Hugely successful in the early 20th century, M.V. Dhurandhar is these days a forgotten figure. This may be as much the result of his position as a member of the colonial establishment as his academic style, which fell out of favour with the advent of Indian modernism. But art historian Suhas Bahulkar—curator of M V Dhurandhar: The Romantic Realist, a retrospective on display at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai—believes it’s time we took another look at his legacy.
Dhurandhar certainly paid his dues as a loyal servant of the Raj. He served under various British principals of the Sir JJ School of Art for 41 years. He painted the King and Queen receiving obeisance from their Indian subjects and decorated the Imperial Secretariat with busy murals representing the laws of the land. Even his gods and goddesses can sometimes seem suspiciously western in their features, more posh than Puranic.
Bahulkar, however, sees Dhurandhar as a key member of the Bombay School, the realist painters who were Raja Ravi Varma’s contemporaries and successors. The NGMA retrospective is part of his mission to document the school’s role in the history of modern Indian art. It begins with Dhurandhar the portraitist and history painter, proceeding from his portrayals of the Maratha past to his narratives from mythology.
Ascending the gallery’s levels, the exhibition delves into lesser-known aspects of his art. Dhurandhar’s sketches, especially, uncover a human side to the artist. Many of them were made during his travels across the Bombay Presidency as an inspector of drawing. Others, compiled in a volume awkwardly titled ‘My Wife in Art’, depict his conjugal life. His first wife Bapubai died of the plague, and the book has a tenderly rendered watercolour of her lifeless body that he made at her deathbed. There’s a quaint domestic eroticism to his sketches of his second wife Gangubai, a stocky, saree-swaddled figure, who is often seen sleeping face down.
Dhurandhar’s eye for the world around him is also evident in his commercial work. M V Dhurandhar: The Artist as Chronicler, a parallel exhibition at the Bhau Daji Lad Museum, displays his talents as a pioneering illustrator. Breaking boundaries between high and low, Dhurandhar took his art to the masses through his posters, magazine and book illustrations. His postcards are miniature comic gems that take us people-watching in old Bombay. Here, the colonial artist reveals himself to be a sharp social observer who reaches out to us with his love for the city and its people. —Rajesh Devraj
Clockwise fromtop: Scene of Hindu marriage ceremony; A Bombay Prabhu Lady; The Potter