had begun looking forward to the event from the moment the invitation
card from the Philadelphia Museum of Art arrived, some two months ago.
The fact that there was to be an exhibition of Alvin Bellak’s
distinguished collection of Indian paintings at that museum I knew,
but the exquisitely designed and printed card held out an added,
special promise of elegance and refinement. There it was, folded three
times over, with the entire cover — front and back and inside flap
— completely filled with a horizontal spread of an 18th century
Pahari painting, with not a word of text or lettering intruding upon
it. Of course, there was all the information about the show, the date
and the opening time etc. on the inside, but one got to it well after
one had taken in the painted work slowly first. There sat Shiva with
his divine consort on a tiger-skin, out in the open by the side of a
lotus pond, playing gently upon his damaru — drum, while
heavenly apsaras danced and a group of gandharvas made
music. There was much else that filled the page: a gentle grassy
slope, elegant trees standing around as sentinels, a herd of deer
quietly grazing in the distance. And yet it was a private moment
which, the painter wanted us to know, belonged only to Shiva and
Parvati and their own, inner circle. Everyone else, even the gods
themselves, had been left out: for all one could see of them was a
crowd of eager heads behind the rim of a far hill, as if they had all
gathered there to catch a blessed glimpse of the great God and his
consort even from that great distance. The painting, as reproduced on
the card of invitation, promised to lead one to ‘Intimate Worlds’,
the title that Darielle Mason, curator of the show, had thoughtfully
chosen for it.
Dr. Bellak, the Philadelphian benefactor who had now, with this exhibition, pledged all his paintings as a gift to the great museum of his city, was never spoken of earlier in the same breath as other high-profile collectors of Indian paintings in the United States, men like Edwin Binney or Stuart Cary Welch, or Paul Walter. But this exhibition gave one an opportunity to get to know him, especially with his contributing an essay on collecting in the catalogue of the show. He had never had any interest in Indian paintings, or any art for that matter, till 25 short years ago. And then suddenly it all began, "on a pleasant January day in 1975", as he says, disarmingly, in the opening paragraph of his essay. On that day, "my ex-wife called to tell me that a Pakistani rug-dealer in her neighbourhood had some wonderful pictures. Why she felt compelled to do this is a story for another day, since she knew that the only piece of original art I had ever bought was a whimsical woodcarving of a giraffe done by a local artist …. However, my curiosity was piqued, and I took her advice. I went, I saw, and I bought, and bought, and bought. Up to this fateful point", Al Bellak continues, "I had never seen an Indian ‘miniature’. I knew absolutely nothing about them and the rug dealer knew little more — only that they were from India and that they were old. Yet the pictures reached me in ways that I still can’t begin to understand."
This group of paintings, Dr Bellak was to find out over time, were not of any great significance, or worth. But, with these words, he takes the reader on a journey as a collector: the men he met on the way, the lessons he learnt, the path that he had, like every other collector before him, to chart out for himself, and what he found, or seemed to find, at the end of it. There was excitement and heartache, the thrill of discovery and the self-questioning about the meaning of it all. He taught himself a great deal about the art of India as he went along, and got to know pictures well. But buying a painting was always a testing time. "When I brought a work home on approval", he records, "I would hang it with related pictures. Sometimes it would take minutes, sometimes hours, sometimes days, but inevitably the ‘truth’ of the painting, for me, would finally, and suddenly, emerge. … Sometimes I thought that the pictures themselves were alive."
So on it goes, this essay. There is much else that one finds in the catalogue of course: much visual excitement in the form of the paintings, much intellectual stimulation in the essays that it contains and in the notes on the paintings. But, as I said, the feeling of intimacy never really leaves one. It is a quietly enticing world that one is invited to enter here.
Interestingly, in another essay in the same
catalogue, Terence McInerny speaks of other collectors of Indian paintings, and
the issues that collecting raised. Among them is the celebrated British painter,
Howard Hodgkin, who also owns a highly ‘personal’ collection of Indian
paintings. "At home", Hodgkin once wrote, "there was a
mantelpiece opposite my bed on which I would put Indian pictures side by side. I
would lie on bed, propped up on pillows at a comfortable angle, looking from
side to side, left to right and back again, for hours and hours. During the time
when most people read books, I would just lie there thinking, ‘Is this one
better than that one? No it’s not better than that one, take it away’".
So on it went in Hodgkin’s life, as it did in Bellak’s. "This high
anxiety", as McInerny says, "is the inescapable curse, and redeeming
grace, of the ultimate collector."