A glance at Indian portraits

Exciting vistas open when one tries to find the broad distinction between
different approaches to Indian portraits

I desire you would use all your skill to paint my picture truly like me, and not flatter me at all; but remark all these roughnesses, pimples, warts, and everything as you see me, otherwise I will never pay a farthing for it.

— Oliver Cromwell to the painter Peter Lely (ca. 1650)

The true portrait of a man is a fusion of what he thinks he is, what others think he is, what he really is and what he tries to be.

Dore Schary, filmmaker

A fine exhibition of Indian portraits that went up not long ago at the National Portrait Gallery in London once again brought the thought to the fore of my mind about how does one see portraits: with what eyes, what mind?

In the Indian tradition, there are at least two — seemingly opposed — ways of approaching portraiture. The most celebrated of portraits come clearly from the Mughal period, especially that of the emperor Jahangir whose artists were capable of looking unblinkingly at a person when they wanted to take a likeness. Within the limits of their own style and its conventions, they came remarkably close to naturalism. In contrast, most of the painters working at the Rajput courts, alike in Rajasthan and the Pahari region, stood aloof from this approach, dipping far back into the past of their own culture, into their reservoir of received authority so to speak, for rendering ‘likenesses’. There is fascination in following these trails up.

Emperor Jahangir holding up a portrait of Akbar
Emperor Jahangir holding up a portrait of Akbar. Early 17th century

A princely figure, standing. Pahari. From
A princely figure, standing. Pahari. From
a Mandi workshop. ca. 1700

A soldier. Detail from a painting of a group of men Company style. From the Fraser album. Early 19th century
A soldier. Detail from a painting of a group of men Company style. From the Fraser album. Early 19th century

Consider thus, this description of his father, Akbar, by Jahangir himself that occurs almost at the beginning of his own Memoirs.

"In his august personal appearance, he (Akbar) was of middle height, but inclining to be tall; he was of the hue of wheat; his eyes and eyebrows were black, and his complexion dark than fair; he was lion-bodied, with a broad chest, and his hands and arms long. On the left side of his nose, he had a fleshy mole, very agreeable in appearance, of the size of half a pea. Those skilled in the science of physiognomy considered this mole a sign of great prosperity and exceeding good fortune. His august voice was very loud and in speaking and explaining had a peculiar richness. In his actions and movements, he was not like the people of the world, and the glory of God manifested in him."

There are references to conventions here, hints of what was considered auspicious as also discreet and flattering details, but one derives, at least, some idea of what the great Akbar looked like.

Compare this, however, with the 7th century description of the emperor Harshavardhana, as given by Bana, his court poet, in the Harshacharita, in which we come as close as possible to the opportunity that a poet and chronicler might have had to describe his patron. From his observation of Harsha at close quarters, Bana gives us only this kind of picture, however: when he saw him for the first time "in an open pavilion, in front of a pavilion where he used to give audience after eating", he writes, "(Harsha) seemed made as it were out of the pure atoms of light".

Following this, over the next 10 pages or so of Bana’s text, are scattered ‘observations’ of this kind: The king’s toenails were "like the 10 directions of space incarnate", and spread rays "white like fine linen"; he shone with his broad chest "like Kailasha with a cliff of crystal"; "his two thighs were two ruby pillars set to bear the weight of the earth which rested on his heart, like two sandalwood trees with their roots shining with the rays from crest jewels of the serpents clustered around them"; his ‘broad forehead’ was "reddened by the pink of his crest ornaments, as if it were the lac-dye of Lakshmi’s feet which had clung to it ....". And so on.

It is evident that here we are in the area of ‘iconography’ and what appear, at first sight, in these descriptions to be individual characteristics — broad forehead, sharp nose, flashing teeth, full lips, broad chest, long arms, shiny hair, glistening toenails, and the like — are features that one comes across again and again in early Indian texts dealing with the lakshanas of the gods and of great men like the Chakravartin, the wheel-turning master, a prime example being the Buddha.

This approach towards non-specific description comes very close to what is associated with sadrishya — roughly speaking, resemblance or correspondence — which essentially was a matter of analogies and similitude through which the essence rather than the accident of appearance of a person was meant to be caught in a likeness.

This is putting it too baldly perhaps. In any event, it is an over-simplification, and it is not difficult to point out that the lines between naturalistic and idealised renderings — between Mughal and Rajput works, if one so likes — were not as sharply drawn. For one can cite the deference paid to convention and stylisation in Mughal portraits as easily as to sharply observed, ‘true’ portraits that were also done at the Rajput courts.

But the broad distinction between different approaches remains useful to bear in mind even if the issues concerned are subtle and complex. It is equally useful to remember that the range of Indian portraits — as brought out in the book that accompanied the exhibition in London by distinguished scholars, including Robert Skelton, Susan Stronge, J.P. Losty and Rosemary Crill — is singularly wide, and one should be prepared for a surprise at every turn. For, in these works, closeness to subject can be followed by respectful distance, playfulness by gravity, casualness by passion. A whole and exciting vista opens.

The three portraits that accompany this piece are not brought in by me to prove anything. But it is fascinating to juxtapose the superb observation of the Mughal painter, who rendered the portrait of Jahangir holding up a portrait of his late father with the simple but elegant dignity of a stylised princely figure from Mandi as rendered by his Rajput painter, and then go on to the avid ‘realism’ of a Company soldier that almost anticipates the coming of photography, as an art-historian colleague sharply remarked once.