Eighty-eight year old Chhotelal Bharany is a relic of the past, as rare and precious today as the antique paintings, sculptures and textiles from his collection that the National Museum in Delhi is showcasing in a month-long exhibition. Bharany had donated these to the museum in 1976 but it's only now, 38 years later, that they have been unveiled to the public.
The exhibition brings to light his extraordinary contribution to the history of Indian art, and more important, that of his father, Radha Krishna Bharany, a pioneering art dealer and collector. Chhotelal was only 16 when Radha Krishna died, and he inherited his father's business and collection, but more importantly his knowledge, discerning eye and love for antiques.
"My father had a divine madness," says Bharany. "He was a sharaabi (addict), his sharaab (intoxicant) was these paintings," says Bharany. "After his death, we had boxes and boxes of paintings, but no cash." Once he even sold his wife's jewellery to buy a set of Radha-Krishna paintings in the Kangra style from the ruler of Nadaun province in then Punjab. "My maternal relations were furious – are you going to leave these pieces of paper for your children to feed on, they asked." After Bharany Senior died in 1944, his widow was forced to sell the set to Diwan Bahadur RK Jalan (whose collection still graces Quila House in Patna). Ironically, a few years later, Jalan died and his son, whose fortunes had declined, offered to sell the paintings back to Bharany.
We're seated in the small back office of Bharany's, the exclusive jewellery showroom in tony Sundarnagar Market which Chhotelal opened in 1962 and is run now by his sons, Mahesh and Ramji. Though Bharany no longer deals in art, the rare Mughal and Pahari paintings and beautiful Kashmiri shawls, Baluchari saris and Kantha and Pulkari embroidery spread all over the store is evidence of his extensive collection.
It's a far cry from Bharany Senior's small shop near Amritsar's Golden Temple, which was a mecca for scholars and collectors of Indian art in the early 20th century. Ananda Coomaraswamy, the pioneering Indian art historian, was a regular visitor to his shop. Among Bharany's other notable buyers were Karl Khandalavala, art historian, collector and chairman of Mumbai's Prince of Wales Museum (now Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya) from 1958 to his death in 1995; MS Randhawa, who set up the Chandigarh Museum; and Rai Krishnadas, whose collection formed the core of the Bharat Kala Bhavan museum in Benaras. Other regular buyers were Sir Kasturbhai Lalbhai (founder of Arvind Mills), BK Birla, Sir Dorabji Tata, Alice Bonner (Swiss sculptor), Svetoslav Roerich (Russian painter), WG Archer (British ICS officer and keeper of the Indian section at the V&A Museum), NC Mehta (ICS officer who donated his collection to Ahmedabad's LD Institute of Indology), and Nasli and Alice Heeramaneck (New York-based collectors).
Exquisite and historically important pieces first sold by Bharany are today scattered in museums worldwide, from Cleveland, Philadelphia and Washington in the US, to Ottawa in Canada, Cambridge, Oxford and London in the UK; Lahore in Pakistan and, within India, Chandigarh, Allahabad and Mumbai. When they have come up for sale in international auctions, they have been snapped up for thousands of dollars. In many ways, what we know of early Indian art today was shaped by objects the Bharanys procured. "Without his [Radha Krishna's] sagacity and aesthetic sensibility, his adventurous spirit and his industry, we might not be admiring the styles of painting that became familiar under such rubrics as Basohli and Kangra," writes Pratapaditya Pal, the Padmashree-awarded art historian and former curator of Indian art sections in several American museums, in his essay A Passionate Eye: Textiles, Paintings and Sculptures from the Bharany Collection. In fact, it was the publication of this book in April that induced the National Museum to put up the exhibition, reveals Giles Tillotson, the editor of the book who has also curated the show.
"You can't imagine how cheap things were in those days," says Bharany. Coomaraswamy had bought paintings worth Rs4,000-Rs 5,000 from RK Bharany between 1906 and 1913 – each priced Rs5-Rs30. He reveals that a friend, artist Ramgopal Vijaivarghia, once found that a plate a man was eating puris from in a Jaipur shop was actually a beautiful Bundi painting. "We were very conveniently located in Amritsar, for all the objects that were coming out of the princely kingdoms. There were runners who went to villages and rajas looking for paintings, sculptures, shawls – anything," he says.
Does the dwindling interest in and knowledge of traditional Indian arts bother him? "I won't talk about the pros and cons of the Antiquities Act, but because of its cumbersome rules for registering artworks, the interest isn't there anymore. And once you kill the love, you kill every initiative of the person," he replies.