Rooftop – Where India Inspires Creativity

Learn Indian art online

Art and Freedom: The First Indian Art Exhibition

Free India’s First Indian Art Exhibition

India won independence in 1947. In the following year, it also held its first ever comprehensive art exhibition. Free India’s first Indian art exhibition took place in the halls of Government House in Rashtrapati Bhavan, New Delhi.

This prestigious event displayed contemporary art alongside traditional Indian art pieces acquired from museums and private collections all over India. Though by no means India’s first ever art exhibition, it was the first that exhibited artefacts from ancient times and displayed a record of our country’s history through its art.

The First Indian Art Exhibition: A Reason for Celebration

Terracotta sculpture of a female deity. Mauryan period, 3rd–2nd century BCE. Image credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The exhibition was a follow-up to an earlier show organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London. It was held at Burlington House (the home of the Academy) from November 29, 1947, to February 29, 1948. This was to mark the occasion of the transfer of power in British India. The success of earlier Persian and Chinese art exhibitions at its premises in the 1930s led the Royal Academy to work on plans for an exhibition of “typical masterpieces of Indian art” for British audiences.

The display was divided into three sections: paintings, sculpture, and architecture. All of these works were brought together in one place for the first time ever. The artwork here ranged from sculptures from the Indus Valley to more recent 20th-century paintings.

Providing Inspiration To Artists

Statuettes from the Mauryan period, 4th-3rd century BCE, from the collection of the Musée Guimet. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

The ‘India through the Ages’ exhibition had been held for a mere three months at Burlington House, London, to reintroduce Indian art to the Western world. The Royal Academy of Arts, London, had organised this exhibition. However, word of the exhibition’s success created national curiosity about the artwork that was displayed. This led the Ministry of Education to exhibit the collection in India, titled, ’An Exhibition of Indian Art’.

The exhibition inspired several artists and created a sense of pride in the minds of the common people. Indians realised that their rich history and culture were something to be proud of. MF Husain was one of the modern artists who visited this exhibition.

Bull. baked clay, Mohenjodaro, C. 2500 B.C.E. Image credit: National Museum, New Delhi.

He stated that the show had inspired him to discover a unique visual synthesis of Eastern and Western art. He was particularly inspired by the miniature paintings of the Basohli School and the sculptures from the Gupta period.

Free India’s First Exhibition

Climbing Monkey. Terracotta figurine, Harappa, C. 2500 B.C.E. Image credit: National Museum, New Delhi.

’An Exhibition of Indian Art’ was a huge success. People had never witnessed Indian art on such a grand scale before this. The exhibition catalogue claimed that such a vast display of India’s art had never been brought together under a single roof earlier. The exhibits ranged from Indus Valley relics and sculptures and bronze statues to carpets and playing cards.

The exhibition opened in November 1948 and was open to the public until 1949. All of the art and sculpture for this event had been acquired from various sources, such as public and private museums, collectors, artists, and art vendors. However, many felt that the fascinating array of objects in the exhibition would be better off in a museum, where they could be viewed all year round.

The Indian government went on to acquire many of the pieces featured in this exhibition and decided to establish a museum to showcase them. Thus, the success of ‘An Exhibition of Indian Art’ prompted the establishment of the National Museum in Delhi.

The First Indian Art Exhibition: Structure and Layout

First Indian Art Exhibition
Cover of the exhibition catalogue. Image credit: Internet Archive

The exhibition was displayed in order of period and genre. Sculptures and carvings featured more prominently in the layout of the collection. Here’s the structure of the display according to the catalogue written in 1948 by art historian Vasudev Saran.

First Indian Art Exhibition
Dancing girl. Bronze statuette, Mohenjo-daro, Harappan Civilization, 2700–2100 B.C.E. Image credit: Gary Todd via smarthistory

As visitors entered the premises, they first saw a selection of large stone sculptures in the open court. Most of these sculptures were from the earliest historical phases of Indian art, more specifically, the Maurya, Sunga, and Kushana periods. After this display, the first gallery housed the oldest art from the exhibition period. The proto-historic sculptures of the Indus Valley civilisation were some of the most unique pieces of the exhibition. They attracted a large amount of attention.

Simultaneously, ’An Exhibition Of Indian Art’ pushed history forward to spectacular sculptural achievements from the Maurya and Sunga epochs by showcasing some prime female figures and portrait heads from Bharhut, Sarnath (also known as Sanchi), Gwalior, and Mathura.

The Rich Cultural Diversity of Indian Art and Culture

First Indian Art Exhibition
The layout plan of the galleries. Image credit: Internet Archive

The central circular Darbar Hall contained sculptures of Kushana and Gupta schools. It housed Mathura school sculptures alongside some sculpted panels from the Amaravati stupa. Immediately to the left stood the South Passage, filled with Gandharan sculptures from the Northwest Frontier Provinces, roughly in the same period as the Kushana Mathura sculptures.

First Indian Art Exhibition
Seated Buddha with Two Attendants, red sandstone. From Mathura, Kushan period, c. 132 C.E. Image credit: Kimbell Art Museum

Then followed another large sampling of Gupta sculptures in the South Passage. This included Buddhist sculptures from Sarnath, Mathura, and Bodh Gaya; panels from Bhumara temple in Central India; and some images of flying Gandharva couples carrying the Gupta label into seventh century A.D. The long drawing room at the back was dedicated to historical relics.

First Indian Art Exhibition
Mahavira Preaching at the Gunashilaka Shrine, from a Jain Manuscript of the Kalpasutra, Gujarat, 15th century. Image credit: Brooklyn Museum

The historical course began with Buddhist and Jain-illustrated manuscripts from Bengal and Gujarat. It moved on to the various schools of Rajasthani, Mughal, Pahari, and Deccani miniature paintings from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. The collection also featured painted wooden book covers, cloth paintings, and playing cards from Bengal and Orissa.

An Unprecedented Exhibition Showcasing the Diversity of Indian Art

Reclining mouflon from the Indus Valley Civilization, ca. 2600–1900 BCE. Image credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

It was a very crucial milestone in the history of India. The Exhibition of Indian Art propagated a new ray of hope for the people of India. It put Indian art on the map and helped Indians connect with their lost cultural roots. The show was described as “the largest, most comprehensive, and representative assemblage of art from all over India ever seen in Europe or at home.” It was the first of its kind, an exhibition that brought together classical Indian art with its contemporary counterparts.

The ‘Exhibition of Indian Art’ later became known as the first serious attempt to inventory India’s art heritage.

Interested in learning more about the beauty of Indian folk art forms? Download the Rooftop app from Google Play or the App Store to learn more! Stay tuned to Rooftop blogs and follow us on Instagram @rooftop_app.

Related Posts