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The Art Hubs of India: Part V – Delhi


As this series of ‘The Art Hubs of India’ reaches its climax, our fifth and final edition is about the heart of India – Delhi. When one Googles “the art capital of India”, Delhi is the first name that pops up. While this could be debatable, with other cultural hubs like Kolkata being strong contenders of the title, Delhi undoubtedly has a rich history of the arts. But how did Delhi, once a centre of imperial power, evolve into a major art hub for India? This article explores the historical forces, artistic movements, and cultural shifts that shaped Delhi’s artistic landscape, making it a vital centre for artistic expression.

The Beginning of an Artistic Culture in Delhi

The art story of Delhi boasts a rich and layered past, with its roots reaching far back in time. Archaeological evidence reveals artistic activity during the Mauryan Empire (3rd century BCE), with terracotta sculptures, pottery and polished stone pillars hinting at a thriving culture of art in the region.

The period of the Delhi Sultanate (1206-1526 CE) marked a new chapter. The Sultans, primarily patrons of Islamic art, were responsible for the construction of iconic structures like the Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque and the Qutub Minar, showcasing intricate calligraphy and geometric patterns. Metalwork also flourished during this period, with Delhi becoming a centre for the production of bronze statues and ornate weaponry.

Window detailing of the Alai Darwaza. Image source: Notes on Indian History

However, the influence wasn’t unidirectional. Contrary to popular belief, the Sultanate’s art and architecture weren’t stylistically isolated. It was also shaped by existing traditions in Indian art, which created a rather unique blend of Islamic and Indian styles. This is evident in monuments like the Tomb of Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq and The Alai Darwaza. A closer look at the decorative elements in these structures point towards what is clearly influenced by Hindu art. 

The Mughal Era: A Golden Age of Patronage

Come 16th century, the Mughals brought with them an unprecedented period of cultural flourishing to Delhi. Once again, while I talk of the arts of Delhi, I cannot help but mention its architecture – they are historically entwined with each other. The Mughal era produced some of the most popular historical sites of the country, which are also undeniably architectural masterpieces. The Red Fort, Jama Masjid and Humayun’s Tomb stand as testaments to the Mughals’ aesthetic vision and continue to inspire artists and architects even today. 

Princess of the House of Timur, Abdus Samad, 1545 – 1550, British Museum, London. Image source: Me Meraki

The Mughals were also generous patrons of the arts. Their reign saw a golden age of miniature painting. These offer a captivating window into the heart of the Mughal Empire. Far more than mere decoration, these meticulously crafted works were vivid chronicles of the era. Artists, often referred to as “naqqash” (meaning painter or designer), were highly skilled and employed a variety of techniques using fine brushes and vibrant pigments derived from natural sources like lapis lazuli and saffron. 

A pivotal scene in the Ramayana – an army of monkeys helping Rama build a bridge – depicted in a Mughal miniature painting. Image source: Sahapedia

Thematic diversity was a hallmark of Mughal miniatures. Court life found itself meticulously documented, with artists capturing the grandeur of royal processions, the intimacy of private chambers, and the elegance of the emperor’s courtly attire.  Battles were also a popular subject, immortalised in detailed paintings that showcased the might and strategy of the Mughal military. These miniatures captured not just historical events, but also the rich cultural and religious diversity of the empire. Artists even depicted scenes from Hindu epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata, reflecting the Hindu influences on Mughal art.

Colonial Influences, a Search for Identity and the Influences of the Bengal School of Art

The arrival of the British in the 18th century marked yet another turning point. European styles began to influence Indians’ art expression. Portraiture gained prominence, with artists like Tilly Kettle capturing the likenesses of both Mughal royalty and British officials. Landscape paintings depicting the Indian countryside in a romanticised style became a popular genre.

However, the colonial period wasn’t just about dilution of Indian art and its subjects. It also saw a cross-pollination of ideas. European techniques like oil painting were adopted by Indian artists, leading to a new visual vocabulary. The establishment of art schools like the Delhi College of Art in 1942 offered training in both Western and Indian art forms, reflecting this blend and nurturing a new generation of artists.

However, the struggle for Indian independence significantly affected the arts across the country. There was a nationalist art movement brewing, especially in Bengal. Delhi’s art landscape was influenced by the Bengal School of Art and its emphasis on bringing back Indian art forms. Inspired by this revivalist movement, artists in Delhi began to break free from colonial-influenced styles and European academic realism. They sought to look inwards and rediscover a distinctly Indian artistic identity. 

A painting by Abdul Rahman Chughtai depicting a royal couple. Image source: Dawn

This led to a renewed interest in indigenous art traditions like Mughal miniatures, folk art, and classical Indian aesthetics.This period saw the rise of movements like the Delhi Silsila, a group of artists who explored themes of Indian mythology and history in their work. Artists like Abdul Rahman Chughtai, inspired by Mughal miniatures, aimed to create a unique Indian style of art.

It’s also important to note that there were some artists at the time who didn’t merely focus on the strict replication of past styles. They aimed to reinterpret traditional techniques and aesthetics for contemporary themes. They incorporated social commentary and Indian nationalism into their work, reflecting the growing sense of national consciousness during the pre-independence era.

Delhi’s Art Scene Post Independence

Freedom in 1947 ushered in a new era for Delhi’s art scene. There was a newfound sense of national identity. The desire to break free from the chokehold of the British continued to fuel Delhi artists’ creative pursuits.

New and diverse themes were explored that reflected the social and political realities of the newly independent nation. Social realism, a movement that focused on depicting the lives and struggles of the working class and marginalised communities, gained significant traction. Artists like Satish Gujral were inspired by this movement and addressed social issues like poverty and inequality through their powerful and often moving portrayals.

A painting titled ‘Despair’ by Satish Gujral that portrays the suffering of Partition victims. Image source: The Hindu

The engagement with social realities was a hallmark of Delhi’s art scene in the post-independence period. However, artistic expressions at the time weren’t limited to social commentary . Neo-classicism emerged as another art movement in Delhi, with its focus on drawing inspiration from classical Indian and European art forms. Artists like Ram Kumar incorporated elements of Indian mythology and aesthetics into his early work. This created a unique blend of tradition and modernity, once again reflecting a desire to connect with India’s rich heritage while forging a new visual narrative.

This awakening in Delhi laid the foundation for the thriving art scene that Delhi experiences today. It was a period where artists embraced experimentation, explored their unique voices, and grappled with the complexities of a nation in transition. 

The Establishment of the Lalit Kala Akademi

The birth of the Lalit Kala Akademi in 1954 became a vital catalyst for the city’s post-independence awakening. Functioning as the national academy of fine arts, the institution aimed to promote and propagate Indian art, both within the country and internationally. It provided crucial support for artists through scholarships, exhibitions, and publications, fostering a collaborative and supportive environment.

An image of the inside of Lalit Kala Academy today. Source: Times of India

But the Lalit Kala Akademi wasn’t just a funding body. It fostered collaboration through exhibitions and publications, creating a vibrant art community in Delhi. The curated exhibitions showcased diverse art movements and established and emerging artists. These exhibitions provided a platform for artistic exchange and challenged viewers’ perceptions of Indian art. And through publications and archiving initiatives, it ensured that the rich art traditions of the past continued to inform and inspire contemporary artists in Delhi and across the nation.

The Akademi’s reach extended far beyond the city, encouraging art expression across India and placing Delhi at the centre of the nation’s burgeoning art scene.

The Art Landscape of Delhi Today

Today, Delhi’s art scene thrives with a spirit of experimentation, social consciousness and an unwavering commitment to pushing boundaries. Needless to say, the city is filled with a multitude of art galleries and museums. Established institutions like the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) house a permanent collection of Indian art spanning centuries, while contemporary art galleries like Nature Morte and Vadehra Art Gallery showcase the works of established and emerging Indian artists who are pushing the boundaries of contemporary art practices.

Delhi is also home to alternative art spaces that provide crucial support for experimental art forms. Spaces like Khoj Studios host artist residencies, exhibitions, workshops, performances, screenings and discussions, fostering an intellectually stimulating environment for art enthusiasts.

An eye-catching mural in the Lodhi Art District, Image Source: Wikipedia

I’d also like to give a special mention to the Lodhi Art District, a locality in Delhi that has the hearts of many. A popular destination for art enthusiasts, photographers, and tourists, the Lodhi Art District is the first art district in India. It was spearheaded by St+art India Foundation and came into being in 2016. The project invited renowned street artists to create large-scale murals on building facades. These murals depict diverse themes, from portraits and wildlife to abstract patterns. Pressing issues like climate change and gender inequalities are also touched upon. The Lodhi Art District not only beautifies the area but also sparks conversations about public art and artistic expression. 

If you ask me, I’d say it is the existence of this space that acts as a free-of-charge open-air museum of over 50 murals spanning a whole neighbourhood that sets Delhi apart from the rest of the art hubs in India. 

Written by Lakshmi Nagaraj, an independent mixed-media artist and arts professional working towards pushing the boundaries of art practices and including marginalised voices while doing so. 

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