Thakur Balwant Singh Presides at a Dance Performance

Attributed to Mohan Lal, India (Rajasthan, Jaipur)

Geography:
Made in Jaipur, Rajasthan, India, Asia

Date:
c. 1890

Medium:
Opaque watercolor, gold, and silver-colored paint on paper

Dimensions:
29 13/16 x 35 13/16 inches (75.7 x 91 cm)

Curatorial Department:
South Asian Art

Object Location:

Currently not on view

Accession Number:
2004-149-79

Credit Line:
125th Anniversary Acquisition. Alvin O. Bellak Collection, 2004

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Label:
The artist Mohan Lal makes the most of his art form and imagination in this painting. The clocks in the upper corners, with their faces tilted, actually display the same time, and two dancers-almost lost in the carpet-have unique facial features. The room is dressed to impress with its fine chandeliers and enormous Axminster carpet. During the Raj-the era of British domination of India-patrons such as this minor ruler decorated their homes with European possessions in order to display their wealth and fashion. Mohan Lal was trained in the Jaipur court workshop but was probably dismissed from his post by Maharaja Ram Singh II (reigned 1835-80), whose program of modernization (and Westernization) was unprecedented. As a freelance artist, Mohan Lal faced stiff competition from professional photographers who cornered the portrait market from the 1870s onward.

Additional information:
  • PublicationIntimate Worlds: Indian Paintings from the Alvin O. Bellak Collection

    Maharaja Balwant Singh was the son of the thakur (baron) of Khandela, one of the thikanas (fiefs) of Jaipur state in Shekhawati, the arid region north of the royal capital.1 By the late nineteenth century, most of the thakurs had large houses in Jaipur city, where they resided for the better part of the year. The imposing assembly hall depicted here is furnished to impress: the billowing curtains, Axminster carpet, crystal chandeliers, and askew wall clocks proclaim the occupant’s wealth and fashionable, European taste. But Balwant Singh’s guests are oblivious to their surroundings. Sitting in stiffly parallel rows, they have the lifeless detachment of people invited to an inquisition, not to a nautch (dance performance). All of their missing excitement has concentrated in the foreground carpet, where it erupts in a delirious torrent of pattern and color.

    By 1890, Jaipur was the largest and most modern city in Rajasthan. The city had been transformed during the reign of Maharaja Ram Singh II (1835 - 80), who wanted to make Jaipur a second Calcutta.2 Guided by the British political agent and a staff of imported advisors, the maharaja initiated a program of modernization (and Westernization) that was unprecedented in Rajasthan. Slavery, infanticide, and sati (the self-immolation of widows) were abolished, and the urban fabric of Jaipur was updated and enlarged. The walled city was provided with waterworks and gas lighting, and a new district was constructed beyond the old city walls. Laid out with broad streets in the style of a European cantonment, this new area centered on the Ram Niwas Gardens (1868), which copied the design of a celebrated Calcutta park.

    Ram Singh’s plans for the visual arts resulted in the creation of two powerfully Westernizing institutions: the maharaja’s School of Arts (1867) and the Albert Hall Museum (1876). The School of Arts was supervised by F.W.F. DeFabeck, an amateur photographer. Its curriculum focused on the teaching of craft: plain and ornamental carpentry; carving in wood, bone, and ivory; pottery; and the like. Instruction in Indian miniature painting was not part of the program. Indeed, this centuries-old tradition was regarded with withering contempt: its practitioners were encouraged to learn carving and pottery like everyone else. The Albert Hall Museum was designed by Samuel Swinton Jacobs, a “walking dictionary of Indo-Saracenic architecture,” and led by curator Thomas Holbein Hendley, another walking dictionary, but one who specialized in the arts and crafts. Hendley’s museum exhibited the carefully crafted yet lifeless articles that DeFabeck’s students fabricated. Their creations still fill the galleries that one can visit today.

    Ram Singh’s innovations had a devastating impact on traditional court painters. Mohan Lal, the creator of the present picture, was probably dismissed from the maharaja’s service around the time the Jaipur art school and museum were established. In trawling for new customers (the inscription tells us where to find him), Mohan Lal would have faced powerful competition from the growing number of professional photographers who dominated the market for portraiture from the 1870s onward (see Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2004-149-78). Mohan Lal’s paintings offered the same objective format. (Note the way his figures are all depicted in “face-the-camera” pose.) But when compared to a photograph, his paintings were much larger, brilliantly colored, and less appallingly frank. These competitive advantages would have kept him busy in the years 1880-1910.3 But after 1910, when the demand for paintings in the photographic style collapsed, later artists at Jaipur descended to a DeFabeck level of craft. Yet it was at this very time that artists like Abanindranath Tagore in Calcutta were “rediscovering” the court painting traditions and using them as inspiration to create a national contemporary art in India. Terrence McInerney, from Intimate Worlds: Indian Painting from the Alvin O. Bellak Collection (2001), pp. 208-209.

    1. I am grateful to Mr. Kripal Singh Shekhawat of Jaipur for this information. The Rajasthani inscription along the top and bottom offers the following identifications: “Painted by Mohan Lal of Jaipur [who resides] in the neighborhood beneath the Tiger Fort [Nargad, or Nahar Garh]. / Maharaja Thakur Balwant Singh Shekhawat, Thikana Fort Kinlanpura [or Kalyanpura].” Mr. Singh also tells me that the title “thakur of Kinlanpura” was a courtesy title given to the second son of the Khandela noble house. Kinlanpura is a fort on the outskirts of Khandela.
    2. Jadunath Sarkar, A History of Jaipur, c. 1530-1938, ed. Raghubir Sinh (Hyderbad: Orient Longman, 1984), p. 363.
    3. For two other photographic-style portraits by Mohan Lal, see Andrew Topsfield, ed. Court Painting in Rajasthan. Mumbai: Marg Publications, 2000, p. 11, fig. 12; and Jaipur Adhai Sati Samaroh Samiti, Exhibition of Dhundhar Painting from Raja Man Singh to Sawai Man Singh (1977), no. 69. The first painting is in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (1995.34). The second, dated 1899, is in the collection of Kumar Sangram Singh of Nawalgarh, Jaipur.