Volume 67 Number 1, September 2015

In Pursuit of the Past: Collecting Old Art in Modern India circa 1875-1950

By: Pratapaditya Pal
Binding: Hardcover
Specifications: 180 pages, 240 illustrations
ISBN: 978-93-83243-09-9
Dimensions: 305 x 241 mm

A significant development in the period from the late 19th to the first half of the 20th century was the awakening of national pride, with an increased awareness in India’s ancient heritage. The explorations of the ASI unearthed several treasures of the past; in addition, the dwindling fortunes of princely families led to their disposing of their possessions. As a result, individuals from wealthy and educated Indian families, as also enlightened European visitors and residents, zealously acquired objects of historic and aesthetic appeal. Today these works, preserved in museum or private collections in India and abroad, provide rich materials for the study of India’s art history.

This book presents the stories of the pioneering collectors and traces the journey of great works of art, as collections were sold or gifted away. Many of the 20th-century collectors were personally known to the author, and he has also mined the memoirs of scholars, collectors and dealers to reveal little-known facts about how they came to acquire some of their prized pieces.

Pratapaditya Pal has been a pre-eminent curator, a prolific author, and he was the General Editor of Marg for 19 years. His many honours include a Padma Shri of the Government of India. In 2014, a chair in Curating and Museology in Asian Art was established in his name at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.



Part 1: Eastern Circle

Chapter 1: Artists as Collectors: The Tagore Brothers of Calcutta

Chapter 2: Scholars as Collectors: Woodroffe, Coomaraswamy and Kramrisch

Chapter 3: Bhadralok Collectors of Calcutta

Chapter 4: Modern Collectors in an Ancient Capital: Patna

Chapter 5: The Holy City of Banaras

Part 2: Western Circle

Chapter 6: Collecting in the Land of the Five Rivers

Chapter 7: The Tata Family: Collecting in the Grand Manner

Chapter 8: Diverse Collectors of Bombay

Chapter 9: Bombay Presidency and Beyond



Selected Bibliography

Figure Acknowledgements


Pal, Pratapaditya
Vol. 67 No. 1, September 2015; ISBN: 978-93-83243-09-9, pp. 10-19

Pratapaditya Pal documents how he stumbled upon scattered mines of information on collecting as he embarked on this project, and taps into his own recollections of the collectors whom he had met in the course of his professional life as well as those of others. Among his primary sources, he mentions the memoirs of O.C. Gangoly, Abanindranath Tagore and Alice Boner, the recollections of Debaprasad Ghosh and the writings of Bill and Mildred Archer on Pahari painting and colonial art of British India. He also lists other oral and printed sources like the correspondence between Ananda K. Coomaraswamy and William Rothenstein and reports in journals like Rupam, Modern Review and Prabasi, besides exhibitions and museum catalogues. He discusses specific geographical quandaries and how that affected the collection of art from particular regions of the subcontinent as well as the ethical issues involved in collecting. He also mentions some ubiquitous dealers of the period like Radhakishen Bharany.

Artists as Collectors: The Tagore Brothers of Calcutta
Pal, Pratapaditya
Vol. 67 No. 1, September 2015; ISBN: 978-93-83243-09-9, pp. 22-31

This chapter discusses the two Tagore artist brothers Gaganendranath and Abanindranath as important art collectors of the modern age. Abanindranath’s interest in collecting was sparked by his visits as a child to the annual Hindu Mela, besides a family legacy beginning with Dwarkanath Tagore. In his memoirs, Abanindranath also acknowledged E.B. Havell as his guru who introduced him to the country’s heritage. The chapter also narrates how at the turn of the 20th century, nationalistic sentiments engendered a new interest in collecting indigenous arts in the Tagore family. It is full of recollections and anecdotes which throw light upon the brothers’ interests, experiences and habits pertaining to collecting. It ends by recounting how financial necessity compelled the brothers to sell their collection.

Scholars as Collectors: Woodroffe, Coomaraswamy and Kramrisch
Pal, Pratapaditya
Vol. 67 No. 1, September 2015; ISBN: 978-93-83243-09-9, pp. 32-47

This chapter discusses in detail the collections and collecting practices of Sir John Woodroffe, Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy and Stella Kramrisch – renowned scholars whose passions for collecting are less well-known. Woodroffe was the first to arrive in Calcutta in 1890 to begin a distinguished legal career at the High Court but became better known in the field of Indian philosophy and religion through his contributions to Tantric studies. He was also deeply interested in Indian and Himalayan art and antiquities of which he was an avid collector. Coomaraswamy came to Calcutta at the beginning of the new century and stayed with the Tagore brothers in 1910–11. During his short stay in India, he acquired masterpieces of both Pahari and Rajasthani styles and wrote extensively on them. In contrast to Coomaraswamy’s more publicly known collecting practices, Kramrisch was a discreet collector. She avidly collected and wrote about the tribal arts of India and her contributions to the study of Indian textiles and her interpretations of the significance of the Hindu temple were of seminal importance to the history of Indian art.

Bhadralok Collectors of Calcutta
Pal, Pratapaditya
Vol. 67 No. 1, September 2015; ISBN: 978-93-83243-09-9, pp. 48-63

The partition of Bengal which gave rise to a nationalist sentiment was an important factor in the encouragement of collecting old art among the “bhadralok” community. The latter, along with some liberal-minded Europeans formed the Indian Society of Oriental Art (ISOA) whose annual exhibition included a gallery showing pre-colonial Indian art from local private collections which encouraged collectors and familiarized visitors to the heritage of the country. The chapter discusses the collections of prominent collectors like O.C. Gangoly, the Ghose brothers, Gurusaday Dutt and Debaprasad Ghosh. It also includes those mentioned by Ghosh in his reminiscences like Dinesh Chandra Sen, and Marwari collectors of Calcutta, notable among them being some members of the extended Nahar family like Puran Chand Nahar, and others like Hanuman Prasad Poddar.

Modern Collectors in an Ancient Capital: Patna
Pal, Pratapaditya
Vol. 67 No. 1, September 2015; ISBN: 978-93-83243-09-9, pp. 64-79

Patna was an important centre for the Company School of painting and was home to several artists who worked for British patrons of Calcutta. The city also attracted traders from Nepal and Tibet and became a market for Himalayan art. This chapter discusses how Khuda Bakhsh, the most dedicated collector in the city, acquired his vast collection and throws light upon some of the treasures of the Khuda Bakhsh Library which is a rich source for the history of Islamic art. It also mentions other major art collectors in Patna like P.C. Manuk who had an eclectic collection comprising fine Indian paintings, Kashmiri shawls and Persian carpets among other objects. Collections of Radha Krishna Jalan, a rich industrialist and businessman and the English couple William and Mildred Archer are also covered. Gopi Krishna Kanoria and the treasures of his collection consisting of Rajput pictures, stone religious sculptures and a group of ivories from ancient Kashmir among other fascinating objects are discussed as well.

The Holy City of Banaras
Pal, Pratapaditya
Vol. 67 No. 1, September 2015; ISBN: 978-93-83243-09-9, pp. 80-91

Among the notable collectors of antiquities discussed in this chapter on Banaras are Rai Krishnadas and Alice Boner, both of whom the author had met early in his career. The former, a great connoisseur of Indian painting of both Mughal and Rajput traditions, assiduously collected Indian art from his early youth which he later donated to the Banaras Hindu University and which today constitutes the glory of Bharat Kala Bhavan. Other collectors whose collections are mentioned here are Sitaram Shah and Brindaban Chandra Bhattacharya. The chapter ends with a section on Alice Boner, who was deeply passionate about Indian stone sculpture and architecture. It was Boner’s remarkable diaries that helped the author to form an idea about the serendipitous nature of the collector’s taste, her aesthetic sensitivity and her deep love for India.

Collecting in the Land of the Five Rivers
Pal, Pratapaditya
Vol. 67 No. 1, September 2015; ISBN: 978-93-83243-09-9, pp. 94-111

The Bharanys' famous art-shop near the Golden Temple in Amritsar had attracted a stream of collectors over several decades and the city became a leading conduit for the passage of Pahari paintings due to the city's importance as a centre of Sikh pilgrimage and its proximity to the "Punjab Hills". The chapter offers a discussion of the early collecting days of the Lahore Museum as well as the collections of eminent collectors like Alma Latifi whose career spread over three decades in the province; Samarendranath Gupta who was responsible for augmenting the art collections of the Lahore Museum besides being an early artist of the Bengal School and a pioneering scholar of Pahari pictures; Abdur Rahman Chughtai and Begum Sharifa Hamid Ali, both students of Samarendranath Gupta; Eric C. Dickinson whose interests were in both Gandhara sculpture and Indian paintings; the Roerichs of Russia followed by a section on the Roerich Collection and finally M.S. Randhawa who was also a noted scholar of Pahari paintings and a prolific author.

The Tata Family: Collecting in the Grand Manner
Pal, Pratapaditya
Vol. 67 No. 1, September 2015; ISBN: 978-93-83243-09-9, pp. 112-121

The chapter begins by drawing parallels between the Tagore brothers of Calcutta and the Tata brothers of Bombay: Sir Dorab and Sir Ratan. Until the beginning of the 21st century little information was available about the collections of the Tata brothers. Since then, publications have appeared which hint at the vast collections of the Tatas, containing over 5,000 objects from Europe, China, Japan and the Indian subcontinent. This chapter contains sections on Jamsetji’s aesthetic impulse; the collecting habits and interests of the Tata brothers – the collection including objects as diverse as Indian paintings, textiles and decorative arts, masses of Chinese and Japanese porcelain, lacquer wood, cloisonné, etc.; the Tatas’ regard for the ancient traditions of the country, and finally on Deccani art – a school of Indian painting that the Tatas were great admirers of – and Sir Purushottam Mavji’s collection.

Diverse Collectors of Bombay
Pal, Pratapaditya
Vol. 67 No. 1, September 2015; ISBN: 978-93-83243-09-9, pp. 122-141

This chapter documents how, although not as eclectic as the Tatas in their taste, several notables of the Parsi community were collecting old art in the first two decades of the 20th century. It devotes a section to the Parsi taste for old Indian art; Sir Purushottam Mavji, a trader from Rajasthan, who was one of the earliest collectors of Bombay after the Tata family; the well-known Jehangir Collection of Sir Cowasji and Lady Jehangir; A.C. Ardeshir, an important source of many of the Mughal masterpieces that have entered several museum collections in the West; and the collections of eminent collectors like S.K. Bhedwar, Boman Behram, B.N. Treasurywalla and Karl J. Khandalavala.

Bombay Presidency and Beyond
Pal, Pratapaditya
Vol. 67 No. 1, September 2015; ISBN: 978-93-83243-09-9, pp. 142-159

This chapter opens with a discussion of the long reach of what was the Bombay Presidency comprising the western part of today’s Maharashtra, parts of present-day Gujarat as well as other contiguous regions now part of Karnataka, and the province of Sindh. It is followed by sections on Dinkar Kelkar of Poona, a remarkably dedicated collector who formed a vast assemblage of everyday art and left it to the government of Maharashtra; and the collecting practices among prominent Gujarati families like the Sarabhais of Shahibagh who developed a passion for old textiles, and the Lalbhais. The chapter also includes discussions on collectors like N.C. Mehta and Muni Punyavijayji who have become legendary figures in the history of Indian art; Madhuri D. Desai – the first major female collector operating in what was a man’s world; figures like Sayaji Rao Gaekwad III, a remarkably enlightened ruler of Baroda, and Hermann Goetz, a European scholar, both of whom, though not collectors themselves, figured prominently in the establishment of the Baroda Museum and Picture Gallery and the growth of its art collection. Included also are sections on collectors in Hyderabad like Salar Jung III whose collection now forms the core of the eponymous museum; Sir Akbar Hydari; and Jagdish Mittal, one of the last collector-scholars of the first half of the 20th century

Pal, Pratapaditya
Vol. 67 No. 1, September 2015; ISBN: 978-93-83243-09-9, pp. 160-172

In the Epilogue, the author mentions that though a large number of collectors have been discussed in this volume, the narrative is by no means exclusive. He mentions notable collectors like J.C. French, William Rothenstein, Lord Kitchener, Colonel T.G. Gayer-Anderson, Walter Koelz, Rudi von Leyden, Walter Langhammer, Emmanuel Schlesinger among others who have not been extensively discussed here. He also writes how profit and economic necessity were some of the primary reasons for the sale of collections among collectors. Some, with friends in high places took their collections out of the country while the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act of 1982 led to their flight from the country. The author concludes by commenting upon issues like the condition of collections in public and private institutions, the fate of famous collections, the tax levied on old Indian art objects, figures like Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay who were interested in saving the country’s heritage, the appeal of “miniatures”, interest in the arts of Nepal and Tibet, the search for “modernity” in the visual arts in the practices of the early collectors, and other such engaging subjects.