Delhi

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