A lifetime dedicated to art

Jagdish Mittal shares how he identifies ancient forms of art and the guiding philosophy of his collection dating back to 1900 AD

By   |  Published: 20th Oct 2019  12:40 amUpdated: 19th Oct 2019  7:55 pm

A venerated authority on all things art, Jadgish Mittal’s home in Himayath nagar reflects his passion. Books on art line the walls of two rooms, interspersed with metal sculptures that also make up a part of the Padma Shri awardee’s collection that today is known as the Jagdish and Kamla Mittal Museum of Indian Art.

The nonageneranian himself is as sharp as ever; in fact, his age belies him. As we sit in the room surrounded by his works, he regales us with stories of how he stumbled upon priceless works of art and sculptures through his eventful life. Age is really just a number in his case, as dates and figures of art works he saw are sharply etched in his memory.

Jagdish Mittal’s collection considered to be the finest assemblage of Indian arts comprises paintings, textiles, sculptures of varied media in different styles, from pure folk to classical up till 1900 AD. Many were found by Jadgish, an artist himself, just before they were lost to posterity.

One such story he tells us is that of Cheriyal scrolls he stumbled upon. “In 1955, I found a husband-wife carrying a wooden sign with a painting. The paintings would later come to be known as Cheiryal paintings. I always want to find out where the work was made, why, the how… The couple told me it was made in Cheriyal village by a painter called Venkat Ramaiah. I invited him to talk and asked him about the stories on the panel, the technique used to make the scrolls which later became the subject of my book Scroll Paintings,” recalls Jagdish Mittal who is ‘the maverick of his family’. While his brothers took to engineering, the Mussoorie born man’s interest in arts took form by an illustration in a history textbook he bought for one anna, later he would find that the painting was from the great Mughal connoisseur Dara Shikoh’s album.

In 1945, Mittal went to study arts at Kala Bhavana, the progressive visual arts institution founded by Rabindranath Tagore at Shantiniketan which brought him in contact with many artists and instilled in him an appreciation for historic art. The first piece he bought was a basket covered with kantha, an embroidered cloth in 1946 which sparked the collector in him and took him to different places.  Hearing the man speak reveals his lifelong dedication to his subject and zeal to learn more and refining his aesthetic sense over the years.

“Aesthetics of an object is a sensitive issue. There is no course which will teach you this. It’s not about fineness of the work, but the total strength. You have to have an open eye. Art has to be seen from different angles, sometimes in the colour, in detail… There are many things which make a piece great. I like to study the subject in depth, finding out everything I can about it. Only when I am convinced of the authenticity of the information do I publish it in a book or articles. Ultimately, it should inspire and make the next generation aware about art and how to appreciate it,” reflects Jagdish.

A question about how long it takes to research and authenticate his information inspires a laugh in him. “You will think I’m a fool. No one has worked like me. There was one painting which I came across in December 1960 in Bharat Kala Bhavan in Banaras University, I suspected it was done somewhere in our area. Through some leads, I found it was done in Tirupati so I started researching about Tirupati paintings. After 60 years of hard work, I’m halfway in completing the book. No one spends this kind of time and years. I enjoy it; I do it so I can give back to the society through scholarly works. Kai scholars 60 years rahenge bhi nai, but main likh raha hun… abhi bhi kaagaz pade hue hai,” chuckles Jagdish.

The collector will soon get busy organising another seminar in January around Indian metalware. But till then, he is working feverishly on his book which should come out in 2020.

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