We are blissfully ignorant of the artistic treasures that surround us, and the recently launched Aesthetics Project intends to bridge just this gap.

Aesthetics is not just about beauty, it’s about the distillation of a mood, an emotion, a thought, an ambience, a smell, a note, a colour based on the knowledge of the process of its creation. The Aesthetics Project held in Delhi over two days last month brought together national and international scholars, who spoke on new research in Indian aesthetics. “Their talks stemmed,” said Pramod Kumar of Eka Resources, the creative brain behind the project, “from a gamut of experiences, ideas, concepts and objects as depicted and seen through the filters of painting, connoisseurship, jewellery, architecture, ceramics and archaeology.”

What made the exercise outstanding was that it acted as a mediating ground between practitioners and academics who know and work in the field but don’t get a chance to talk about their ideas on a public platform. Like John Seyller, Professor of Art History at the University of Vermont, U.S., and a leading expert on Mughal History, who was really happy that he finally got to meet Dr. Jyotindra Jain, an Indian art and cultural historian whose work he has been reading over the past few years. Seyller also got to address an Indian audience.

His talk spoke of how his work gets to the underlying ethos of Mughal painting by using codicology, looking at the margins, inventory notes, and comments to determine how Mughals used their paintings and manuscripts. In the middle of the 16th century, their art included European techniques, historical and Hindu themes, and a greater diversity of subjects. “A magnifying glass, second-class travel and lots of patience” helped him find many informal, hidden notes, a number of workshop orders prescribing instructions to subjects, even due dates for each art work.

Molly Emma Aitken’s talk on Mughal Connoisseurship of Longing took us through themes from poetry, love as it happened in India, social gatherings and court life, to painting and music. Like the Laud Ragmala album where Persian and Hindu traditions came together, leading to the enjoyment of both traditions, Mughal and Rajput. The intellectual history that came together from this intertwining of painting and poetry forged the social milieu of both their worlds.

Dr. Usha R. Balakrishnan, an independent historian who lectures at SNDT University in Mumbai, focused on the influences on Indian jewellery during the late 19th and early 20the centuries. It was an age when Indian princely magnificence met European design, she said. Apart from their immense visual appeal, she spoke of the historical evolution of design, and the influences of European and Indian craftsmen on each other, thus unfolding a multi-layered narrative.

Giles Tilletson spoke of how in 1867, Samuel Johnson moved to Jaipur and with the building of Albert Hall, Indian engineering took a turn when style and tradition were integrated into modern drawing. Thakur Amar Singh’s diaries reveal the making of Narain Niwas, tracing the evolution of architectural design through well-preserved documents in the Amar Singh Library and Museum at Kanota. While Umaid Bhavan in Jodhpur remains a spectacular example of 20th century palaces, Ramgarh Lodge was made by Sawai Man Singh as a hunting lodge in neo-classical style.

The art and history of ceramics added another dimension to the Aesthetics Project. Cristine Michael talked of the role that colonialism played in the development of ceramics. From the experimentation done by Alex Hunter with red clay in Chengalpattu to make bricks, it was an intense and gripping study of a lot that we take for granted.

Of community and antiquarian practices in archaeology, unique stories were unravelled by Nayanjot Lahiri, Professor of History, DU, taking us through the archaeological significance of the villages around Delhi. Community practices of worship and ceremony and local legends are responsible for keeping the sculptural and built relics well preserved. Non-western practices ensured preservation within a context where they were revered. Traces of objects being collected as decoratives have showed up in Taxila – indication that such practices might well be rooted in ancient times though they are not documented. 

Francesco Clemento’s famous Pondicherry Pastels put forward what he thought of identity as being fragmented with no centre, although he added that geography was important to give root to your work. “In India, excessive light burns all colours during the day and at night they are born again — as pastels.” Going through the Sun Moon Five Senses collection with Jyotindra Jain, he said, “There is a fortunate time in the life of an artist when he has limited means and doesn’t have endless choices,” — thus choosing to leave this series unfinished since that was the way he perceived life.

The writer is CEO of Siyahi, a literary consultancy.