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The Documentation Of Daily Life Through Indian Mica Paintings

Mica Painting: A Myriad of Moments, Now Forgotten

There are so many styles of Indian painting that many of them end up being overlooked. All Indian art forms are an important part of Indian culture and history, and proper efforts should be made in their conservation and restoration. Indian Mica paintings have significant historical importance and portray unrestrained depictions of daily life in India in the 18th and 19th centuries. Their study is essential to uncovering the long-lost secrets of India’s past.

Let’s look at Indian mica paintings and understand why they are so rare and difficult to conserve.

Mica Paintings: What is Mica and Why Was It Used?

Mica paintings
Mica is a silicate mineral
(image source: B. Domague via Wikimedia Commons)

Mica is a mineral made up of many interlocking plates of potassium silicate structures. It has a laminar structure and forms as a result of heat and pressure between layers of granite. Due to these properties, Mica is transparent and can be split into thin sheets. Indian artists used the Muscovite variety of Mica.

There are a few theories on why Indian artists began to paint on Mica. For one, it has a very smooth surface that is non-porous and scratch-resistant. When painted on, the colours aren’t absorbed deep into the layers, and this makes the colours extremely vibrant. This also proves to be its detriment; as the paint does not permeate beyond the surface, it can easily be scratched off or damaged. Mica itself is extremely brittle, and this makes it difficult to conserve Mica paintings or find them in good condition.

Another theory states that painting on mica is similar to painting on glass. Indian artists used it to trace designs for glass lanterns and similar objects. Glass paintings were quite popular in Europe, and artists tried to imitate a similar look and feel through mica paintings.

The History of Mica Paintings

Mica paintings
Mica flakes are embedded in this fresco to give it a glittering effect (image source: MirandaAdramin via Wikimedia Commons)

Mica was first used in the cave paintings of the Upper Palaeolithic epoch. Powdered-up Mica is still used in pigments for art and cosmetics, as it provides a metallic effect to them. Mica is also used to create an eco-friendly alternative to plastic glitter.

Mica paintings
A fruit-bearer, early 19th century
(image source: sothebys.com)
Mica paintings
Mica painting from a collection of 14 paintings
of trades-people, Ca. 1840 (image source: antipodean.com)

In India, the practice of painting on mica began in Murshidabad and soon spread to Patna and Varanasi. Tiruchirapelli and Tanjore were the centres of mica painting in south India. Indian artists would paint mica paintings for the European and American markets. These paintings belonged to ‘Company style’ school of paintings. Indian Mica paintings were sold in sets called ‘firqa’, similar to the folios of Barahmasa and Ragamala paintings. The artists would use gouache to paint on one side of a thin and flexible sheet of mica.

These paintings usually depict locals such as fishermen, vendors, gardeners, street performers, etc. in traditional attire. While the subjects and themes were Indian, they were painted with a colonial perspective in mind. Portraits in Mughal style were popular during the 18th century. Mica paintings combined traditional art influences to portray contemporary depictions of Indian people. These paintings extensively document daily life in the 19th century. So much so that many mica paintings were preserved by the descendants of British colonists as a reminder of the time they spent in their colonial homes in India.

The Materials Used

Mica paintings
Mica sheets (image source: elmelin.com)

Artists would paint directly on the surface of the mica and would not prepare it in any way beforehand. They mixed gouache paints with a binding medium and applied them in thick layers to the mica. Sometimes both sides of the mica sheet were painted to increase the opacity of the pigment and give the painting a richer and more three-dimensional appearance.

Mica paintings from Trichinopoly were small (120 x 90 mm) and painted on only one side. Some paintings from Patna are slightly larger (160 x 200 mm) and are painted on both sides of the mica sheet. The examples above show the production of Opium.

Also read: The Usage Of Natural Pigments In Traditional Art Forms

The Subject Matter of Mica Paintings

(image source: paper.gatech.edu)

Mica paintings had many types of subject matter, including festivals, religious occasions, flora and fauna, and the common man in various occupations such as a street vendor, shoe-polisher, household staff of British officials, entertainers, etc. They also depicted Hindu gods and goddesses. Mica paintings were very popular as souvenirs among tourists and British government officials.

None of the themes of Indian mica paintings were even vaguely British. The only noticeable western influence is the style of these paintings; the Company style was a mix between traditional Indian art forms and the use of western painting techniques and perspectives. Some mica paintings feature more elaborate scenes of festivals like Durga Puja, Mohurrum, and Charak Puja.

We obtain some interesting insights by studying these paintings. We can observe how clothing differs for each occupation and how, for example, men would tie their turbans differently to display what occupation they practised.

The Styles of Mica Paintings

As previously mentioned, Mica paintings used European or linear perspective, albeit in a rudimentary way. Multiple perspectives are almost never seen, and sometimes, as is characteristic of Indian paintings, the artist takes certain liberties to make the subject matter clearer to the viewer. For example, the corner of a table is titled forward unnaturally so that the viewer can see what is placed on top of it. Shadows are sometimes drawn, and cross-hatching and shading techniques make human figures appear more animated.

The colours are as vivid and vibrant as should not be possible, given the passage of time. Backgrounds are painted minimally and only to hint at the setting of the painting and whether it is indoors or outdoors. For example, curtains drawn at the top of the painting suggest that the scene is portrayed indoors. Similarly, branches coming from the left or right of the painting state that it is an outdoor scene.

(image source: walpoleantiques.com)

The mica painting shown in the above picture is an interesting specimen. It contains a set of paintings that can be layered over the base card to give the character different clothes and accessories. It seems too well made to be a toy; perhaps it was created for a collector.

The Current State of Indian Mica Paintings

A painting from Menaka Gandhi’s private collection (image source: theweek.in)

Company paintings are not rare, but those painted on mica are few and far between. It is estimated that there are around 7,000 mica paintings in the world. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London houses a collection of over 700 Indian mica paintings, with examples from Patna, Benares, Murshidabad, and Trichinopoly. They are a priority for treatment and rehousing. The Wellcome Trust and Cambridge University Library also house mica painting collections. In 2018, Maneka Gandhi decided to sell her private collection of around 200 mica paintings to obtain the funds to set up an animal hospital in Chandigarh.

Currently, the Victoria and Albert Museum is at the forefront of the conservation of Indian Mica paintings. Some major issues faced in the conservation of mica paintings are the brittle nature of the mineral itself, which makes them susceptible to warping and delamination (splitting of the layers of mica). Artists used blobs of glue to attach the paintings to a card and mount them. The glue discoloured over the years and left brown spots on the corners of the paintings. The areas around the glue were weakened, and this would cause fracturing of the mica sheets.

Paint losses, scratching, and peeling of the surfaces are also quite common due to improper storage methods used. The temperature and humidity of Indian climates have never been very favourable to painting in general. A lot of research has been carried out in order to preserve these paintings and minimise damage in the future.

Also read: Ajanta Cave Paintings: 5 Measures Taken In Their Conservation And Restoration

Why Is The Conservation of Indian Mica Paintings So Important?

You may have heard the phrase ‘History is written by the winners’. While India was under British control, they monitored the voice of the public and censored all aspects of society. Even though Indian mica paintings were created for the European market, they are an unfettered depiction of Indian life and Indian people by Indian artists. These paintings were untouched by Western influences. By studying Indian mica paintings, we learn not only about the lives and occupations of the common man but also about their beliefs and perspectives.

Rooftop offers courses and workshops on several of India’s rare traditional and tribal art forms. By learning them, you’ll play a huge part in ensuring that the knowledge of traditional techniques and materials is not lost to time. Just like there are only 7000 mica paintings today, there are only a couple hundred artists that practise the authentic techniques of traditional art forms. 

Download the Rooftop App from Google Play or the App Store to learn the traditional, tribal, and folk art forms of India.

By Melissa D’Mello

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