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South Asian Art - The Lost Art Of Portraiture

Razvin Ramdarian

If one were asked to name a few famous portrait artists it would be easy – Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Raja Ravi Varma – would be just a few off the top of one’s head. Now, if one were asked to name a contemporary artist known for his portraits – we doubt a single name would be readily available. This is the state of the art of portraiture – it is a lost art, one that has been displaced by the fads and trends and perhaps even innovations in the world of art.

Tracing the history of portraiture, it would not be incorrect to say that even the early cave paintings could be considered man’s way of rendering himself – a rudimentary self-portrait as it were. There has always been an innate desire in man to create his likeness perhaps out of a need to have something with a greater longevity than his own lifetime. The Middle Ages saw the art of portraiture truly come into its own. The fifteenth century witnessed the rise in desire of individuals to project a certain ‘image’ in the public eye. Thus it was not just royalty and exalted nobles but also merchants and scholars who sat for portraits.

The poses and portrait styles were typical – full length, head and shoulders, profile, full face view, were some of them.Initially the art of portraiture focused on capturing the ‘exact likeness’ of the subject. Later artists began to capture the psychology of the individual and also included items such as books, telescope etc to reflect the subject’s thoughts. Even when painting women the artist would introduce elements that spoke of the decorum women were expected to conduct themselves with – it would be a rare portrait that featured a woman with a wide smile or a mischievous twinkle in her eye – the portraits always subjects in a ‘composed’ manner.

Towards the latter part of the 19th century and early 20th century artists began to experiment with their art, moving away from the exact reproduction of nature, people and objects. Art movements like impressionism and expressionism began to gain momentum. Portrait art was slowly losing its appeal, though there were artists who continued in what was being regarded as ‘old school.’ In today’s times of modern art, found art, installations, there are few artists who wish to be bothered with the discipline and perfection associated with portraiture. According to Ramchandra Kharatmal, a National Award winning artist, who does figurative paintings and portraits as well, “the new generation (of artists) tends to get confused. Portraiture requires great devotion and skill and artists who prefer shortcuts and lack patience tend to stay away from it. At the same time I need to mention that I do not think that abstract equals contemporary and portrait art is old school. A portrait done today will contain all the elements of the current time that in itself makes them contemporary.”

Apparently, other than artist apathy, there was the decline in demand for portraits from the art collectors themselves. According to Somnath Dutta, “the demand for portraits is now reduced.” Nilesh Pawar agrees with him when he says, “today, a portrait by Van Gogh would have a demand but there will be no takers for portraits by emerging artists. I would not put up a solo show of only portraits myself.”

There continue to be artists who still devote the time and attention that portraits demand, there also continue to be connoisseurs who would purchase or commission an portrait. Yet, portraiture has had to cede its place as a preferred art form to the changing times. As Nilesh Pawar concludes, “portraiture has its place in ‘art’ but in the public sphere it has been edged out by photographs, canvas prints and photoshop!”

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