It’s a serene afternoon at Udaipur’s Lake Pichola. The white Mohan Mandir memorial stands tall, its domed balconies reflected in the sunlit waters. And there she is, the young, bare-chested nautch girl, balancing a copper pitcher on her head.

This vision from a January day in 1893 captured the imagination of Edwin Lord Weeks, an American painter who featured her in four works in a series titled Lake at Oodeypore.

The oil-on-canvas is a highlight of Iconic Masterpieces of Indian Modern Art, an exhibition that opened on February 11, inaugurating DAG’s new space at Windsor Place in Janpath, New Delhi. The two-storey gallery spread across about 6,000 sq feet is twice as large as the old DAG at The Claridges.

“We needed much larger premises for the nature of exhibitions we hold,” says CEO and managing director Ashish Anand. “We are also extremely conscious of the need to provide easy access (to the gallery) in a central location. At Windsor Place, we are close to the city’s historic shopping and dining destinations.”

St Peter by FN Souza; 1960.

Established in 1993 in Delhi, the gallery has built an impressive collection of works over 30 years, acquiring many from artists’ estates. Two other outposts have been opened since, one each in Mumbai and New York City. DAG has collaborated with major museums and the Archaeological Survey of India to present stellar exhibitions too.

Notable among these was the 2022 March to Freedom show, which celebrated 75 years of Indian Independence with a display of over 150 paintings, prints, drawings, sculptures and film posters.

The ongoing exhibition, Iconic Masterpieces…, features 50 rare works that trace evolving Indian art practice from the 18th to the 20th century. Alongside works by artists such as Weeks are paintings by masters like FN Souza, Amrita Sher-Gil, Nandalal Bose and Raja Ravi Varma.

The Ravi Varma is an 1870 oil painting titled Kizhakke Palat Krishna Menon & Family. It is said to be the artist’s first commissioned work. While in Calicut (present-day Kozhikode), Ravi Varma met Menon, a sub-judge at the court of Mangalore, who commissioned him to paint a portrait of his family. The result is this distinctive, authentic, detailed oil-on-canvas.

A 1940 plaster-of-Paris depiction of two tigers, the only known sculpture by Amrita Sher-Gil.
A 1940 plaster-of-Paris depiction of two tigers, the only known sculpture by Amrita Sher-Gil.

The rare Sher-Gil on display, meanwhile, is not a painting but a 1940 untitled plaster-of-Paris sculpture, the only known sculpture by the artist. It depicts two tigers and was made when Sher-Gil lived in Saraya, Uttar Pradesh, with her doctor husband Victor Egan. Saraya was home to a large tiger population then and this work, experts believe, could be a result of Sher-Gil’s frequent sightings of the animal while on hunting trips with Egan.

Souza’s 1960 oil painting, St Peter, is on display. It is regarded as one of the Catholic-born artist’s most striking works. Unlike his darker paintings, which acted as commentary on hypocrisy in the clergy and corruption among the rich, this depicts a simply clad apostle, serene and peacable, with neither the grand vestments that Souza disliked nor the terrible pain and sacrifice Souza would depict in his works themed on the birthing of Christianity. The use of green and red indicate a spirit of celebration; the brown of St Peter’s face reflects Souza’s resistance to the white hegemony inherent in traditional Western depictions of Christ and the apostles.

Look out also for a dramatic hunting scene painted in oil colours by English landscape artist Thomas Daniell. The 1802 work depicts a deer caught midstream by three hunting dogs as hunters wait on the riverbank, hiding behind trees and boulders. One of the men has an arm aloft, as if to restrain a companion, conscious that the dogs are in the line of fire. The hunter on the right has a clearer shot and has raised his gun to fire. It’s a masterful illustration of fluid motion captured on still canvas.

Iconic Masterpieces… is on display at DAG’s new space until March 26. In April, it will travel to the DAG Mumbai at the Taj Mahal Palace hotel. “We want to continue sharing the best Indian art with our viewers,” Anand says, “and hope to curate shows that tell us how to look at art from different perspectives.”

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