“Conservation standards in govt museums very poor”

New Delhi: India may have seen a revolution in the world of literature, publishing and contemporary art, but government museums continue to be "bleak and boringly displayed spaces" with very poor standards of conservation and display, says writer-historian William Dalrymple.

"The Indian museum world has allowed itself to become frozen into a 1950's Nehruvian permafrost. It is one of the least changed parts of India's cultural life. There has been a revolution in the world of literature and publishing, and in the world of contemporary art, but government museums are bleak and boringly displayed spaces with very poor standards of conservation and display," he laments.

"Indian museums rarely lend to international exhibitions and rarely show the kind of touring exhibitions which form such a major part of the cultural life of other great capitals. It's a tragic situation," Dalrymple, who has edited a book titled "Princes and Painters in Mughal Delhi: 1707- 1857" along with art historian Yuthika Sharma, told PTI in an interview.

The book, published by Penguin, was the result of an exhibition in New York which was the billed as the first ever to focus on the art of the later Mughals. The collection examines Mughal artistic culture in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the interwoven nature of Mughal, European and regional patronage.

According to Dalrymple, scholars are only now coming to recognise that the work of this period is every bit as interesting and innovative as the art produced under the better-known Great Mughals of the 17th century.

"The exhibition in New York out of which this book emerged aimed to showcase the neglected masterpieces of this period and to give a taste of the extraordinary strength, colour and vivacity of the work produced in the Mughal capital at this time."

He took the "Princes and Painters in Mughal Delhi" project thinking it would take a few weeks of work, but in the end it took nearly five years.

"Because scholars are only now coming to recognise that the work of this period is every bit as interesting and innovative as the art produced under Great Mughals on the 17th Century much of it remains in the hands of private collectors, not institutions, and you have to turn into the art historical equivalent of Sherlock Holmes to find out where it is."

He says Yuthika Sharma was an inspiration to work with and he "learned a huge amount from her".

Dalrymple feels the best works produced under East India Company patronage – notably the Fraser Album – are unparalleled in Indian art and shows sympathy with the Mughal world quite at odds with stereotypes of colonial philistinism and insensitivity.

"In the course of the 18th century, the British East India Company was transforming itself from a coastal trading organisation into an aggressive colonial government, filling the power vacuum left by the implosion of the Mughal Empire."

"Yet initial contact between these two empires was surprisingly positive in Delhi: the first Company residents, or ambassadors to the Mughal court, absorbed themselves in its court culture, wore Mughal dress, took Mughal wives, and became important patrons of Mughal painting, transforming the art of the capital in the process."

Between 1707 and 1857, Delhi was a hotbed of political intrigue and power struggles – the Mughal Empire was on the decline and the East India Company was emerging as a formidable power. In 1857, these tensions would culminate in the Sepoy Mutiny that led to the end of Mughal dominion and the beginning of the British Raj.

But this turbulent epoch also witnessed a burst of artistic innovation and experimentation.

Delhi's artists were increasingly employed by Company officials as well as the Mughal and regional courts, and thus became adept at improvising with a variety of techniques, creating traditional miniatures while continually experimenting with new European styles.

Art historians are only now coming to recognise the richness and ingenuity of the work created in this period. With insightful essays by distinguished scholars, "Princes and Painters" is a stunning visual document of 18th- and 19th- century Delhi.