Of illusion and realism

There is freshness in the sketches of Master Kundan Lal of Nathdwara in Rajasthan, made both in England and India during the 19th century, writes B. N. Goswamy

Study of a man smoking a chillum. Water colour on paper by Kundan Lal; 1896-97. Private collection, Rajasthan
Study of a man smoking a chillum. Water colour on paper by Kundan Lal; 1896-97. Private collection, Rajasthan

One of the most well-loved stories about art goes back to the fifth century BC. In Greece — as Pliny, the Roman, wrote in the first century — there lived an excellent artist, Zeuxis by name, whose work was the everyone’s envy, for his skills were unparalleled. Once, however, he was pitted against another great artist, Parhassius, and a contest was held to determine which of the two was superior. Zeuxis painted a picture of a bunch of grapes, so lifelike and so luscious-looking that, seeing it, birds flying overhead swooped down to peck at the fruit. Two days later, the story says, Parhassius displayed his painting, which, however, was covered by a curtain. Eager to see it, Zeuxis reached out to remove the curtain, only to find that the curtain was the painting. Zeuxis felt greatly discomfited, but was gracious enough to admit that while he, through his painting, had deceived the birds, Parhassius had deceived a man: the great Zeuxis himself.

The story is obviously about realism, and illusion: or trompe l’oeil as it is technically called, meaning ‘deceiving the eye’. One does not come upon much of truly realistic intent in the art of India — for a different aesthetic was at work here — but a story, surprisingly not very removed from the one told, comes from 19th century Rajasthan too. The Maharana of Udaipur, Fateh Singh (ruled 1884-1930), it is known, sent two of his subjects to England to study, one of them a painter. When the painter returned, the Maharana came out of the palace to meet him, and to know what he had learnt in his three years in England. The painter made no verbal answer. Instead, according to the story, he picked up his brush, and swiftly painted on the palace wall a large, life-size image of a horse. Horses not being unknown in Mewar painting, the Maharana was on the point of being greatly disappointed when, the story stays, the young one of a mare that was passing by suddenly ran towards the painting as if to suckle. Needless to say, everyone was greatly impressed.

The painter was Kundan Lal, and his is a very human story. Not many are likely to have heard of him, but he, together with some others of his times, was blazing a trail of his own in Rajasthan, especially at Nathdwara: that remarkable temple-town, great centre of the worship of Krishna as Shrinath ji, not far from Udaipur. Nathdwara is remarkably conservative for, as a centre of religion it is steeped in tradition and memories. And yet, paradoxically, it was here that the most remarkable winds of change began to blow towards the end of the 19th century as far as the art of painting is concerned. In and around this town brimming with chitera-families lived a number of talented painters, and in the account of their lives and work, a study of the Artists of Nathadwara, put together with great effort and ability by Tryna Lyons, several names spring to life: Omkarlal, Champalal, Narottam, above all, Ghasiram, among them. Ghasiram — "against whom all others of his period are inevitably measured", as Tryna Lyons puts it —was undoubtedly gifted and very curious: intrigued by European imagery, seduced by the newly come-in art of photography, eager to experiment with new techniques, ready to absorb. But of this whole group, it was Kundan Lal alone who got the opportunity to go abroad — financed by Maharana Fateh Singh of Udaipur, as seen above — and thus to earn the much-envied sobriquet of "England-returned" in his community and among his peers.

Kundan Lal’s is a fascinating life: a simple carpenter born c. 1860 in a small Rajasthan village who moves into the world of painting, joins the J.J. School of Art in Bombay where he distinguishes himself, catches the eye of the Udaipur ruler, lands in England to study at the Slade Fine Art School, and returns only to find himself a ‘foreigner in his own country, a band of jealous rivals ready to pull him down. Unfortunately, not much has been recorded of Kundan Lal’s stay in England but one can imagine his sense of bafflement and unease there: unfamiliar with the language of the land, living in a completely alien environment, working along with students much younger than him in age, sketching nude models, and surrounded by a sea of elegantly hatted young ladies who routinely used to enrol those days at the Slade. But one knows a little of his career back at Udaipur. Object of great envy here, this relatively short-statured man almost provoked attacks upon himself, and certainly did not help his own cause by his somewhat aloof, if not arrogant, manner. Rumours started floating around that while in England he had been eating meat and consuming liquor, and it was only a formal statement signed by Mr. Williams — the civil engineer who had been deputed by the Maharana to accompany him to England — saying that all these allegations were untrue, which finally squashed them. But other accusations kept being made, including that he was close to the young prince whom he started training in the art of painting, as against the ageing Maharana. The result? Royal patronage was withdrawn, and Kundan Lal had to look elsewhere for occupation, landing up at Nathdwara where he was employed by the temple. He returned briefly to Udaipur when the prince, his pupil, succeeded to the royal gaddi, but did not live long, dying probably in 1930.

All of this might have been of little interest to the history of painting in India, however, but for the fact that a number of Kundan Lal’s sketchbooks of the work he did in England have survived. For in them is preserved so much of an artistic journey: the slow and awkward treading of a different path, absorption of new ideas of space and perspective, records of seemingly irrelevant slices of life as lived in the cold clime of England, a struggle with new mediums and tools, but, finally, triumph. Kundan Lal’s is not an art that can easily be ignored. There is freshness in so many of his sketches, made both in England and when back at home. As there is in the swiftly done watercolour — pencilled grid lines and all — of a simple villager seated resting on his feet, quietly smoking his chillum. A whole period, perhaps his whole long journey, seems to be reflected in this sensitive study that Master Kundan Lal, England-returned made in 1896-97.