The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, April 22, 2001
'Art and Soul

A collector’s intimate world
By B.N Goswamy

I 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.

Gutenberg and his ‘new art of writing’
March 25, 2001
Difficult business of authentication
February 25, 2001
Artist’s view of Kutch: A place apart
February 11, 2001
Arts and the common man
January 28, 2001
Voices from China
January 14, 2001
The persistence of memory
December 17, 2000
Nizami: Mystic; Epic Poet
December 3, 2000
Different snakes, different ladders
November 19, 2000
Celestial mappings
November 5, 2000
Discussing art — threadbare
October 29, 2000
Feeding the Imperial Image
October 8, 2000
Goya: Painter of the absurd
September 24, 2000

Yet another Mughal Ramayana
September 10, 2000

Children: Seen, but not heard
September 3, 2000

Shiva, playing his damaru, with Parvati as apsaras dance (18th century, Pahari)There was much to see in the exhibition as it opened early in March, as many as ninety paintings adorning the walls of the museum galleries, but at no point did one get the feeling of there being a crowd of them. There was the sensation, instead, of walking through intimate corridors of space as one took in the works one by one, the discreet lighting, the subdued colours on the walls, the precise but not over-informative labels of information, all contributing to the effect. In a leisurely fashion, one could savour all that one saw: Krishna waiting in a fragrant bower for Radha, ash-besmeared sadhus being treated to a royal feast, languid nayikas reclining on seductive beds, proud rulers astride prancing horses; lissome maidens, obese men, swashbuckling heroes. What added to the feeling of intimacy was the fact that all of these had come from a single private collection; had, in other words, been part of one man’s life for close to a quarter of a century, and were now being shared with others.

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.

Other cogitations

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."