Portraiture of Indian royal courts

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Examines the motives behind the different styles of portraiture favoured by Indian rulers

PORTRAITS IN PRINCELY INDIA 1700-1947: Edited by Rosie Llewellyn-Jones; Marg Publications, on behalf of the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai-400001. Distributed by The Variety Book Depot, AVG Bhavan, M-3, Connaught Circus, New Delhi-110001.

Rs. 2500.

The art of portraiture demands not just the physiognomic delineation of the sitter but also psychological insight. The popularity of this genre goes back to ancient civilisations, from the Egyptian to the Roman.


The Renaissance brought in a resurgence of this art in the 15th century and some of the greatest masters have painted not just the physical resemblance of their patrons but have rendered them with immense psychological insight. In India portraiture as an art form was not existent until the arrival of the Mughals. The portraits created in sculpture or paintings in pre-Mughal India were symbolic of their patrons and not rendered with verisimilitude.

In the introduction, Rosie Llewellyn-Jones, who has edited the book, says “The intention of this book, which covers royal portraiture from the early 18th century to the mid-20th century, is to look behind the immediate figures of the rulers, and the outward show, and discover what these men and women wanted to say about themselves to the viewer.”

British art works

In the first chapter, Charles Greig profiles the works of British artist in the 18th century beginning with Tilly Kettle demonstrating a dramatic change in the structure and format of portraitures hitherto represented within the Indian royal courts.

In the second chapter, Indira Peterson delineates paintings and sculptures from South Indian court of Tanjore that form an important bridge between the vernacular art and the European style.

Amin Jaffer, in his essay, goes beyond the surface glitter to show that power was passing from the rulers. In the concluding chapter, Barbara Ramusack critiques the reinvention the rulers attempted in the 20th century.

In-depth study

The publication has rich and immense academic value premised on in-depth research by various scholars. An important dimension of this book is that it covers a genre of art not very popular with commercial publishing houses and Marg has done a yeomen service by putting together well-researched material of two and a half centuries. Reading through the entire text one ominous fact emerges, and that is the scarcity of the visual material and the immense loss of national treasures due to the gifting away of art pieces by the princely rulers to the crown and other colonisers. The credit should go to the editor for the consistency of the writing style in all the essays and for the insightful critique of portraiture in various royal courts in India.

The hard-bound book is exhaustively illustrated with quality visuals and should occupy the pride of place in any visual arts resource centre.



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