Spotlight Art

The artist and the sitter: why portraiture has not lost its significance in the selfie era

Jatin Das’s recent exhibition showed a rich roster of personalities from the Indian art scene.   | Photo Credit: V.V. Krishnan

If you go to Dilli Haat in Delhi or Kala Ghoda in Mumbai, you will invariably bump into a portrait artist, sitting on a small stool, setting up his easel, sharpening pencils and attending to the growing crowd clamouring for their portraits to be made.

“Business is good today,” says Rakesh Kumar, the artist who has been creating 15-minute portraits for Delhi’s flaneurs and celebrities across malls and maidans for 15 years now. Even though it takes just a second to click a flattering selfie, the art of portraiture continues to thrive.

Before the invention of the camera in the 19th century, portraits painted by artists were the primary method of recording a person’s likeness. Portraiture was not a mere act of vanity but a historical record. Predictably, it was the elite and the royalty who patronised this art form. When the camera democratised portraiture, painters took a more personal and stylised approach to it.

Portraiture, however, seems far from dead. Last year, the late Bengaluru-based Yusuf Arakkal exhibited 135 pen-and-ink sketches of Indian artists. And last month, artist Jatin Das premiered a solo exhibition of only portraits, featuring over 500, at Lalit Kala Akademi.

Subjective gaze

Titled ‘Jatin Das: Artists & Friends. Over Fifty Years’, it reflects Das’s view succinctly: “Not everyone can draw a portrait, even if they call themselves an artist. Moreover, I challenge the belief that portraiture died after the advent of the camera. Portraits are not just about capturing the likeness of the sitter before you, but of interpreting their personality through your own subjective gaze.”

Baroda-based artist Rekha Rodwittiya, who incidentally features in Das’s exhibition, recalls that one of the first lessons of drawing from the life study class at art school begins with portrait studies. “What you learn with time is that a portrait is not merely a recreation of an anatomical likeness alone (if at all), but is in fact an attempt at revealing something about the individual or yourself that you want to bring focus to — a window into more insightful perceptions related to the subject in question.”

Das’s exhibition was a rich roster of artists from the Indian art scene, photographers, poets, writers, dancers, art historians and aficionados. The portraits, done in various mediums, from pen and ink to oil on canvas, captured the likeness of the subject in an expressionistic manner rather than being slavishly realistic. Rather than relying on fussy details, Das has essayed his subjects with strong deft strokes. These are people known to Das and he has short annotations at the bottom of several of the drawings.

From painter Krishan Khanna to photographer Raghu Rai, from poet Dom Moraes to dancer Uma Sharma, actors Dilip Kumar and Saira Banu, theatre personality Alique Padamsee, and yoga guru B.K.S. Iyengar — the portraits are arresting and intuitive.

Das says that during an earlier exhibition at Jehangir Art Gallery, inspired by the pavement artist at Kala Ghoda, he decided to sketch and draw live portraits. “I was really enjoying myself until a woman came up to me and gushed, ‘I want a portrait but from a photograph, of when I was younger. And while you are at it, could you do one of my dog too?’ That is when I stopped,” says Das. He was offended that the woman did not understand the rigour of sketching from a live model. “Drawing is like riyaz, and I am sad that 99.9% of young artists today have neglected it.”

Curator’s role

Drawing from a photograph is not always a bad thing. It acquires different connotations for different artists. Going back to 2003, one recalls artist Bose Krishnamachari’s exhibition, ‘De-Curating’, that was held in Mumbai and Kochi. He displayed 94 pencil sketches of modern and contemporary artists, clearly referenced from existing photographs. Quite unlike Das’s playful and expressionistic portraits, these were photorealist and bore the weight of being a roll-call of definitive artists, a kind of documentation to counter the impermanence of memory.

The exhibition, in Bose’s words, was his “take on the lack of honesty in the area of curatorship in India.” Looking back, the exhibition was almost prophetic, considering that Bose went on to become the founder-member of Kochi-Muziris Biennale alongwith fellow artist Riyas Komu, and curated the first Biennale. One understands the aim behind the De-Curating portraits to be not just a statement of the artist’s skill in capturing likenesses, but also highlighting his role as a curator who determines which artists are worthy of memorialising.

For some artists, like Manu Parekh, the portrait is an inside joke, known only to the artist and the sitter. During his solo ‘Manu Parekh: 60 years of Selected Works’ at National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi in August, the centrepiece was The Last Supper (2017). It was a set of 13 individual portraits put together to make one large (48”x33”) piece.

“I have deliberately not made the portraits identifiable because then it would become too obvious. Besides, I didn’t want it to be a tribute to the art world. Anyway, most of my work is highly symbolic,” says Parekh. “I wanted this painting to be a bit mysterious and leave the viewer guessing.”

The writer is a critic-curator by day, and a creative writer and visual artist by night, who sometimes likes to serenade life with a guitar and a plate of Khao Suey.

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Printable version | May 9, 2021 2:47:00 AM |

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