Collected over many years, a set of rare mica paintings from 19th-century India is now on sale at the Delhi residence of the Union minister. The sale is aimed at raising funds for a new veterinary hospital, writes Bhumika Popli.
Known for their intense colours and delicate forms, mica paintings hold an intrinsic heritage value. These paintings were made by Indian painters, but composed in the European style, more specifically in the manner of the Company school of art. Rarely found in Indian markets, a collection of such 19th-century mica paintings are now on sale at the Delhi residence of Union minister Maneka Gandhi.
The money generated after the sale of these paintings will be utilised to fund a veterinary hospital in Raipur, which will be owned by People For Animals (PFA), the animal welfare organisation run by Gandhi.
Talking to Guardian 20 about her endeavour, Gandhi said, “PFA does not get anything from the government. All the money we get after selling a work of art goes into PFA.”
The miniature paintings on sale were produced in Patna, Benaras, Murshidabad and Trichinopoly. These artworks represent the visual social histories of 19th-century India. They depict domestic servants, musicians and dancers, religious ceremonies, courtly scenes, Hindu deities, and flora and fauna local to the region.
Gandhi has collected these paintings over a long period of time. She says, “These paintings usually are not found in the Indian market. They are mainly available in England. The British used to get these made by Indians to promote tourism in India, which is why you have paintings representing trades, crafts, palkis in India. The only place where you will find most of them are in British markets.”
Mica paintings require a great deal of care due to the material’s fragility. It can easily flake off if handled roughly. It is estimated that as of now, there are only around 7,000 mica paintings available in the world. Gandhi says. “Mica is a very important part of our heritage and these are museum-quality works. Unfortunately, the national museum has stopped buying these since 1996, which is very shameful. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has a whole room dedicated to just Indian mica art. They have 750 of them. So, my first choice would be to give them to one collector so that it goes as a collection. But otherwise, anybody can buy them.” The paintings cost from Rs 45,000 to over a lakh a piece.
A transparent material, mica is made of potassium silicates, and is found in the south of India as well as in parts of Bihar. This material is formed between strata of granite. So its transparency can be attributed to the heat and pressure formed between rock layers. As a painting medium, the thin sheets of mica are coloured using gouache. Its smooth structure doesn’t let the paint sink in and the colours applied to it appear exceptionally bright.
Artists have liberally used Muscovite—a variety of mica found easily throughout South India—in many of these paintings. Due to the highly smooth surface of mica, it became essential for the artists to use a binding medium with the colours to create these works. In a few of the paintings, colour has been applied to both the front and the back surfaces of the sheet—to enhance the opacity of the pigment. And this approach makes the paintings appear three-dimensional.
Gandhi’s animal welfare organisation, PFA, has been a part of similar cultural events for the past 20 years—events organised annually with a view to showcasing new and forgotten aspects of Indian culture. In 1987, the PFA even organised a group exhibition featuring a bunch of future celebrities. “That was the time Jogen Chowdhury was priced at Rs 20,000, and the most expensive was Raza, at one lakh.” Once, Gandhi also organised an art show that featured an exclusive set of oleographs by Raja Ravi Varma. “The lithographs one sees at Delhi’s The Imperial Hotel were also sold to them by us,” she says.
Gandhi has been an art collector for decades now. She says, “I have always been interested in paintings and have been collecting since I was 18 years old. I started by getting them from Dhoomimal [an art gallery in Delhi]. At that time, it was just a few small black-and-white paintings I could afford.”
The minister is fascinated by a wide range of artists and art movements. “All from the classical, modern and contemporary periods have so much to offer,” she says. But it is actually the heritage elements in art that interest her the most: “I look at the heritage value. I am interested in everything to do with heritage, whether it’s glass, ceramics, textiles. It’s very important to me that it should have something to do with India. I also collect old coins and old brass art.”