Olivia Fraser's Painting Exhibition – Delhi Through Firangi Eyes

Delhi in Lonely Planet-style exotica that only a westerner could have portrayed.

[By Mayank Austen Soofi]

Olivia Fraser must be a happy artist. She has retained her identity in spite of being the wife of a superstar author. Most of the people accidentally stumbling (as this reviewer discovered) into her art exhibition at New Delhi’s Triveni Kala Sangam art gallery were unaware of her or her connections to William Dalrymple. The couple is originally from Scotland, but spends a good time of the year in Delhi.

Shockingly, a few had no idea of even Mr. Dalrymple. Ms. Aanchal Kataria, a young student from Indraprastha College, had never heard of Mr. Dalrymple’s classic City of Djinns, a book which carried prints of Mrs. Fraser’s sketches of everyday life in Delhi. Some of those drawings were included in the exhibition.

The watercolor paintings trace their origin to the early 90s when Mrs. Fraser first started living in the capital. While her husband gathered anecdotes for his book, she did explorations of her own. An excerpt from City of Djinns makes it clearer:

“It was now cool enough for Olivia to go out painting in the mornings. Everyday she would get up at eight and disappear with her brushes and her watercolours. She had given up her place at art school to come out to Delhi and was determined to make the most of the opportunity. For the rest of the cold season she toured Old Delhi’s kuchas and muhallas sketching the people, the buildings and the ruins. Some day she would not return until dusk.”

Watching the fascinated expressions on the faces of the gallery visitors, her outings were not in vain. “The details are good. She has finely captured the street scenes of Delhi, its culture and its grand Mughal architecture. These are things we Delhites do not usually notice.” Ms. Kataria said.

But were the illustrations real or merely romantic?

Mrs. Fraser has painted Delhi in Lonely Planet-style exotica that only a westerner could have noticed – a carefully decorated Hindu holy Cow, a mahout sitting serenely on his elephant, a cowherd playing a flute in a verdant ground, a boy flying a kite, a man attending to his pigeons, and a Bollywood actress dancing between Palm trees. Fine portrayals, but clichéd and disconcertingly similar to Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution posters – clean, idealistic, and unreal.

Additionally, there were glimpses of imposing forts and domes, peaceful households (mother with the baby, father selling spices) and oriental scenes (Rajputs in turbans, Gujjar tribesmen in dhotis). The people looked content in their appointed places, resigned to the limitations of their caste, tribe, and gender.

This depiction is not true. Delhi, or for that matter India, is a place where people are impatient, angry, and seething with rage. There are a thousand mutinies underway in roadsides and slums. This truth, however, is absent in Mrs. Fraser’s world-bubble, which is suffused with a calm, karmic acceptance of one’s predestined fate, blissfully ignorant of the conflicts and struggles of everyday living.

One painting of Mrs. Fraser, Delhi Panorama, deserves a special mention. It has gods of various religions illustrated next to each other (relax; there is no Muhammad’s illustration, only Kaaba). This is ironic considering she is portraying a society where inter-religious riots are frequent, and at times socially acceptable.

Still it must be said that though the artist’s utopian reality was unconvincing, her intentions sparkled in their sincerity. The figures were enchanting, the details accurate, the strokes credible, and the colours sober. Nonetheless it was difficult to ignore that the collection betrayed the dismal authenticity of the outside world, and yet, such willful escapism could not be the reason to dismiss the compositions. Mrs. Fraser’s interpretations of this great city were inspired from real-world observations. These were her eye-views. They had to be noticed.

The Art Gallery – Triveni Kala Sangam
(Titles are within the brackets)

The Exotic View – A Mahout (Elephant)

The Exotic View – A Holy Cow (Holy Cow)

The Exotic View – A Pigeon Player (Kabutar Bazi)

The Happy India – A Bollywood Babe* (Bollywood Babe)

*Notice the gods on top. (Is Bollywood secular?)

The Happy India – Mother Indias (Rice Pickers)

The Happy India – Household Harmony (Mandu High Street)

Every Caste Has a Place – The Rajputs of Delhi (Rajputs)

Every Caste Has a Place – The Gujjars of Delhi (Gujjars)

The Congress Wallas of Delhi* (Congress Men)

*The picture is idealistic but the modern-day Congresswallas are some of the most corrupt politicians.

The Card Players of Delhi (The Card Players)

The Delhi Panorama – Co-existing with Gods (Delhi Panorama)

Tombs and Domes – The Jama Masjid of Delhi

Tombs and Domes – Humayun Tomb

Tombs and Domes – Entrance to Mohammed Ibn Tughluq’s Tomb

Dhobis – The Washermen of Delhi (The Dhobis)

The Content Cowherd (The Song of the Flute)

The Visitors