In the 18th century, the Bodhi tree was a ‘tree of the Hindus’
Bengaluru: "First, I'd like to say that bureaucrats are normal human beings, we're creatures of the flesh just like everybody else," said former ambassador Nirupama Rao, drawing a ripple of appreciative laughter through the auditorium.
This was in response to a question from an audience member, at the end of her talk titled India on Transferware: Objects of Fascination and Rao added, "We all need to come up for oxygen from time to time. Collecting transferware is my diversion and I've always been interested in history." The talk took place at the National Gallery of Modern Art on Wednesday evening.
Ambassador Rao's love for music has had her on stage a couple of times over the last month, but few know of her passion for antiques. "Whenever I travel to the U.S. and the UK, I have very little time for souvenirs, I always go to a flea market and look for an old Indian artefact, instead of something that has been locally made," she said.
"I'm interested in our heritage and what I am, an heir to as an Indian." Transferware, the transfer-printing technique, developed in England in the 18th century is intricate work on china, that is easily mistaken for hand painting, but is actually done using copper plates and tissue. The technique developed at the height of British rule and much of the original art captured the lives of Englishmen in India. The Bodh Gaya, the tree under which the Buddha is supposed to have received enlightenment, is a popular motif in transferware from the 18th century. "They refer to it as the 'sacred tree of the Hindus'," Rao explains.
The inspiration for the scenes on the transferware was drawn from paintings and drawings done by Englishmen in India, like A Picturesque Tour along the River Ganges and Jumna by Lieutenant Chares Ramus Forrest. More motivated by whimsy than fact, the designs on the transferware present a colourful, sometimes unexpected historical hotch-potch. For instance, The Tomb of Sher Shah, based on the painting by William Hodges, depicts, of course the tomb itself.
Tombs and mausoleums rarely form the subject of dinnertime conversation in the average Indian home, but this is a popular theme as far as transferware is concerned. "We're not accustomed to things like that, but the British were fascinated by them and used them in their art and culture," Rao explained. "For them, it was an appreciation of beauty in a faraway land.