Western art has a plethora of self-portraits of artists at work. Rembrandt’s paintings, in which the artist represents himself at different stages of his life, are particularly compelling. Like many of my peers and colleagues, I collect and love representations of artists at work. Self-portraits or portraits of painters in South Asia are not so common, but not so rare, making them even more appreciated. Mughal albums contain magnificent portraits of painters and scribes as well as atelier scenes painted either in full pages or as small vignettes among the golden scrolling of the illuminated borders. One of the most famous examples is A Court Atelier, a page from the Ethics of Nasir, produced circa 1590 – 1595 and today at the Aga Kham Museum in Toronto. The borders of the Jahangir album today in the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin also contain delicate miniaturist scenes of scribes, calligraphers, painters and burnishers.
In the Punjab hills, there are several portraits of artists, descendants of Pandit Seu. These are depicted as sitting on the ground, with a sheet of paper stretched on a wooden board resting on one knee. Most often, the paraphernalia including cups, brushes and fresh mussel shells filled with paint are displayed around them.
One of the most famous is the portrait of Nainsuck (1710-1778) painted in tondo. The painter is shown in profile, holding, in his left hand, a wooden panel on which the sheet of paper is stretched. In his right hand, he is holding a brush and is about to draw a line. His gaze is rather vague, directed out of the frame area, and does not seem to be focused on a particular subject or scene to be depicted. Self-Portrait of Nainshuk of Guler, Indian Museum, Calcutta.
His brother Manaku (c. 1700–1760) was also depicted while drawing a portrait. While he is fully painted with his white turban and jama, his model is barely visible along the right edge of the sheet. Rightfully the whole point was for once to focus on himself and not on his model. A few shells, a cup filled with water in which a few brushes are dipped, and a penholder are placed in front of him. In the bottom right corner of the sheet is a folder with a flap, made of cloth that probably contains sheets of paper. Portrait of Manaku of Guler, National Museum, New-Delhi.
Nikka of Guler (1745 – 1833), one of Nainsukh’s sons, was also represented according to the same postural norm, since the artist is represented sitting on the floor, drawing, on a wooden tablet, the portraits of two men posing. In front of him are crudely sketched his attributes, some cups and what appear to be mussel shells. Artists often practised on tablets before sketching a final version on a sheet of paper. Paper was an expensive raw material that was used sparingly. Therefore, the wooden tablet was a cheaper alternative. A mineral coating was applied to a wooden board and washed for reuse. A similar medium was and still is used today by children learning the Qur’an. Portrait of Nikka of Guler, Chamba, c. 1780-90, acc.n. 76.753, the Jagdish and Kamla Mittal Museum, Hyderabad.
Many other professions were also carried out on the floor: bookbinder, carpenter, weaver, goldsmith, money lender, potter, basket maker, etc. Most of the time, the craftsmen used their toes to perform certain tasks. For instance, a fine drawing from the Museum Volkenkunde provides us with insight into carpenters at work. An artisan holds a piece of wood with the toes of his left foot while cutting it.
Painters working for the Rajput rulers also depicted themselves in similar poses. Most often they did not sign their works, so it is impossible to identify them today. One of my favourites is a self-portrait of an artist from Jodhpur who used splendid colours to paint the beautiful fabric of his garment …. Another line drawing ascribed to Kota in Rajasthan is also interesting as it shows a metal pen case in which the artist stores his brushes. Although the artists’ faces are individualised, all these portraits are standardised and static in their posture and action: the craftsmen are sitting on the floor holding the board on a bent knee with some tools around them. They do not interact with the models or the surrounding environment. If a model is present, it is just briefly outlined and left unfinished.
Today, there are surviving art supplies and tools from the 19th century. I recently visited the Maharaja Sansar Chandra Museum in Kangra and found a set of shells and brushes in one of the decrepit display cases. The museum guard did not know which artist it belonged to. Similarly, Vijay Charma’s materials are displayed in Bhuri Singh Museum in Chamba and Banu’s from Bikaner paraphernalia in Rietberg Museum in Zürich. The art supplies are pretty simple and don’t differ from artist to artist: a set of mussel shells (called sipis) filled with paints, a large burnisher (ghota) to polish the paper and a set of small stone burnishers to smoothen the paint layers and to burnish the metallic paints (gholti, guli and opani), a penholder, charred twigs (basuti) for preparatory drawing, and a set of brushes, the finest of which were made from squirrel hair.
Portraits of women artists are rare and fall into two categories: realistic portraits of artists who existed and symbolic representations of women embodying a ragamala, such as the Dhanasri Ragini, a musical mode performed in the evening associated with the Dipak Raga and intended to evoke the mood of desire. In this sense, the female artist is presented in a courtly setting, often accompanied by her servant. She reproduces from memory the portrait of her absent lover. Detail of Danasri Ragini, RP-T-1993-418, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
One of the only surviving portraits of a woman artist in her own right was made during the time of Shah Jahan and shows a realistic scene of a woman drawing the portrait of another feminine counterpart sitting before her. The limited art material consisting of a cup of water and four mussel shells is arranged around it. Mughal woman artist, Bharat Kala Bhavan Museum, Varanasi (source)
These aspects contrast with the exquisite painting entitled A woman and a Painter, in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Kangra c. 1790-1800). Accession number 22.675 The artist, sitting on a platform or table (chowki), painting a mural, interrupts his work to talk to a beautiful maiden standing in the doorway. The gesture of his left hand indicates that he is talking. Similar tools as those described above, are placed around it, the mussel shells being carefully stored in a box under the table. The oblong cream attribute under the platform is certainly a brush case and a red striped cloth portfolio called basta is leaning against a column on the right. On the doorstep, the lady Kangra comes to the artist to beg him to produce the work for which she has given him fresh paper so that she and her lover can be reunited forever in the painting.The image is perhaps a reinterpretation of an episode of Nala and Damayanti depicting a painter drawing a pair of ideal lovers on a wall. But it has also been seen as a depiction of Virhini Nayika, the love-torn heroine. On the back of the folio, it says:
‘’ From evening to morning and morning to evening, the days are passing and months go by,
What do you wot of the woes of others? None but the wise understands! I gave you freely clean paper, fresh and shining like glass.
Oh, painter! How many days have passed and you have not drawn the picture of my friend!
[The painter answers]:
‘I shall so prepare the portrait of yourself and your friend
That instantly in the picture the divided lovers shall meet!’
Translation A. Coomaraswamy (1926) in Archer Indian Paintings from the Punjab Hills, Sotheby Parke Bennet, London and New York, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1973, Volume 1 p. 298.
During the nineteenth century, a change in artists’ posture occurred, particularly in Eastern India (Bengal) where the local population was most exposed to British colonialism and influence. Indian painters working on commissions from British patrons adopted some of their habits. First of all, they started to use a low drawing table which was a certain advantage in terms of practicality and comfort. The realistic portrait of Yellapah de Vellore (ca. 1832-35) shows the artist sitting cross-legged on a mat while painting on a sheet of white paper placed on a low-tilted table. The tilt is necessary to allow for closer inspection of detailed areas that would otherwise be far away from our eyes and hands if located on a flat surface. Tilting the work surface is also necessary to accommodate our eye’s visual perception of perspective and foreshortening. In addition, the colours are no longer made by hand and stored in the mussel shells but are made in England. The dry paint cakes, stored in small wells, were exported to South Asia and used by local artists. Only the gold paint is still preserved in a large shell, which indicates that the artist is probably still producing the precious gold shell. One of his assistants holds a navy blue leather portfolio decorated with gold tooling that probably contains paper sheets.
A Portrait of an Artist from James Skinner’s Tashrih al-aqvam (1825) also provides a good insight into local artists’ change of art supplies. While the painter still works sitting on the floor, leaning on a large bolster, he uses a panoply of paint cakes cleverly arranged in a wooden box with compartments. The carved marble palette original to the box was used to rub the dry blocks in water to “work the colours up”. Small round porcelain palette dishes are also part of the paraphernalia. In front of him, a second wood box contains an ink stink, containers, a pair of scissors, brushes, and other tools. A Portrait of an Artist from James Skinner’s Tashrih al-aqvam (1825) British Library F. 258 b, Add. Or. 27255
Thomas and William Reeves (later the firm of Reeves & Woodyer), were ‘artists’ colourmen’, as suppliers of art materials were then called. In the second part of the 18th century, with the development of leisure travel, British amateur painters explored the countryside to capture picturesque landscapes. This led to the emergence of a new genre of style and artists, the famous British watercolourists. Therefore the Reeves Brothers realized that there was an increasing and lucrative market for boxes such as the one shown above. In 1780 they introduced commercially-prepared cakes or pans of watercolour, which were inexpensive, portable and easy to use (they were awarded the Silver Palette of the Society of Arts). The colours were already prepared and formed into cakes with a binding medium, thus avoiding the messy and tedious preparation of pigments that had been necessary hitherto. Reeves’ invention of creating portable boxes containing all the supplies became a commercial hit. Thomas Reeves & Son, Artists watercolour paint box, c. 1784 to 1794, This large boxed set of 24 water colours, was made complete with a palette, water glass and brushes (Source)
The export of materials to India formed an important part of Reeves’s trade as early as 1786. Reeves’s colours in boxes were advertised for sale in Calcutta in 1787 and, by auction, in 1790. Later the firm Reeves & Woodyer was advertised as ‘colour-makers to the Honourable East India Company’. This trade grew in significance in the 1820s and 1830s and subsequently, Reeves’s annual income from the East India Company amounted to as much as £6000, or some 25 to 30% of the firm’s overall turnover. Small round pallets found from a William Reeves paint box 1784-1789 (source)
It’s a short step from sitting on the floor to sitting in a chair! The painter Sita Ram who executed watercolours for Lord Hastings, the East India Company’s Governor-General of Bengal from 1813-23, was portrayed sitting on a chair and working on a table. He holds in his hand a just-finished painting of the landscape visible from the window behind. On the table are the palette with the colours and a cup of water. Portrait of the painter Sita Ram by a Calcutta artist; ca. 1820. Private collection, London.
It is also interesting to note the presence of the portfolio, the parts of which are tied with ribbons. This is clearly a British addition in contrast to the aforementioned cloth wrappers traditionally used by Indian artists. Winsor & Newton marketed different types of portfolios with and without flaps, the “best” being made on the outside of Moroccan leather decorated with gold “fillets” and reinforced on the inside with stiff cloth. Another model, the “useful” portfolio, came with a lock, cloth back and corners, and leather paper sides. Windsor and Newton portfolio (source).
Another very interesting portrait shows a painter comfortably seated in a chair and leaning against a table, making a watercolour portrait. An English colour box, a marble palette and some brushes are placed on the table. Detail of an artist seated at a table painting a picture c.1815 – 1820, British Library, Add Or 347.
Similar marble palette with compartments for the brush and the mixing of colours were supplied by Reeves (source).
A little further south, in Tamil Nadu, a Tamul Munshee executes a miniature portrait of a lady, perhaps on ivory or mica, sitting on a wooden chair and working on a table covered with a green tablecloth. The caption below the image reads ‘’Telinga de caste Monshy, exercant la profession de peintres en tous genres’’ [Telinga of Monshy caste, practising the profession of painter of all kinds] and indicates that the artist worked on the market and accepted commissions for all types of works. In the Album Castes et professions de l’Inde, circa 1830, Indien 743, Fol. 79 b. Bibliothèque Nationale de France.
Finally, an interesting painting on mica shows an artist using a folding sketching easel to copy a portrait of a European man. This tripod easel was a practical tool because it could be placed on any table, and was easy to fold and carry. It allowed the model to be displayed on the top and had an inclined support on which the artist could rest his paper. Similar devises were used in Europe by amateur artists, as shown in this fashion print by Jules David.
With the development of plein air painting, art suppliers traded a wide range of easels in different sizes and formats that can be easily folded and transported in a suitcase. Reeves was of course an important manufacturer but also Roberson & Co, Winsor & Newton, Rowney, as well as G. Bowden who advertised an easel drawing desk as early as 1848. Tourist ‘A’ sketching easel made with cherry wood and patented in 1890s (source).
All these examples illustrate the change in artistic posture and art material under British rule. It is difficult to say whether artists in the western and north-western territories experienced such a shift as there are very few known self-portraits of painters who worked for Westerners. It is important to mention, however, that the genre of ‘company painting’ was much less developed in Punjab and Kashmir, as the English occupation only came after the second Sikh war of 1849. One of the most famous painters was Imam Bakhsh of Lahore who executed commissions for the European mercenary officers serving in Ranjit Singh’s army, General Claude-Auguste Court, Jean-Francois Allard and Jean-Baptiste Ventura. But to my knowledge, he did not represent himself.
Other interesting painters were working in Amritsar and Lahore, but due to a lack of records and signed pieces, their life and production are not well documented. For instance, Keshar Singh, (1820-1882), was very much influenced by European prints, watercolours and photography and made his self-portrait. He represented himself, sitting on a mat and leaning against a bolster, with a board on his lap and a large open wooden box with his materials before him (sorry for the poor-quality image that I found online, the location is unknown, source).
Bishan Singh (1836-1900) also known as Baba Bishan Singh, came from a family of artists operating in Lahore and Amritsar in the second half of the 19th century. The family was responsible for painting and maintaining the murals on the walls of the Sikh holiest shrine, the Golden Temple im Amritsar and it is there that Bishan together with his brother Kishan Singh learnt his trade. Bishan Singh became particularly famous for his detailed depictions of the Court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780-1839). In the below reconstruction of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s court, Bishan Singh depicted chroniclers and scribes sitting on carpets writing down the edicts announced by the Sikh ruler. They keep their paraphernalia in sumptuous boxes that could have been made of papier-mâché in Kashmir.
Bishan Singh’s self-portrait greatly contrasts with the above depiction of Maharajah Ranjit Singh’s scribes, as he uses the standard codes of European portraiture. For this, Bishan Singh used watercolour on cardboard and depicted himself from the front, facing and looking at the viewer, with aged and realistic features, in the manner of a Western artist. Baba Bishan Singh (1836-c. 1900), Self Portrait, Bonhams, Islamic and Indian Art, 25 Oct 2007, London, New Bond Street, lot 483.
When I visited Padma Sri Vijay Sharma, the famous painter based in Chamba (Himachal Pradesh), he works sitting on a cushion on the floor, his tools spread out on the ground, and the paper resting on a low drawing table. Similarly, the students of the miniature painting department of the National College of Art in Lahore, eager to revive the ancient traditions, use the techniques and tools of the great classical masters. They sit on the floor, their vasli stretched over wooden boards that rest on small desks or on their laps. (photo: National College of Art, Lahore, November 2022, author’s photo).
South Asians, and Asians to a greater extent, have been on the floor for centuries. Besides the fact that the concept of chairs and tables was introduced late, during the British occupation, the advantages of performing activities on the floor, especially eating, in the Sukhasana posture or lotus pose, are manifold from an Ayurvedic perspective. In short, the cross-legged position is a yoga posture that helps strengthen the back, ankles and knees. It is a meditative pose, an excellent way to take care of your psychological and emotional health, to be connected to mother earth, to stay grounded and to improve the energy flow in the body. It also aids digestion, helps control weight and improves posture and circulation.
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