Some lesser known aspects of bilateral relations in the arts


The interaction between Germany and India in the field of the visual arts has, to a large extent, been through indirect contacts, for example through the Jesuit priests who brought illustrated Bibles to the Moghul court, or the fascination of the exotic in Germany.

Akbar and the Discourse on Religions

The most tangible outcome of the centuries-old exchange of ideas and artistic representation could be seen in Moghul miniatures. Since Emperor Akbar himself was personally interested in the visual expressions of various religions, and he invited experts belonging to the various major religions to his court for deliberations. Jesuit priests, Brahmins, Islamic clerics, Sufis, Jaina monks and members of other faiths were honoured guests at the imperial court. That is how paintings with Christian motifs, such as Madonna and Jesus, birth of Christ, Jesuit priests, angels and cherubs started to become an inherent part of the repertoire of the artists’ studios at the Imperial court. The motifs were perfectly integrated into the style and ethos of Mughal miniatures and quickly became the general visual vocabulary of the painters at the Imperial as well as the provincial Moghul and Rajput courts, and got proliferated swiftly also in the public sphere.

A miniature stage of gold and enamel work entitled “Emperor Aurangzeb's Darbar on his birthday” in Dresden
A miniature stage of gold and enamel work entitled “Emperor Aurangzeb's Darbar on his birthday” in Dresden© Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden
The Darbar of Aurangzeb of August the Strong of Saxony

One of the most spectacular pieces visualising the splendour of the legendary Indian emperors rendered with German artistic skills is the precious object in the Green Vaults, a collection of rare objects in Dresden. It is a large piece of gold and enamel work consisting of about 135 figures, animals, carriages, pavilions, entitled “Emperors Aurangzeb's Darbar on his birthday”. This precious object was commissioned by August the Strong (1670-1733), Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, and created by the famed goldsmith masters, the Dinglinger brothers between 1700 and 1708.

Lithography and Prints “Made in Germany”

Lithography, invented by Alois Senefelder in 1797, is a process of making a print by using greasy ink on a lime stone tablet which has been treated to accept the ink only where it is required for printing. The German technique of lithography and oleography took immediate roots in India, where images of gods, goddesses and mythological figures were mass-produced and made easily available to a larger and general public. This democratisation of the image in India greatly influenced the processes of social change, modes of governance, and spread of the new commodity culture. It also came handy for the propagation of the ideas of the Indian nationalist and freedom struggle.

Originally Indian artists and traders got their chromo-lithographs and oleographs printed in Germany. Saxony was one of the major centres of its manufacture. Eventually some enterprising Indians set up their own litho presses employing German inks, machines and technicians. One such press was the “Fine Art & Litho Press”, set up by the renowned Indian artist Raja Ravi Varma, who not only imported German machines, but also employed a German master lithographer, Fritz Schleicher, and his assistant P. Gerhard. Schleicher arrived in India in early 1894 and supervised the press for decades, even after Ravi Varma's death in 1905. However, other artists of the early twentieth century, such as Bamapada Banerjea, who was active in the 1920s and 1930s in Kolkata; V.S. Pandya and Chonkar, both working in Mumbai and Gujarat, continued to get chromo-lithographs of their works printed in Germany on account of their superior quality of colour registration and paper.

A German Painter in Indian royal Service: Archibald Müller

Born in Cochin of a German missionary father in 1878, Archibald Müller became one of the most impressive painters of his times. Müller went to the Madras Art School, then briefly worked as an assistant in his brother’s photographic studio in Madras. In 1910 he won the Bombay Art Society’s top award with a painting entitled “Princess Giving a Gift to a Brahmin Boy”, a work inspired by Ravi Varma’s famous painting on a similar theme of donation to a Hindu priest. Müller’s painting is done in the style of academy-trained quasi-realistic romantic sensibility, which appealed to the Westeners and the Indian elite. He responded to the nationalists’ liking for Hindu epics and painting many of these mythological and historical narratives. Müller was a master in depicting the human form in its naturalism in such paintings as Ganga's Descent into Patala, or Shakuntala at Dushyanta’s Court. Müller’s talent and mastership was widely appreciated, but maybe because of his non-compromising character never had a steady employment, and therefore always short of money. He took up employment under the Maharaja of Bikaner in 1922, for painterly recording the hunting trips of the ruler. Although he left quite a bulk of work behind at the royal court of Bikaner, which are now displayed in the Ganga Singh Jubilee Museum, he abruptly left the royal service, due to differences of opinion, and came back to Bombay. Late in life he married his young nice. Since he had to support a family now, he was compelled to again take up employment – this time with the ruler of Jodhpur. Müller died in 1955.

German painters of the 20th century and Indian theosophical ideas

Cultural, and specifically artistic, influences and interactions have never been a one-way process. Indian philosophical and religious scriptures, more concretely some ideas of Indian spiritualism and theosophy, have deeply influenced many German painters or belonging to German artists' groups active in the beginning of the 20th century, such as Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938), Max Beckmann (1884-1950), Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980), just to name a few.

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