Letter from New Delhi
at 5:42pm on 16th July 2015


Springtime in New Delhi is marked by fine and clear warm days and evenings with occasional showers of rain bringing a breath of freshness to the air and briefly dampening down the dust.  It is also a time of waiting for the monsoon to break.  In the Indian countryside this is something that is eagerly awaited because it is the lifeblood of Asia’s third largest economy and the thing that drives the summer planting season or Kharif which accounts for nearly half the country’s annual food production.  But in the city it is also anticipated with some trepidation, as it is also a time of searing heat, torrential downpours and intense humidity.

It is still not yet too hot to visit the splendid Mughal period monuments such as the Red Fort, which was the residence and seat of the Mughal emperors until 1857 when it was taken by the British, or the spectacular Qutab Minar with its beautifully preserved soaring 73 metre high tower and the remains of the exquisite Quwwatul Islam mosque.  Humayun’s Tomb was begun in 1565 and its design later inspired the construction of the more famous Taj Mahal.  The mausoleum has recently undergone a six year restoration and the result is a jewel of Mughal architecture in red sandstone and white marble set at the centre of formal gardens with wide paths and channels of running water at each quadrilateral axis.  The mausoleum itself is the centerpiece of a complex of other mausoleums and gardens all of which have also been restored.

The architectural works of the British are also worth seeing in particular the sprawling complex of official buildings on Raisina Hill.  The most important of these, the Rashtrapati Bhavan or Presidential Palace was built in 1912 by Edwin Lutyens as a palace for the Viceroy of India.  For the most part it is off-limits to visitors, but its facade can be glimpsed in the distance through a pair of beautiful filigree iron gates that help to give the whole ensemble something of a fairytale air.  It is approached via the Rajpath, a wide mall flanked on either side by the symmetrical blocks of the North and South Secretariat buildings that were designed by Lutyens’ colleague and rival Herbert Baker.  These are grandly classical buildings with generous borrowings from a variety of styles including Roman temple architecture.  However, there is little that is distinctively Indian about them, other than elephant corbels supporting the central domes and the use of local red sandstone in the lower registers.

Other palaces were built at around the same time to serve as the official residences of the head of each of the former princely states.  The palace of the Maharajas of Jaipur is now a part the National Gallery of Modern Art which houses a fine collection of works that document the development of modern art in India from 1850 onwards although the collection is rather sparse in parts.  It also hosts a very good program of temporary exhibitions.  In the new wing an exhibition titled “Transfigurations: The Sculpture of Mrinalini Mukherjee” showcases five decade of the artist’s work in fibre, ceramics and bronze.  Her works have a commanding presence capable of eliciting a range of strong emotions.  Her sculpture in tightly knotted, organically dyed hemp titled “Aranyani” takes on its own form when draped over a simple armature and evokes the brooding presence of a Samurai lord.  Other works, in bronze, are more vegetal in form and suggest some sort of alien menace.  Sadly, the artist passed away, aged just 65 years, within a few days of the exhibition opening. The exhibition is a fitting tribute to an artist at the height of her powers.

An exhibition at the commercial gallery Nature Motre showcases the work of the Pakistani artist couple Imran Qureshi and Aisha Khalid. Qureshi is an outstanding miniature painter, but he is perhaps is best known for his large scale installations where at first glance you might be mistaken into thinking that what you are seeing is the result of some particularly horrific bloodbath as vast tracts of space are smeared and splattered with pigment that looks for all the world as if it is dried blood – thin and watery in parts and thick and dark were it has pooled – but which then on closer observation resolves itself as a field of exquisitely painted flowers.  For his exhibition in Delhi he showed a range of canvases and works on gold leaf and a site specific work that appeared to depict a splatter of blood which began on a sheet of paper suspended from the ceiling and which then continued to drip down onto the floor and run down a short flight of stairs.  His ability to take you on an emotional rollercoaster – from abhorrence of the violence that these works appear to depict to the joy of an unexpected encounter with true beauty – marks him as a major talent.  Aisha Khalid also works as a miniature painter and in mixed media and likewise makes work that can be unsettling.  In one room a pair of her works were exhibited slung from the ceiling.  From the front these appeared to be embroidered prayer rugs but were then seen from the back to be comprised of thousands of long bright sharp new pins.

The National Crafts Museum may be a little tired in places but it still has an exceptional collection of textiles from every region of India including some particularly fine pieces that are up to 300 years old.  It’s restaurant Café Lota is a popular attraction in itself for its home-style cooking and regional specialties and the waiting time of more than an hour presents a great opportunity for viewing the museum.   

For those with an interest in contemporary textiles the Devi Art Foundation in the satellite city of Gurgaon is about an hour away.  It may however take longer, as Gurgaon is an urban planning disaster and finding anything, even something as distinctive as the building that houses India’s first private contemporary art museum, can be difficult.  The building has a striking cor-ten steel façade and cantilevered brick columns defining a central courtyard with the gallery spaces occupying large parts of both the left and right wings.  The current exhibition, titled “Fracture: Indian Textiles, New Conversations” is the result of an exhaustive process that began with a call for proposals and with the exhibition’s three curators working very closely with artists, designers and other creative professionals and the master-craftsmen and artisans who were then able to realize these creative ideas.  Textiles are India’s most prominent artform and this exhibition shows to breathtaking effect what can happen when honoured traditions meet creative innovation.

Jonathan Thomson’s visit to Delhi was supported by the Saat Saath Art Foundation’s International Curators’ Program