’Art & soul

Collector’s pride
B. N. Goswamy

Precious objects placed alongside folk objects is what distinguishes Mittals’ art collection

A parrot perched on a mango tree, a ram tethered below. Deccani painting; Golconda, ca. 1685. Jagdish and Kamla Mittal Museum of Indian Art, Hyderabad.
A parrot perched on a mango tree, a ram tethered below. Deccani painting; Golconda, ca. 1685. Jagdish and Kamla Mittal Museum of Indian Art, Hyderabad

I might have told the story before — in this very column perhaps — but it can bear repetition, I am sure, given the context in which I am writing now. It concerns a former colleague of mine at the University of Heidelberg in Germany, and one of the most distinguished, Hyderabad-based collectors of Indian art whom I have had the pleasure of knowing for long years.

I was teaching at Heidelberg then, and this gifted art-historian colleague of mine, greatly interested in Indian painting, was preparing for a trip to India. She wondered if it would be possible for her, during that trip, to see a fine private collection, considering that not all collectors are sympathetic to curious strangers. I offered to help and wrote introducing her to Jagdish Mittal, the collector I have alluded to above. What followed is based on the oral account my colleague gave me when she returned from India.

"Armed with the introduction", she said, she landed at Mittals’ place, and was received with great courtesy and warmth. They had a wonderful meal together, supervised by Kamlaji, Mittal’s wife, she told me, and sat talking about all kinds of things, except of paintings.

However, just as she was beginning to feel a bit discouraged — for she saw no move to show her any paintings from their collection — suddenly, she said, Mittal turned round and asked her: "Do you like mangoes?" She being a European, it was as if he wanted really to know. "Yes, I love mangoes.", she said. At this, Mittal said: "Then there is hope: you might like Indian paintings." And, springing to his feet, started taking down box after box, filled with the most exquisite paintings. "We sat poring over them till well past midnight, discussing fine points, exchanging information about styles and dates, and soaking ourselves in the sheer beauty of the objects", she said. And then concluded: "It was wonderful, simply wonderful".

I was greatly amused at hearing the account, and made up my mind right then to ask Mittal, whenever occasion arose, about the mangoes story. I finally got my chance some months later, and did ask the question. He told me that this is exactly how the evening had gone. What was this question about mangoes, I asked? What kind of a test was this of another person’s seriousness of intent? "You see, bhaiya", he said with a twinkle in his eyes: "it is all about rasa, and about enjoyment".

And then went on to explain. A mango is not simply any fruit. When you go to buy it, he said, you first take it in your hand, and get the feel of its skin; then you slowly turn it around, taking in the subtle colours: all those greens and reds and yellows merging into one another; then you raise it to your nose, and smell the fragrance of the fruit. And, finally, you cut it and taste it. It is a complete rasa experience: touch, sight, smell, taste, all coming together. "A little like the rasa that paintings are meant to yield." It has taken me long to tell the story, but I have never forgotten it.

Years have gone by, but it all came back to me when a volume devoted to the collection of the Jagdish and Kamla Mittal Museum of Indian Art — Sublime Delight through Works of Art — landed on my table a few weeks back. The Mittals had decided some 30 years ago to gift their collection, the love of their lives, to the nation, and their decision was hailed by scholars all over the world, even if — sadly — a building to house it has yet to come up. But all these years they have shared their treasures with discerning visitors and friends: not only by showing works but also through writing about them. There is so much Mittal knows, and so many of his years have been taken up making new discoveries and researching the origins of known works, that it will take a long, long time before all that can turn ‘public’, so to speak. Meanwhile, however, one is grateful for what is published, as one is for this volume even if it has the look of a treasures-album.

To many, who associate the Mittal collection only with paintings, the volume would come as a bit of a surprise, for nearly two-thirds of the objects in it belong to areas other than painting: terracottas and metalware, bronzes and textiles, calligraphy and jades, for instance. But what lights everything up, and elevates it, is the sureness, the great discernment, with which these objects were picked.

One can turn almost to anything and find quality in it: the great 15th century embroidered panel from Gujarat with the eight mahavidyas; the Mughal tent curtain with its crisp detailing; the gold-and-tinsel kalamkari pichhwai from Masulipatam; the exquisitely crafted silver box with domed top and lobed sides; the gold and silver, and partially chased, wine-flask with its swirling pattern that Matisse would have fallen under the spell of; and so on. The list is long and distinguished. But even in this what stands out is the imagination with which most precious-looking objects are placed on the same footing as some ‘rude’, folkish objects: thus, the ivory powder-horn made in the shape of a seated black buck occupies the same status in the mind of the collector as a simple spherical metal box with its rising, spiralling radials. There is much to learn.

I have kept speaking of the many distinguished paintings in the volume — Rajasthani and Pahari and Mughal and Deccani — to the last, largely because a number of them are known and have been published. In these one can dream, like the Tirthankara’s mother, of auspicious objects, see the horse-demon Keshi being subdued by a wonderfully spirited Krishna, watch from a safe distance a raging elephant grappling with an attacking lion, take a walk with a lissome nayika through a dense forest, or seat oneself next to a yogi completely absorbed in meditation. It is a rich and resonant world that unfolds in these pages. But even here, there are surprises.

Like the exquisite but somewhat mystifying Deccani painting in which an outsized parrot sits pecking on a mango on the branch of a tree under which an unhappy looking ram stands tethered. What it all means — contrast between freedom and bondage? — remains obscured from view. And this is where one misses Mittal’s own perceptions with us about these works. He has chosen in this volume to bring these works to us without any long notes or descriptions, denying the reader the pleasure of being guided to, or through, them. For, to quote Sir John Thomson, former British High Commissioner in India, who spent "two hours of pure happiness" looking at the collection: "To see beauty under the guidance of a master is to see twice."