The history of Indian art abounds in different traditions. Mica and glass paintings of the Company period are two such unique practices, now on display at an exhibition

In the deluge of art exhibitions, it is likely for some quiet ones to go unnoticed. The exhibition of Company school paintings of the 19th Century going on at India International Centre could be one of them. But it is going to be our loss more than anybody else’s if we miss this one, for where else will you get to see mica paintings, a form of art we hardly see or hear about and also some brilliant glass paintings from the company period. The 94 exhibits belong to the Delhi-based Rasaja Foundation, founded by late Jaya Appasamy, an artist, author, critic and once a secretary of the Lalit Kala Akademi. She was keen on the Company Period and was an avid collector of drawings, portraits and folios of manuscripts executed in the Company style.

Creations in mica

While the exquisite glass paintings belong to Rasaja, the mica paintings have been acquired specially for the show. “They are very rare and hardly seen in India because they were commissioned by the British, who would then take them away as souvenirs. After the Mughals went away, artists were looking at the British for patronage and they encouraged them to paint on mica and British paper,” explains Vijay Kaushik, artist and one of the members of Rasaja. Delicate looking mica paintings are watercolours (mixed with an adhesive so that the colours stick to the mica surface) painted on mica, which is found in nature as sheet silicate minerals. Its composition ensures that it can be split or delaminated into extremely thin sheets. Mica paintings were miniatures, probably because of the difficulty in finding thin large undamaged sheets of mica.

Collected in London, most of the mica works displayed were executed in Varanasi, Patna, Awadh and Andhra Pradesh as these were the regions rich in the mineral. There are many works from Tiruchirapalli, which is also considered a very prolific school of mica painting.

The imagery portrayed in mica painting is mostly rural life along with scenes from Indian bazaars, groups of servants, dancing and singing girls, musicians, magicians, street acrobats, snake-charmers. With an emphasis on the human figure, it shows very little of the surroundings but even in that small frame the artist hasn’t done without the details. For instance, in the work titled ‘Palanquin Procession’ (Varanasi, 1860), the artist shows the minutest details of the palanquin, the outfits of the bride and the palanquin bearers. “The works are specially mounted on glass so that people can see the mica,” adds Kaushik. The practice thrived for 70-80 years after which it was discontinued and Rasaja now wants to revive the tradition of mica paintings.

Glass paintings

In another part of the exhibition are glass paintings culled from Jaya Appasamy’s collection. Kaushik says the last time Rasaja exhibited them on such a large scale in Delhi was in 1981. These works are laden with the imagery of gods and goddesses, soldiers, saints, European men and women and noblemen. It’s interesting to note that they bear a similarity to the miniature tradition only when it comes to size. While the facial features are child-like, patterns and borders are simpler and uncomplicated. In a work titled ‘Rama and Sita worshipping the Shiva linga’, Rama and Sita look no more than seven-year-old kids. On being commissioned, artists produced works of British men and women in Indian settings for them to take back home. In one work, while the woman’s European identity is established by her attire — gown, hat and pearls — her Kathak pose establishes the Indian setting.

Kaushik says the works on display are just a fraction of the collection. “Rasaja Foundation has about 4000 such works but no place to display them. Such a rich collection should be on display for people to come and see. We have been trying to start a museum, a cultural centre but it’s so difficult to get land of that size. Right now, a few are kept in our Chirag Dilli office and the rest have been loaned to the National Gallery of Modern Art. One whole chapter of history is recreated through this priceless heritage which will otherwise vanish.”

(The exhibition is on at Art Gallery, Kamaladevi Block, India International Centre, Lodi Estate, till September 1)