Having a keen eye
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.
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.