The story of Indian portrait art is a riveting and fascinating journey. From cave paintings, frescoes, and sculptures to painted photographs, portraiture in India has undergone a drastic change over the centuries.

Defined as a recognizable representation of human individuals, the role of the portrait in India is multi-faceted. These images serve as the official chronicle revealing the history of the period and the personality of the individual depicted. At the same time, Indian portraiture also elaborates on the role of patronage in driving innovation in artistic representation, and the emergence of the artist as an observer with a distinct notion and vision.

Often used as a tool of propaganda in the past, Indian portrait paintings clearly demonstrate the growing self-awareness of how Indians perceived themselves and also how they wished to be portrayed.

The Genesis

Though different regions and eras produced strikingly varied styles of portraiture, Indian portrait art finds its origin around 30,000 years ago in the larger-than-life rock shelters of Bhimbetka, Madhya Pradesh. The images capturing the celebrations, everyday life events and of people depicting themselves as hunters and villagers were painted on the cave walls.

The iconic portrait sculpture of the Dancing Girl dates back to Indus valley civilization nearly 4500 years ago while that of the Priest-King is the first busts ever known.

In fact, the tradition of Indian portrait art was a continuing practice, one where the deity and the human figurines often coexist. Built post 2nd century BC, the walls and ceilings of the Ajanta caves are teeming with images of the Buddha, bodhisattvas, and humans alike. Also, various Hindu temple façades have a series of projections and recessions decorated with relief sculptures depicting both the divine and the humans.

It was during the 16th century that Indian portrait art achieved a new level of artistry and style owing to the proliferation and mastery in the Mughal and Rajput courts. The tradition of miniature portraits began to thrive in this era.

The British Influence

Although Mughal miniature portraits depicted the rulers and court personalities with some resemblance to life, the art work focused mostly on detailing the decorative symbols.

The advent of the British in the mid-18th century brought a principal shift in Indian portrait art. These colonizers brought the art of portraiture which attempted to create a true likeness of the subject along with attention to their distinguishable features.

These European influences enabled Mughal artists to address realism and in turn brought about the ‘empathy’ portrait. For the first time in Indian portrait art depicted the sitter as a psychological entity, revealing their fallibility and compassion.

Soon, many Indian artists started to adopt the styles of Western modernism, thereby adding perspective and chiaroscuro (technique of contrasting light with dark) in their portrait paintings.

This rising popularity of European naturalism in 19th century portraiture led to a decline in pre-existent Indian indigenous art.

Famous for his oil on canvas painting of Hindu deities and portraits of Indian royals, Raja Ravi Varma was considered colonial India’s finest portrait artist. He was a pioneer in adding a new dimension of portrayals of traditional Indian portraiture by employing European academic techniques with Indian sensibilities.

Other local artists such as M.V. Dhurandhar, J.D. Gondhalekar, S.L. Haldankar, P.T. Reddy, Abalall Rahiman, N.R. Sardesai and M.F. Pithawalla also mastered the art of portraiture. Of these, Dhurandha who is regarded as the most important artist of this generation was greatly influenced by the works of Raja Ravi Varma.

Painting a photograph

The advent of modern photography in 1839 posed a direct challenge to portraiture. The daguerreotype presented a cheaper and quicker alternative to the painstaking and long process of painting a portrait. However, later on, photo studios began working with the portrait artists, wherein they would colour the black-and-white photographs or even paint commissioned portraits from photographs.

For instance, the portrait of Nawab Ahmad Ali Khan of Malerkotla was painted from a photograph by Bourne & Shepherd studio. Even the portrait of Maharaja Jiwaji Rao Scindia of Gwalior (as below) was painted both as a black-and-white photograph as well as one hand-tinted with watercolours. These paintings are examples of how painters and photography studios worked together and reinvented the role of Indian portrait art.

Stylised ‘selfies’

Indian portrait art underwent a major change at the turn of the twentieth century where European naturalism also took a beating. The onslaught of the World Wars, the struggle for Indian independence and the development of modern artistic practices began to nullify the need for ‘academic realism'. Now, the portraits became stylised.

The most striking of these examples being Paritosh Sen’s Self Portrait (dated 1948), Sudhir Ranjan Khastgir’s Untitled portraits (c. 1950) and Kisory Roy’s self-portrait (image below).

The independence struggle, two World Wars and the financial and political struggles of the newly formed nation deeply affected the portraiture in India. Impacted by this transitioning, artists moved towards art that was more expressive.

Final Words

It can be rightly said that the Indian portrait art transcends beyond the colourful stories of the royals, war, and strife.

Read More: All You Need To Know About Portrait Art

Let’s celebrate the beauty and power of this art form!