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Paintings on Glass - Spiritual and Secular

Painting on glass became popular in India in the 19th century. Expressive and lively, the paintings are distinct in style and require a certain amount of skill and effort to paint.

Glass paintings are the pictures drawn and painted on transparent glass sheets and framed with the unpainted side upper most, so that the painting is visible through the glass. It is not quite possible to determine or establish the origin of this craft in India. One may conjecture that certain European painters who were proficient in this technique were working in our country. However, glass painting became popular and widespread only during the 19th century.

Glass painting can be considered a middleclass or popular art though strangely and like most art forms it originated with rulers. In fact one may suggest that it is the rulers who were generally the innovators of taste, who were quick to assimilate or imitate fashions and styles outside conventional usage. They also patronized foreign talent. In fact a number of European painters were working in India in the 18th century and their work was acquired not only by foreigners but also by Indian rulers.

Glass painting became popular with the masses, as it was quite inexpensive. These pictures began to be hung on walls. The paintings made rulers ( Tipu Sultan collections in Mysore and at Satara and Kutch are some examples) are mainly portraits of the aristocrats and their friends or of their mistresses and dancing girls. These were distinct in style and character and probably painted by foreign artists. A few glass paintings may have been imported. The pictures on glass painted for the middle class are all by Indian painters and are mainly of deities. They began to be made in the south and west of the country, but gradually spread to other parts.

The study of glass painting can be divided into two broad categories. One comparatively courtly and the other folk. The majority of works are on religious themes, others are portraits or of secular subject. Some are entirely decorative consisting of floral designs.

Painting on glass necessitates a different procedure from painting on paper or on solid opaque surfaces like wood. The picture which is generally colored in tempera ( non-transparent colored often thickened with white) is begun first with the brush lines and details, which will when finished appear uppermost. Than the larger areas of colour are brushed in; these are generally flat except for the face and body, or drapery where a fullness is achieved by shading. The “ shading” is really a kind of modeling with a smoth gradation of colour which shows the roundness of forms and is not related to light and shade. Thus the usual painting process is reversed; details especially the finishing lines are made first and the large areas of colour afterwards. Gold leaf, small sequins and other shining particles are used to imitate jewellery. Sometimes portions of the picture are mirrored with mercury. In some places metal foil or gold paper is fixed behind the picture left bare are seen as gold. The picture is then mounted with its unpainted side foremost, so that it is seen through the glass. The technique requires a certain amount of skill and can be quite laborious.

The glass painting style is an amalgam of the old and the popular. Though we may consider the works “traditional” because they adhere to patterns and iconography, which were accepted by both patrons and artists, they are also innovative depending on the freedom exercised by artists with varying gifts.

The compositions are generally small in size and crowded with space- filling motifs and figures. The drawing is characteristically bold and vigorous. Among typical folk features may be mentioned the great clarity of conception and the bias toward frontality and symmetry. There is also a love of decoration with the tendency to fill up empty spaces and a striving for rhythm though repetition. Dots, lines and patterns contribute to the creation of texture. The colouring is most often rich and varied. In the more archaic pieces there is an emphasis on forntality, on the use of relative size (the important figures are larger) and the heads and eyes are proportionately large.

Indian glass painting is at once highly eclectic and robustly native. Though we may find the language of these pictures limited we have to admit that it is expressive, lively and intelligible. The class for whom they were created was interested primarily in the subject; secondly they wanted something splendid they wanted something splendid and shining, an art that could be displayed. Above all, the pictures of the gods were auspicious and their effect magical.

Although a few glass paintings continue to be made they are generally very debased and crude. Their decline in popularity may be attributed to the arrival of printed pictures, which are comparatively cheap and less fragile.

The traditional glass painting, now a coveted and some what saleable commodity in the antique market, has not received a suitable place in the collection of Indian museums. It is not unlikely that in times to come, there may be fewer specimens left then for research students. The principal source of difficulty with regard to these paintings is its fragile nature and the problem of preserving the coating of paint on it. I am quite pessimistic as to the survival of this unique craft which is already on the verge to extinction.

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