Nadir Shah, King of Kings, rode west, his host glutted with the plunder of Hindustan, bearing away the peacock throne. The silver flowed as the Marathas melted down the ceiling of the Diwan-e-Khas, and, a hundred years later, the ransacking that followed the British takeover was pitiless. The wall that rings the Red Fort has seen much and heard much, and holds a great deal more inside.
Within the complex, the British built several barracks in the aftermath of the 1857 war, of which 10 remain today. Of these, four are operational with museums, and there are plans for the rest of the fort as well, a space rich in military heritage.
With Unesco declaring the complex a World Heritage Site in 2007, the barracks have been slowly restored by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Indeed, the ASI means to transform the whole complex into a historical hub. What’s already created is a tribute to 1857, to martyrs from World War I and Jallianwalla Bagh, and to the Indian National Army.
Barrack No. 4 has been designated an art museum — called Drishyakala — that, in a private-public partnership with DAG (formerly Delhi Art Gallery), is seeing a revival of historical art. DAG is a 26-year-old firm, with offices in Delhi, Mumbai and New York.
The company refurbished the space in five months, all 27,000 square feet of it, across three floors. They decided to put in four different historical exhibitions ranging from the 18th century to independence, the first of which you encounter on the ground floor. The Navratna: India’s National Treasure Artists features Raja Ravi Varma, Amrita Sher-Gil, Rabindranath, Abanindranath and Gaganendranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose, Sailoz Mukherjea, Jamini Roy, and Nicholas Roerich.
The other three exhibitions are The Daniells, Popular Prints and the Freedom Struggle, and Portraiture. “We chose these because they would resonate with the majority of the people who walk into the Red Fort — that’s about 3,000 people daily,” says Ashish Anand, CEO, DAG.
India through British eyes
What stands out is the absence of a heightened sense of nationalism — the kind we see today in movies or in politics. It’s like we’re now confident of who we are as a people, but ironies abound.
I put this to one of the curators, Giles Tillotson, a Fellow (and former Director) of the Royal Asiatic Society, London, and an expert on art history in India. He says, “The Red Fort itself was the site of oppression, especially with the INA trials, and it’s the last place you’d want to see any Brits around.” And yet, he was a logical choice for DAG because of his experience and past work.
There’s more irony: The Daniells, a series of 144 prints painted between 1795 and 1808 by Thomas and William Daniell, an uncle-nephew team, is still the single largest pictorial documentation of landscape and architecture of India by any artist. It’s also ironical that there’s no sign of conflict or trouble in their rather idealistic images.
“The prints were made in London, primarily intended for a British audience. By the end of the 18th century, England had very strong investments in India, but most people sitting in London had no clue how India looked,” says Tillotson. “They showed that India was a conglomerate of different architectural styles and fantastic scenery.” The prints are on display in a light-controlled room, ordered as a sort of journey from one end of India to the other.
It’s this personal connection that Anand says they hoped to establish. So whether a person is from Lucknow or Chennai, there is something they can identify as their own. There is a portrait, for instance, of the ruling princes of India from the 1930s, another of a Parsi lady in 1906, and another of an ascetic in a dhoti. “Most people who walk in have never experienced art before, so the idea was to bring them closer to different aspects of Indian art.”
Paula Sengupta, artist, academic, art writer, who curated the section on popular prints, says that’s the reason they looked at printmaking as a popular medium through which to see the freedom struggle. “We looked at pictures that hung in people’s homes, offices, shops,” she says. The first picture postcards were given as takeaways when you bought consumer goods. “These depicted a wide range of things, starting with an early interest in the subcontinent (Alexander, for instance) to the ‘sepoy mutiny’.” They’re arranged here in chronological order.
“Soon though, the rise of the Swadeshi movement led to a whole different set of images, with the freedom struggle and its leaders being portrayed, sometimes even as collages, says Sengupta.
As the new nation is identified, there’s the Bharat Mata iconography that comes into play. And “there’s a peculiar iconography with political undertones, which is modelled on Hindu iconography. So Narasimha is seen tearing apart a British soldier,” she says.
Like most great exhibitions, it is difficult to take in everything at one go. You’ll want to return, to look a little more at the way Raja Ravi Varma’s grand oil on canvas, Yashoda and Krishna, is flanked by Nandalal Bose’s earthy watercolours and tempera on paper. To look at the reproduction of two leaves, from the Constitution, designed by Nandalal Bose. To study the archives in the corridor with letters, stamps and pens from freedom fighters. There’s an artwork corridor for children and another for the visually-impaired. It fits into DAG’s vision of taking art to a larger audience, out of galleries and into public spaces.
(The exhibition is on till July 31.)