Sunday Chronicle cover story 19 Aug 2018 Custodian of Culture

Custodian of Culture

Published Aug 19, 2018, 12:00 am IST
Updated Aug 19, 2018, 12:08 am IST
Jagdish Mittal.
 Jagdish Mittal.

A venerated authority among India’s art cognoscenti, Jagdish Mittal at 93 is still as sharp and focussed as he’s ever been. Old age has left a mark on the man, but his eyes reflect tales of a seven-decade long career span, where he has gone from being an artist and collector to a published scholar who has been celebrated by such institutions as the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  The Padma Shri awardee, who originally hailed from Uttar Pradesh, chose a different path from his engineer father, when he decided to pursue a degree in Fine Arts from Kala Bhavan, Vishwa Bharti, Santiniketan. “It was when our teacher took us to Benares on a trip that I first encountered the spark in the eyes of the scholar Rai Krishnadas. His vigour and zeal inspired us,” says Mittal of his initial foray into the arts. Further research and study unearthed an inherent ability to recognise good art, which eventually kindled a passion for collecting pieces. 

“I once saw a black and white photograph of a painting in a text book and became obsessed by it. I didn’t know what it was, but fussed over it for months. It turned out to be a painting that was part of an album given by Dara Shikoh to his wife. Today the same painting is displayed in London as a work of historical value.”  Many other such random finds resulted in Mittal recognising his innate capacity to identify great works of art without any prior knowledge about them, “I once liked a series of six Pahadi miniature paintings that I bought without knowing who they were by,” he shares, “After a little research, they turned out to be works by Nainsukh.”  One of the most highly regarded Pahadi painters, those six paintings by Nainsukh that Mittal bought back in the day are estimated to be worth anywhere between Rs 10-15 crores today. 

Jagdish and his wife Kamla met in the late 1940s and by 1951 were married.Jagdish and his wife Kamla met in the late 1940s and by 1951 were married.

A Like-minded Pair 

Jagdish and his wife Kamla met in the late 1940s and by 1951 were married. “I had a job for a short time in Chamba, Himachal Pradesh,” shares Mittal, “Where I was the advisor to the Bhuri Singh Museum. N.C. Mehta, the Chief Commissioner of the State had asked artist Nandalal Bose for a recommendation and he put my name forward. There I discovered old murals, beautiful miniatures and paintings directly at the home of the painter’s decedents. I even picked up works for my own collection, which was just starting then. This was where my appreciation for Himachali art started.” While Mittal and Kamla were settling into domesticity, an unexpected invitation changed the course of their lives causing them to shift base to Hyderabad. “Since I was painting back then, Badrivishal Pitti invited me and Kamla to exhibit our works in 1951. So barely a month after our marriage we moved to Hyderabad, where after the exhibition Pitti convinced me to work as editor for a Hindi journal he owned, Kalpana.” 

Busy with his new job as a writer, Mittal gave up on painting but earned a new zeal for collecting. “Kamla used to accompany me on my trips to Jaipur, Delhi and Himachal. She had a great eye and could identify objects better than any museum director. Later in 1957 we made this house in Himayatnagar, and people started bringing pieces home. Kamla was always by my side when we were going to buy an object. She wasn’t a writer, but otherwise was just as involved curating this collection as I have been.”  The collection which spans over 2000 pieces, comprises mainly of miniatures. “Almost 800 pieces in the collection are miniatures and drawings,” says Mittal, “The rest are metalware and figures, old textiles and other items. It’s a reflection of Indian art, from the 1st century AD till 1900. I have not collected modern paintings due to space and budget constraints, so the collection stops at 1900.” 

A Mughal artwork showing an ascetic.A Mughal artwork showing an ascetic.

A Study of Miniatures

With a sudden increase in the demand for miniature paintings, art collectors today are blindly picking up works based on great returns someday in the future. But for Mittal, his appreciation for the miniature form began almost half a century before the Indian art market warmed up to the idea of assigning any value to the rare pieces. “I bought miniatures from all over India. Never from auction houses, but mostly from the family of artists or old collectors. For me it is the appeal of the object that is most important. Buyers usually go by the period and school, but that’s of no importance if the art doesn’t appeal to your aesthetic sense,” explains Mittal, “In the Pahadi School alone you have 15 different variations, ranging from Chamba to Kangra, Jammu to Guler and many more. Then you have the Mughal School which was based predominantly between Lahore, Delhi and Agra, but later permeated into Central India as well.” 

Much of Mittal’s miniature collection consists of works that range from sketches to paintings commissioned by the royal courts. A unique painting from the Deccan’s Golconda School of A Parrot Perched on a Mango Tree, with a Ram tethered below, was used by the MET in New York as a colossal banner welcoming viewers to their Indian art exhibit, it was even printed on the sides of bus stops and cabs all across Manhattan. Mittal then shows us another fine specimen from his collection, A night scene from the Pahadi School. With colours so bright, it’s a work that can make even the most unappreciative viewer marvel at its beauty… almost like it was painted just yesterday and not four centuries ago. 

Seated beside a leopard in front of a hut, worships Krishna, dated 1640-50.Seated beside a leopard in front of a hut, worships Krishna, dated 1640-50.

Ancient Metalware

“There is a massive craze for Chola figures, which has almost become like fashion,” says Mittal, “People want to be able to differentiate between a Chola and a Chalukyan bronze. Cholas are very graceful and have fine workmanship, but I feel the inner vigour of a Chalukyan bronze figure is far superior to a Chola. The Himachali bronzes for me are even more sublime than the Chola and the Chalukyan bronzes. Dr Douglass Barrett, a dear friend of mine from the industry, once pointed out to me that the Indian government was foolish to try to repatriate the famous Chola Natraj in the 1980s, when instead they should have concentrated more on the Himachali bronzes that were displayed on either side of it in London, since they were far superior. I tend to agree with him on that point.”  Mittal is quick to point out the complexity in buying a Chola bronze. “They can range anywhere from Rs 2 lakh to Rs 15 crore on the Indian market, but are sometimes risky to buy. The smaller sculptures may have once been owned by affluent families, but the really large ones are mostly taken from temples and sold on the market illegally. 

There are two scholars, one in India and one in Singapore, whose primary role is to record the transference of such figures from their original sources of ownership… anyone can get easily caught if found buying an illicit piece.”  Almost pre-empting our curiosity, Mittal displays a Chalukyan bronze next to a Himachali figurine, so one may understand the difference, before bringing out an impressive copper plate from the Quli Qutub Shah period (1600) depicting animals and birds, “This was a ceremonial plate,” he explains, “The beasts on it are inspired by different schools of art, and one can even make out a Chinese dragon, which was obviously influenced by the Chinese art of that time.” 

Hyderabad as an Art Market

“Hyderabad was never a great art market,” explains Mittal, “Jaipur was always the art centre of India for antiques and other objects. But then Jaipur is also the place with the most number of crooks and conmen at the same time.” An advisor to several of Hyderabad’s aristocratic and royal families regarding their objects of value, Mittal has been in the enviable position of having witnessed some of the most prized treasures of Nizami and Mughal heritage to come out of the city. “I’ve seen a lot of it over the years,” he shares, “Princess Durushehvar used to come to visit once in a while. I could make out that she was unhappy with The Jewels of the Nizams exhibition that was put up at the Salar Jung Museum. Those were definitely not the royal jewels on display. They were part of a collection made that was to be used if the family found itself to be in an emergency or in distress. If you look at the pieces, none of them have any artistic detail. They were probably made by an in-house jeweller who was given the stones and told to make sets out of them.” 

The artistic detail Mittal talks of is the Meenakari work that was used to embellish pieces of jewellery, heightening their value and giving them an identifying mark, signifying royal and noble ownership. “Deccani Meena is an example of the best enamel work found anywhere in the world. It is even more superior to Jaipuri Meena, but can be difficult for the layman to differentiate,” explains Mittal, “The trick is in identifying the pinks and greens. Deccani Meena work is far more vibrant and their colours are brighter. The pinks used in Deccani Meena and their intermingling with a white background or white foreground is what makes it easy to differentiate Deccani from Jaipuri. This Meena work is largely missing from The Jewels of the Nizams exhibit, which is a dead giveaway for what these pieces are. 

“The Nizams had jewellery which they’d inherited from the Mughals, centuries old pieces of mindboggling artistry and value. They’d amassed quality, museum-grade jewellery for several centuries… this was not it. This collection doesn’t have the historic significance it was touted to possess, it’s also a burden on any museum and can’t be displayed because of its high security cost.” Tales of Nizami gold mohurs and their legendary value abound in the Hyderabadi art market, about which we ask Mittal for his take, “Now you’re talking like a child,” he huffs, “These words don’t impress me. Gold mohurs were never rare. It’s just because people have a fascination with gold that they make these out to be bombastic and expensive. I’ve seen Jahangiri mohurs… there were some from Akbar’s period too. There are far better things to collect and invest in than mohurs. The market sometimes doesn’t understand the historic relevance of an item and only goes by what can sell best. So people go berserk and try to collect these. 

“There are so many fake mohurs now that it’s a nuisance for anyone to deal in these. Fakes are made even today in Mathura. How many of them do you want?”
We ask Mittal if he feels there’s any more treasure left with the noble families, to which he solemnly replies, “It’s all gone… over the years the Nawabs sold off most of the good things they had and today there’s little or nothing left. The only people who still have something is the Nizams.”

And where is it we prod, “That I cannot say. These are sensitive matters that are not meant to be discussed.”  And what of the many art collectors the city once boasted of, represented famously by the once-regent Salar Jung? “Salar Jung was a wealthy collector, but not a scholar. He collected a lot of things, but didn’t have an eye for what was good. As a result what you get is a massive collection, with a few good pieces that are truly noteworthy and a lot of other things which don’t matter much.  “In recent times you had Col. Tandon, who had a good eye. He had a great collection at his home in Sainikpuri, but after his death his daughters took over his collection. Harishchandra Aggarwal was another man who had a great eye and dealt in antiques, which his family has carried on since his passing.” 

Breathtaking artefacts: A unique painting from the Deccan’s Golconda school of a parrot perched on a mango tree, with a ram tethered belowBreathtaking artefacts: A unique painting from the Deccan’s Golconda school of a parrot perched on a mango tree, with a ram tethered below

Arabian Knights in Shining Armour 

Kuwait’s Al Sabah Collection is world famous for its Islamic Art, much of which has been bought by Sheikh Nasser in the 80s and 90s while on his journeys treasure hunting across India. “He tried meeting me two-three times,” confesses Mittal, “But I was always weary. When I finally agreed he came to my house and sat down on the floor with his legs crossed. I suddenly felt very bad for not having met him before. He was such a humble gentleman.” Following in the footsteps of Sheikh Nasser, Sheikh Hamad Bin Abdullah Al Thani of Qatar started his own collection, curated by Christie’s ex-chief of Asian Art, Dr Amin Jaffer. The Al Thani Collection now goes on tour from Paris to Venice to Beijing, under the watchful gaze of several hundred security guards and insurance officials. Jewelled daggers, Mughal jadau hookas and jade plates make up just a small part of the collection, which has several pieces of priceless Mughal jewellery as well. On his last trip to Hyderabad Sheikh Hamad dropped by to meet the nonagenarian Mittal at his home. 

Reminiscing, Mittal says, “Over six-feet tall Sheikh Hamad gave me a bear hug after which I had to check if all my bones were intact. He liked an agate dagger in the shape of a parrot’s head that is part of the collection and wanted to buy it, unaware that it is in a trust and cannot be sold. Over the years I’ve encountered many such Princes who want pieces from the museum, but have managed to politely decline. They’ve become good friends and I have shared my knowledge on whatever subject they wanted to know about.”  Though he managed to hold out on selling items to Middle-eastern royals, Mittal often disposed of pieces he refers to as spares, “There were items I had two of, or were of inferior quality. Disposing them allowed me to buy other things and keep the collection going,” he explains, “The royal buyers are also some of the most notorious paymasters. I have heard of so many horror stories that I simply never entertained them as customers. A dealer I have known, had once sold a crown to the Sultan of Brunei for his begum. When the Sultan found out that some of the pearls on the crown were overvalued, he had his people call the dealer to Brunei as a royal guest. There he was locked in a room and told to pay back the difference before they would let him go.” 

A later Western Chalukyan style bronze statue of Lord Vishnu, flanked by goddesses Sridevi and Bhudevi, dated 10th Century.A later Western Chalukyan style bronze statue of Lord Vishnu, flanked by goddesses Sridevi and Bhudevi, dated 10th Century.

A brass statue of Lord Shiva seated with Goddess Uma (Uma-Maheshwara) from Chamba, Himachal Pradesh; dated 10th Century.A brass statue of Lord Shiva seated with Goddess Uma (Uma-Maheshwara) from Chamba, Himachal Pradesh; dated 10th Century.

The Future 

Jadish Mittal’s life has been a smorgasbord of rich experiences, making him almost a sage in his field today, one of the last few remaining men of his cabal. Reminiscing about the past he recounts how one of his most memorable experiences was meeting the Islamic scholar Anna Marie Schimmel, “I was a great admirer of her books on Islamic calligraphy and literature. Meeting her was an experience I remember till this day. She visited my collection and later we attended a wonderful Sufi night at the Qutub Shahi Tombs. She could recite the Quran by heart, and her gift for Islamic literature one day saved her from being attacked by a mob in Turkey who were on a rampage. She simply began reciting holy verses and had the crowds bow down before her, calling her a farishta.” 

marvellous creation: One of Jagdish Mittal’s favourite pieces from his collection. A 30 ft long scroll paintng on cloth from Cheriyal, detail from a Markanedeya and Bhavna Rishi legend, dated 1625marvellous creation: One of Jagdish Mittal’s favourite pieces from his collection. A 30 ft long scroll paintng on cloth from Cheriyal, detail from a Markanedeya and Bhavna Rishi legend, dated 1625


What of his favourite object among this expansive collection of treasures? “That’s also been one of my cheapest buys,” confesses Mittal, “Two beggars one day came with this scroll with a shrine on top of it. They were made in the village of Cheriyal in Andhra Pradesh and were on textile. The fine quality of artisanship attracted me to them. Over 30 feet long and three feet wide they depicted stories about certain cast groups, weavers, shepherds, their Mahabharata story, Viraj Pal, Markande Bhawna, Rishi Puraan. Each story was painted as the stories were narrated, one today, one another. Believing that the scrolls lost their divinity as time passed they were then drowned in water. I bought this scroll for Rs 500 back then. Today it can buy me another house.” Plans for shifting much of Mittal’s art to its own building are underway and the collection that has become the envy of royals, art historians and collectors from all over the world will hopefully soon have its separate museum building where the public can one day visit to learn about our country’s rich artistic and cultural past. 

A ceremonial copper plate from the Quli Qutub Shah period (1600). The beasts on it are inspired by different schools of art, and the Chinese dragon influenced by the Chinese art of that timeA ceremonial copper plate from the Quli Qutub Shah period (1600). The beasts on it are inspired by different schools of art, and the Chinese dragon influenced by the Chinese art of that time

Rumours of a documentary on his life, being filmed by the MET, are quickly brushed aside, “I never let them make a documentary,” says Mittal, adding, “The time it would take to make a film I can write two books instead.” In the meantime, Mittal’s grandson, Naveen manages his Trust as the CEO, often doubling as a watchful caretaker to his legendary grandfather.  “I write books and print catalogues of the collection in order to spread the knowledge and secure the art,” confesses Mittal, who has been a widower for the past two years ever since Kamla passed away. “She had a fall one day and broke her hip. We were together for 70 years. It’s been a great journey, when I look back now, and I hope I can somehow share what I’ve learned over all these years with more people,” Mittal concludes. 



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