‘Craft Traditions in Nineteenth-Century India’ is an upcoming exhibition at Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena in California.
The exhibition offers to visitors, a rich insight into the art history of India and Southeast Asia with an impression of stone sculptures, metal shrines, painted textiles, manuscripts and so-called “miniatures” from the region. The notable point is that a majority of the works on display at the exhibition were created for commercial purposes. The exhibition will explore the historical sources and practices that informed the production of ceramics and wood furniture in colonial India. It also reveals the distinctly modern modes of promotion and distribution that were used to generate demand for them.
The ceramic vessels in the exhibition reveal points of connection — and tension — between established Indian art forms and the commercial ambitions of colonial administrators and Indian artists trying to find new buyers for their work.
The unembellished earthenware cups and bowls from India were regarded as a disposable alternative to metal utensils. Again, the glazed ceramics produced in South Asia were tiles used to adorn mosques or tombs. Demand for them tapered as the number of Indian patrons who could fund such architectural projects waned. The city of Multan, in what is now Pakistan, was once a center for the production of blue and white architectural tiles.
The blue and white decoration of an ornamental vase, created around 1880, exemplifies the palette and style of floral decoration that characterizes Multan tile, whereas the vessel’s shape and size correspond with the new forms produced for European buyers. During the 1880s and 1890s, under the auspices of colonial schools of art and independent commercial ventures, artisans produced richly carved wood furniture that incorporated designs from the pierced stone screens, brackets and other architectural features of extant Indian monuments.
While the objects featured in this exhibition represent forms of artistic production that proved economically unsustainable in the long run, they remain compelling examples of the ways in which artists and colonial administrators tried to imagine a role for Indian craftsmanship in the everyday lives of buyers worldwide.