The Bombay Art Society and the Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy School of Art can be said to be the two most important art institutions of the city before the first galleries came along. Neither can be said to have played a stellar role in the development of the Progressives or the Bombay School, two of the movements that had the greatest impact on the art life of the nation. In fact, both institutions seemed to have been prototypically, stereotypically averse to change and although many of the members of the Bombay Art Society were people who supported these very movements outside, they seemed incapable of providing a space within the institution for the new ways of painting that were being tried out.

And all this began in 1851 with that peculiarly Victorian idea, the Great Exhibition. It was perhaps a part of the larger European idea that things could only get better from now on, since Science was going to conquer Nature (and perhaps even Man’s Nature), and that if the Common Man could be made to see these wonders, his gaze would be elevated above the mundane and he would begin to see glorious vistas of possibility. In order to do this, he would need to be offered some measure of beauty and that was where the arts and crafts came in.

Those Indians who did get to England to see The Great Exhibition of 1851 were impressed by the vastness of the human enterprise and how much the ‘poor, bare, forked animal’ was getting done in various parts of the world. Amongst them was Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy, a great Bombay merchant and philanthropist. (In her entertaining City of Gold: The Biography of Bombay, Gillian Tindall says that there were ‘murmurs’ that Sir JJ’s father’s name was Bottlewalla because he was a dealer in empty bottles. It is tempting to suggest that this is the blood in Kekoo Gandhy’s veins for his mother was a Bottlewalla, as we shall see.)

Sir Jamsetjee came back with a dream. He wrote a letter to the Directors of the East India Company in May 1853, offering a donation of a hundred thousand rupees to start an Art Instruction School. For its part, the company had to provide the land and bring masters out from England. This seemed to have found favour with the directors. Perhaps they thought this might lead to the creation of an artistic (or artisanal), ‘class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste...’

Such art workers could serve the Company’s larger interests which were strictly commercial. Instead of just sending out raw material and unfinished products, perhaps they thought they might be able to sell the world some finished goods as well. Of this instinct was born the terms Bombay pottery and Bombay woodwork. (There are magnificent samples of both to be seen in the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum in the grounds of the Rani Baug.)

Oddly, the Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy School of Art began with drawing classes at the Elphinstone Institution commencing in March 1857. A Mr Peyton was hired to instruct such ‘natives’ as wanted to be instructed in drawing, although this was probably more likely to be copying from models. Then a Mr Terry took over. The school expanded and the Elphinstone Institution was probably over-run.

Sir Jamsetjee stepped in and offered his own home on Abdul Rahman Street. Three ateliers were established: decorative painting, sculpture and artistic metalwork (wrought iron work). The ateliers were headed by three English masters: Mr Higgins, John Griffiths and Lockwood Kipling (the father of Rudyard Kipling who would give us that memorable phrase, ‘The White Man’s Burden’ and would call us ‘half devil and half child’).

But 1857 was a watershed year in many ways. This was the year that was marked by the First War of Independence, which also ended the hegemony of the East India Company. Bloody battles erupted across North India and when it was all over, the Crown took over and the economic encounter turned into a colonial enterprise, with all the attendant doublespeak and hypocrisy of the time. The move heralded a series of changes. To begin with the British could no longer hide behind the profit motive as a Board of Directors could. This was the Crown, this was part of the British Empire and some attempt had to be made to whitewash the encounter. It was necessary to create a myth that would cover the reality of this economic and cultural exploitation.

Rudyard Kipling, born in Bombay, in love with India all his life, willingly obliged with the Recessional, a poem sonorous with false humility. In order to make this myth palpable, the cities of the empire began to throw up buildings that were intended to demonstrate that the White Man was willing to shoulder his burden ad infinitum. Three universities were established with suitably magnificent buildings: Bombay, Calcutta and Madras, all in 1857. The magnificence of the architecture of the period was a political statement; the buildings were intended to demonstrate to the natives that the Raj was there to stay.

These buildings needed decoration and the rise of what was once known as the Indo-Saracenic, or Bombay Gothic, in today’s jargon, was part of that enterprise. When you go to look at what was called Victoria Terminus and is now Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus, you can see what these two moments combined to create. There is a genius to the whole of it that defies description. There are the standard heraldic animals of the European imagination, the lion and the tiger. There are the goddesses in fluttery finery that hold up torches and suchlike. But there are also peacocks in full strut, and jackals and foxes and monkeys all gesturing backwards to the Panchatantra and the Jataka.

Look at the Rajabai Clock Tower, funded by another merchant prince, Premchand Roychand, and named after his mother. Roychand (1831-1906) was twice kingly; he was known as the Cotton King and the Bullion King. He was also the founder of the Bombay Stock Exchange. The outline of the clock tower looks like it was built for a European landscape but now look at the statuary, the men from different communities standing guard on the tower, each in a different community outfit. The architecture was hybrid, drawing from East and West; the detailing and ornament was local but the scale of the enterprise was colonial. It should come as no surprise then that students of the JJ were commissioned to paint the dome of the Secretariat in 1929, under the guidance of Gladstone Solomon.

And therein lies the rub. This is the native artisan in the service of the Raj. This is the genius of India made subservient to the products and processes of the West. It is wonderfully ornamental. It works not on the individual level but as a whole, because it is so out of proportion to the world around it. This is not to say that the school itself was wrong or flawed. You judge a school by its pupils, although in that time, it seems to have been more common to judge a school by what it rejected. Many of the artists whose works are now declared national treasures got their start at the Sir JJ School of Art. Some interesting work did get done.

For good or bad, in the early period, the principal was always an Englishman. And in the way of these things, each new principal moved the school in a new direction. Sir John Griffiths joined the JJ in 1868, became the principal in 1880 and worked there till 1884. He saved Ajanta for us. Even as we speak, hundreds of tourists are walking around those caves, breathing and oxidizing the fragile paint on the walls of those caves. You don’t need an appointment, you don’t have to wait, you just have to show up. The guides tell you that it is not a good idea to shine torches on the paintings as they will degenerate. Then in order to pick out how the light reflects from the pearls around a maiden’s neck, they will shine torches at the same walls. Meanwhile, selfie flashes abound. There are hundreds of young Indians who have gone up to the caves and left evidence that Rahul loves Preeti.

Griffiths was one of those men who saw the magic of those caves. Today, that would seem self-evident but not at his time. Europeans did not see this as art. The Portuguese used Elephanta as a shooting gallery, probably appalled at the many-armed gods and goddesses they saw. The British wanted to dismantle the Taj Mahal and auction it; they started with a jharokha from the Red Fort and when that didn’t get any takers, they abandoned the plan and let the Taj Mahal languish.

Griffiths was different. He undertook the monumental work of executing facsimile copies of the frescoes in the Ajanta Caves. With a team of art school students and teachers, Griffiths worked in the caves from 1872 to 1884 and completed the work. He even hoped that the students would be drawn to paint in that manner. He wrote, ‘One of the most curious and interesting of my experiences was the initiation of Hindu, Parsi and Goanese [sic] students into the mysteries of an art still congenial to the Oriental temperament and hand – I am persuaded that no European, no matter how skillful, could have so completely caught the spirit of the originals.’

Writing in December 1998, Professor Baburao Sadwelkar says somewhat sadly, ‘However, none of the artists of that period were drawn to the aesthetics of Ajanta but aspired to master the Western techniques of illusionistic realism.’

Precisely. Many might have been able to see what could be done but might have lacked the bravery to do it. To reclaim and reuse a past requires a sense of ownership. You must have a place on which to stand and a paintbrush long enough to be able to shift the art world to include you and your sense of what art is. In the colonised world where the buyer was white or part of a comprador class, it would be difficult to imagine a painter who could magick this sense of entitlement into being.

I like to think there were. I like to think we will one day discover someone who went down to Ajanta and painstakingly made his copies but came back and incubated what he saw and recreated his own world in painting. The only problem with this dream is that this is Bombay and we recycle everything. There are no attics in which forgotten paintings may be lurking. They have been turned into living spaces and the contents sold to the raddiwala.

The reason we have so little of our silent cinema left to us is because the film was looted for its silver content and then turned into bangles. This may be non-attachment as the philosopher preached or an excess of it. And finally, when your school is a colonial enterprise, when your history and your aesthetic are supposed to service the White Man and your skill must be turned into bulwarks against the identity that you are trying to birth, how can you position yourself in order to reclaim a past for another man’s tomorrow?

Citizen Gallery: The Gandhys of Chemould and the Birth of Modern Art in Bombay

Excerpted with permission from Citizen Gallery: The Gandhys of Chemould and the Birth of Modern Art in Bombay, Jerry Pinto, Speaking Tiger Books.