A Family of Fine Taste

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An unlettered carpet merchant and art dealer in Amritsar chanced upon the Pahari school of painting. His son keeps the legacy going with his prized collection of traditional painting, sculpture and textiles
A Passionate Eye: Textiles, Paintings and Sculptures from the Bharany Collections | Giles Tillotson | Marg Foundation | 160 pages | $99.75
To discover a thing of beauty without setting out to look for anything is the ambit of the love story. The trajectory of the professional enterprise is not quite as marvelous: when Christopher Columbus and crew sighted the shores of what are known as the Bahamas on 12 October 1492 and discovered the New World per chance, he may have set sail to find an alternative route to Asia, yet he was, nevertheless, on a quest. Nearly every journalist on the ground finds the shape of a pursued story is quite distinct from the idea pitched earlier in the editorial meeting (as does every graduate student on the field). The enterprise of inquiry thrives on the chance discovery, but there is at least the setting forth on a quest.

But to discover a school of painting without embarking on a search, without a map of formal knowledge, without the GPS of suggestion or guiding questions, is that not how love goes?

This is how it was with Radha Krishna Bharany, the unlettered son of a carpet merchant, who is credited with ‘discovering’ the Pahari school of painting in a new book edited by Cambridge-trained historian Giles Tillotson. In his essay in the book, art scholar Pratapaditya Pal writes that though the well-known historian and philosopher of Indian art Ananda K Coomaraswamy is known to have written the pioneering work on Rajput painting (which includes the Kangra and Kullu schools of Pahari painting), it was from Bharany that he sourced many of the paintings which went to become part of the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Bharany ran a shop in Amritsar, where he traded in Mughal jewellery, Mughal miniatures, Kashmiri shawls, Persian carpets, metal, wood and ivory wares and a multitude of beautiful things, according to an advertisement his son Chhote Lal Bharany has preserved. “My father could sign his initials RKB but that was the extent of his literacy,” says CL Bharany, 87, who inherited his father’s discerning eye and has nurtured a prized and important collection of Indian textiles, painting and sculpture himself. The book, A Passionate Eye: Textiles, Painting and Sculpture from the Bharany Collections, celebrates the seminal role of the father and son in the shaping and appreciation of Indian traditional art. “You could say we were a family of reasonable wealth. But my father had no education. He used to tell us, ‘Dekho yeh Radha ki kahani hai, yeh Ram ki kahani hai’ and show us paintings. That was his template of reference. But he was undoubtedly a lover of art, and his taste was whetted and refined by his customers, many of whom stopped by the shop on their pilgrimage to Amritsar’s Golden Temple, and came back again and again. Indeed, the shop in Amritsar became something of a pilgrimage stop itself, for collectors, scholars and lovers of Indian art.”

‘ was really Radha Krishna Bharany who single-handedly ferreted out the pictures from the then hill states of Punjab (now integrated mostly into the Indian hill state of Himachal Pradesh). Without his sagacity and aesthetic sensibility, his adventurous spirit and his industry, we might not be admiring the styles of painting that became familiar under such rubrics as Basohli or Kangra,’ writes Pal in his chapter, ‘Collecting Art in British India’. Apart from Coomaraswamy, the Parsi collector brothers Sir Dorabji and Sir Ratan Tata, and the Tagore brothers Abanindranath and Gagendranath Tagore who were artists and collectors, also bought Pahari paintings from the senior Bharany. Other than the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Pahari paintings also found their way to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, among other public and private collections in the country and overseas. The senior Bharany’s purchases included works by the acclaimed 18th century Pahari master Nainsukh, one of the most celebrated artists of the country and the subject of an eponymous film by Amit Dutta that has won rave reviews.

How does a man untrained in line or form play such a critical role in identifying a school of painting? “Rooting around in my father’s shop after school, I used to listen to my father speaking with customers,” says CL Bharany. “Some of them were scholars and collectors; they would point out similar motifs and patterns. He would ask his ‘runners’, as suppliers were called then, to look out for these. Remember also that he was also a trader trying to gain business. He must have learnt to discern the style gradually after seeing literally thousands of similar paintings,” says CL Bharany.

In that time, the early 1900s, suppliers went on foot from house to house, knocking to ask if there were ‘paintings, drawings, papers’ to sell, writes Bharany in his chapter titled ‘Recollections’. That is why they were known as runners. (Even today, a dealer in Pashmina shawls might knock your door of an afternoon if the security guard allows, making his/her way from door to door in the colony with a soft white potli of fine wares. Typically, they ask if you have anything old and beautiful to spare, and the deal is struck with an exchange of cash and kind. But such visitors are growing rarer, or perhaps we are not home on afternoons anymore.) Amritsar was close to the Kangra Valley, a major reason that the senior Bharany had access to so much, and such valuable, Pahari work. Bharany writes that the owners of the Pahari paintings were blue-blooded but they had little idea of the art of their ancestors. Mostly, they sold the heirlooms because they were so hard up that they needed the pots and pans the runners offered, or the rupee or two.

“My father had chests full of paintings,” says CL Bharany. “A lot of it was not good work but he bought to ensure the runners kept bringing in stuff.” In the book, he narrates a rather fetching episode about the time his father was suffering from a ‘severe’ headache. He asked if he should call the doctor but the senior Bharany refused. Some time later, he beckoned to Chhote Lal, and asked for the ‘Devi paintings’. ‘After some time I was surprised to see that he felt and looked better… I cannot say whether the headache and fever had subsided, but one thing I remember distinctly is that looking at the paintings had made him forget all his physical discomfort,’ he writes.

In 1976, CL Bharany made a donation of hundreds of items, numbering approximately 170 art objects and 685 coins, in the memory of his father to the National Museum in Delhi. He has also donated exhibits to the museum on other occasions, at the request of the museum’s officials.

“We tend to hear about art dealers, in the press especially, in negative terms,” says Dr Giles Tillotson. “Like the recent story about the stolen Shiva idol in the National Gallery of Australia. [The art dealer in this case, Subhash Kapoor, was detained by German immigration authorities in Frankfurt in 2011 and extradited to India in 2012. Kapoor’s trial began in Chennai on 7 March this year.] A dealer is taken as synonymous with ‘smuggler’ or ‘thief’. But there are also honest dealers who are passionate collectors and respected experts. Bharany is one such. People give credit to scholars such as Ananda Coomaraswamy (for helping shape appreciation for Indian traditional art). But without the Bharanys, they would not have had the material to work on. What comes across in the book is the extent of collaboration between dealers and scholars,” he says.

In this sense, this is a highly unusual book: a book devoted to a duo of dealers; though CL Bharany is a collector, he was a dealer first. In the caste system of Indian art, the stars are art practitioners and scholars; books are written about them, and by them. Collectors and patrons come after, and dealers, much like traders were in the caste system, are seen as mere middlemen, men of numbers and deals and banal concerns, who do the mundane groundwork of sourcing works of art. This book opens a window to this aspect of art as well: how works are obtained and traded. This is of particular interest in traditional art whose market is not as organised as that of modern and contemporary art; there are fewer galleries here. Here, business is more informal, organised through suppliers and ‘runners’ who come knocking if they know you are looking. In a sense, the discerning ‘eye’ becomes even more important here.

Chhote Lal Bharany has been a dealer and collector of art for six decades; between father and son, they have collected art for over a century. He began this work in 1942 when his father died suddenly, leaving behind chests full of painting. Most of these were Mughal miniatures, his “first love” . He worked first in Calcutta, where he was studying at Calcutta University with the intention of being trained by the art historian and ballerina Stella Kramrisch.

Funded by the sales of these paintings, he opened a shop for Indian handloom artefacts in the Great Eastern Hotel in Calcutta on 15 August 1950, for which he began acquiring a range of traditional art works. The next year, he took over a jewellery showroom at the Grand Hotel in Calcutta which did well in spite of his inexperience. Over the years, jewellery came to be his main line of business, though he remained an art dealer for several years, driven possibly by his personal interest as a collector. Collectors often work as dealers to fund purchases, to ‘upgrade’ their collections as it were. His sons now run the successful jewellery business at a handsome store in Delhi, designing and crafting Mughal-style jewellery. Their clients include the Italian designer Oscar de la Renta. Clearly, they have inherited the family legacy of fine taste.

The Bharany collection includes Mughal miniatures, Kashmiri shawls, Kantha embroidery from Bengal, and Phulkari and Bagh from Punjab, wood carvings and bronze statues from Kerala, and more recently, tribal art and calendar art. “It is remarkable for its range, including folk arts and courtly arts, recent as well as ancient, and for the quality of individual places in all categories,” says Tillotson, who has seen the Bharanys’ private collection as well as made trips to the National Museum to view exhibits of his donation.

“That greed for acquisition is gone now,” says CL Bharany. “Now I rarely feel the urge to buy. But I feel happy looking at my collection. In the middle of the night when I wake up, I look at the works around me and I feel a deep love.”

What, in the end, is the role of dealers and collectors like the Bharanys, whose work is not as creative or apparent as that of artists and scholars? Where would we be without them, without their loving, painstaking, unreasonable accumulation? The answer is: probably not a very self-aware place. With their discerning eye and generous spending, they preserve beauty and the artistry that produces it, they remind us often of ritual and tradition. Would the Kantha embroidery of rural Bengal, for instance, produced by women in the form of gifts within the family, have survived without the collectors and art teachers who were struck by the loveliness of the quilts? Where would the cool, drowsy rooms of our museums source their exhibits from? And what reference would Sanjay Leela Bhansali take for his peacock heroes’ clothes? (Would we only be left with the American high school look without Bhansali?) They nurture the things we are not able to afford or appreciate, the Bharanys of the art world. And in so doing, they remind us of what we have and where we come from, of culture and context; they give us a sense of the people we are.