Plight of ancient Indian heritage in focus

Last Updated: Apr 01, 2011, 12:26 PM IST

New Delhi: The fate of the ancient monuments of India - seen through the eyes of two 18th century British landscape artists and the state of the relics 200 years later - is the focus of a documentary exposition on Indian heritage that opened here on Thursday.

The exposition captures important historical monuments through 73 aquatints by noted British 18th century landscape artists Thomas and William Daniell and matching photographs by eminent Italian photographer, Antonio Martinelli, who chronicles their 20th century condition - retracing the journey of the British artists in India.

The plight of at least 60 monuments are in focus in a 90-day documentary exposition of Indian heritage, "Oriental Scenery: Yesterday and Today" that opened at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts (IGNCA) here.

The aquatints - one of the earliest version of reproduction of water colour art in print etched on copper plates - and the photographs belong to the collection of British India paintings owned by the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata.

The showcase is sponsored by the ministry of culture, Victoria Memorial, the Italian Embassy, UNESCO and Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts.

The showcase was earlier held at Victoria Memorial, Kolkata nearly 11 years ago and later at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome and at the Conceirgerie in Paris with the support of UNESCO.

In 1786, the uncle-nephew duo, Thomas and William Daniell, travellers, artists and chroniclers, travelled to the hinterland of India on boat, foot and horseback recording ancient heritage with their "camera obscura" - a 15th century primitive box-shaped drawing machine with a curtain resembling a camera - for nine years till 1783.

They later painted the outlined images in water colour.

The duo travelled from Bihar to the Garhwal Himalayan region and then to south India.

On returning to England, their placed an advertisement in a newspapers that they had brought back "dramatic images of India". Collectors responded and the artists printed their "visual chronicles" in a series of 144 aquatints - with 250 copies of each. They also produced seven volumes of the Daniell Journals to accompany.

The Victoria Memorial in Kolkata acquired the "Oriental Scenery" and some of the journals in the 1920s. Some of it was donated by the Queen of England.

"In the 1980s, a friend gave me a book by British scholar Mildred Archer, `The Early Views of India: Journeys of Thomas and William Dalrymple`. I was taken in by the beauty of the images, the Indian landscape and the precision with which the camera obscura could work. They were the earliest photo-reporters and I wanted to follow in their footsteps," lensman Antonio Martinelli told IANS.

Martinelli was supported in his project by the British Council, UNESCO and the INTACH which "initially financed his project".

"Between 1995-1997, I visited India four times to photograph the Daniell sites. I travelled by car and my journey was more difficult than the Daniells," Martinelli said. Finding the right light and the right season to "produce similar images" recorded by Daniells was difficult, and required patience.

The photographs present a striking contrast. A 19th century aquatint of emperor Akbar`s mausoleum at Secundra near Agra shows "an incomplete tomb without its four minarets and a camps in the forecourt where the artists and their legions of servants and sepoys camped while it was being chronicled".

A matching photograph of the mausoleum by Martinelli in the 1990s shows a "restored tomb with minarets and landscaped foreground".

An image of a temple at the 15th century Rohtasgarh Fort in Bihar (near Sasaram) built by Raja Man Singh of Amber, a Rajput general in Akbar`s army, shows a romantic riverside landscape with the temple almost intact. Martinelli`s photographs shows the temple and the fort in ruins.

"I had to carry a security posse of 20 policemen when I went up the Rohtas Fort," the photographer said. Most of the relics recorded by Daniells are in a state of near-ruins.

Curator and secretary of the Victoria Memorial, Kolkata, Chittoranjan Panda said the aquatints were important because "there was a demand in the market for them in 19th century England".

"The aquatints and the photographs highlight the fact that heritage conservation needs public-private participation," Panda, who was in the capital for the inauguration of the showcase, said.

The Daniells were responsible for carrying Indian heritage to England "resulting in a wave of India-inspired designs".

IANS