The Tribune - Spectrum


, June 30, 2002
'Art and Soul

Having a keen eye
B.N. Goswamy

A hero battles demons: folio from a Jaiminiya Ashwamedha series. Paithan, Maharashtra; 19th century
A hero battles demons: folio from a Jaiminiya Ashwamedha series. Paithan, Maharashtra; 19th century

TO find an article on a collection of art in the house journal of a pharmaceutical concern is unusual. I was, therefore, quite intrigued when I saw a long and engagingly written piece on the Jagdish and Kamla Mittal Museum of Indian Art in Housecalls, the publication that the well-known Dr Reddy's Laboratories brings out every second month from Hyderabad. There was obviously some local pride involved: for the museum is located in the same city as the laboratories, but there was much more to the piece than that: it brought out the quality of the collection, and something of the mind of the man, whose enterprise and vision led to the setting up of the museum.

Jagdish Mittal's is an uncommon story, and was an uncommon collection. Chandini Rao's piece in Housecalls focusses primarily on one part of the collection - the folk and tribal artefacts that belong to it - primarily because it stands out as uncommon, and includes things that one ordinarily does not associate with the taste of a collector who is most knowledgeable about the classical arts of India. But the collection is rich and varied, and goes well beyond that. This, however, is not what I wish to go into here - another time, perhaps; what the article brought to my mind was an incident that I associate firmly with that name, and that might provide an insight into the utterly fascinating way in which the mind and the eye of Mittal work.

Zen and the art of archery
June 16, 2002
Art from the south seas
June 2, 2002
To collect and then to donate
May 19, 2002
An estate of the mind
May 5, 2002
Rama’s journey in San Diego
April 21, 2002
An intrepid photographer
April 7, 2002
Shringara: Passion and adornment
March 24, 2002
The peaceful liberators, again
March 10, 2002

Picasso: Again and forever
February 24, 2002

A female naturalist
February 10, 2002
Miniatures in another vein
January 13, 2002
Magic in the shadows
December 30, 2001
Remembering a painter of birds
December 16, 2001
The mysteries of silk
December 2, 2001

Long years ago, an art historian colleague of mine from the University of Heidelberg in Germany, where I was teaching then, was preparing to come to India, and was keen on seeing some private collections here. Everyone, just about everyone, knew something of the distinguished Jagdish Mittal’s collection of Indian paintings - one speaks here of the time when the collection was still privately held by him and not yet given to what now is the Jagdish and Kamla Mittal Museum of Art - and Hyderabad was therefore a prominent stop on her Indian itinerary. Getting to view private collections is not easy, however, and she was looking for an introduction. I was happy to provide it, since I had had the pleasure of knowing Mittal and Kamlaji, his wife, for some years by then. I wrote to 'Jagdishji' - this is how he is known to many of his friends - well in advance, introducing my colleague, and alerting him to the possibility of her showing up at his place. She did go to Hyderabad and visited the Mittals, but the account she gave of her visit when she returned to Heidelberg was both delightful and revealing. I was most cordially received by Mittal and his wife, she said. They asked me to come to dinner, and I had the most delicious of Indian meals - everyone who knows Kamlaji knows that this would have been so - and we sat talking about all kinds of things for long hours. But nothing, not a single painting, showed up, and I was getting a little edgy. And then, suddenly, Mittal asked me, she said: "Do you like mangoes?" To which I said, most enthusiastically, "Yes, I love them". Without knowing it, she had, it seemed to her, uttered the magic words, for quickly upon hearing them, Mittal got up, and brought in a box full of paintings—this was the first of many that were to follow —saying, somewhat enigmatically, "Then, there is hope for you. You might like Indian paintings!" Apparently, this was some kind of a test he gave people, especially foreigners.

The account rang entirely true, for I could see how Jagdish Mittal's mind worked. After all, a mango has a very distinctive flavour, and taste, "much like Indian painting", and it might be too rich for some dispositions, or palates. Not only that, you 'taste' the fruit in many different, sensuous ways, if you are a connoisseur: you hold it in your hand first and feel its smoothness, its texture; look at the subtle colours that mark its skin; smell its fragrance by raising it gently to your nose; and then, in the final analysis, you taste it, this tasting being akin to the tasting of rasa— rasasvadana—that Indian aestheticians speak of. Jagdish Mittal would share with others, generously, the treasures he owned, but he was not about to waste his time upon people who had no feeling for works of art such as these.

The delight that a work of art yields is, in his eyes, what works of art are all about. I have seen it for myself, for I have had several occasions to sit with Jagdish Mittal, looking at paintings. One can see his eye taking in the whole work, of course, but the eye also travels slowly along and within it, now passing quickly over some areas and now stopping, with wonder and excitement, at some little detail that illumines the whole work, animates it, as it were. There are questions of course, art historical in nature, that come to mind: what style does the work come from? what region? what period or date? what text does it relate to, if any, or what event does it represent? who painted it? for whom was it painted? who can be identified in it, if it is a portrait or a darbar scene? looking at it, what other works come to mind? And so on. But these, for the knowledgeable scholar, are routine questions, relatively easy to find answers to. What matters, in the final analysis, is how the work 'speaks' to you, or 'does' to you. These things matter to Jagdish Mittal, much as they did to that great connoisseur of painting, Rai Krishnadasa, founder of the celebrated Bharat Kala Bhavan in Benares, whom he remembers, like many of us, with great affection, and whom he has always acknowledged as his mentor.

Tracking things down

In the course of his conversation with Chandini Rao, Jagdish Mittal recalled an incident that goes back to the early years he spent at Santiniketan. There was a mela, a festival of sorts, at which he spotted a fisherman walking about, his basket of fish covered with an old kantha coverlet, exquisitely embroidered. He followed the fisherman some distance, and then asked him if he would part with this old coverlet. The fisherman was surprised, but agreed to sell the object, asking for it what he thought was a princely sum: "Teen taka". Jagdish paid him five. The kantha is a treasure of sorts, and is now part of the collection of the Museum in Hyderabad.