One sweltering summer in the mid-1980s, two German backpackers were compelled to stop over in Jodhpur in order to purchase rail tickets to Bikaner. To pass the time as they waited for their train, the travellers set about exploring the city’s built heritage. The Umaid Bhawan Palace made a particular impression on the young men, enough that they set about looking up its architectural and design history, going so far as to write to Maharaja Gaj Singh of Jodhpur to allow them to conduct research on site. In 1989, one of them, Claus-Ullrich Simon, finally obtained an invitation.

The art at the palace included murals and paintings based on Hindu epics and the ruling dynasty’s lore rendered in the European style of the early decades of the 20th century. The artworks were signed by one Stefan Norblin, about whom no further information was available at the time. Recounting his rediscovery of these unique works in a 2015 essay, Simon writes, “All that existed at that point was his name on the paintings and an entry in the Allgemeinen Lexikon der Bildenden Künstler des XX Jahrunderts [Universal Lexicon of the Painters of the Twentieth Century, a standard German reference book]: ‘Stefan Norblin, a Polish painter, lithographer and illustrator. 30.06.1892 in Warsaw, lives abroad.’”

Who was this enigmatic Western artist who decorated and designed for at least three, possibly four, maharajas’ mahals? How did he meld two disparate approaches to artmaking in his unique practice? What does his work tell us about the conversation on modernism in art and architecture developing in 1940s India?

Stefan Norblin. Credit: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

Norblin lived and worked in India from 1941 to 1946, contributing art and design encompassing about 60 monumental murals and oil paintings to the palaces at Jodhpur (and its Sadar Samand hunting lodge), Morvi, Ramgarh Raj and, it is believed, Dhrangadhra. His creations constitute possibly one of India’s most significant corpuses of Art Deco paintings by a single artist, a distinct example of a composite visual form that fused the sleekness and simplicity of that Euro-American style with Indian subjects and compositions.

Juliusz Stefan Norblin de la Gourdaine, a descendant of an 18th century Polish court painter of French origin, was born in 1892 to an eminent Warsaw business family. A sketch of his life is drawn by Dorota Janiszewska-Jakubiak in her essay Stefan Norblin’s Addresses in Warsaw. Norblin studied and exhibited art in western Europe through the 1910s and volunteered as a translator during the Polish-Soviet war of 1920. On his return to his hometown, he achieved renown and success as an illustrator, portraitist, scenographer, art director, costumier, interior decorator and creator of advertisements, posters, leaflets and book covers. Thanks to his family’s profile and his own military service, celebrities from the fields of defence, politics, science and the arts sat for his portraits. At the same time, his work for the theatre, the cabaret, print and commercial distribution was visibly informed by contemporaneous European trends. These two aspects of his practice – his artistic engagement with the social elite and an aesthetic cultivated in the crucible of early 20th century European movements – would later go on to play a role in Norblin’s work in India.

Janiszewska-Jakubiak cites the documentary Stefan Norblin (Robert Ćwikliński, 2007) in which the artist’s son Andrew recalls the story of his parents deciding to leave Poland in September 1939, soon after the Nazis invaded. Norblin’s wife, Lena, looked up from their balcony to see a German war plane strafing towards her, causing her husband to haul her inside. They crossed the border to Romania later that month. Over the next couple of years, they travelled through Turkey and then Iraq, where in 1940, according to Anna Sieradzka in her essay Stefan Norblin: Universal Artist, Norblin received a commission for portraits of the ruling Hashemite family. In another essay, Stefan Norblin, a biography that should be rewritten, Simon points to a letter from “His Royal Highness the Regent” dated March 13, 1941, expressing gratitude to the artist for painting several portraits of the royal family.

The Norblins arrived in India in June 1941 and took up residence at Nepean Sea Road, Bombay. Over the next five years, Norblin created noteworthy interior decor for maharajas. His work complemented the hybrid architectural language in vogue at the time, that curator Amin Jaffer termed “Indo Deco” in his essay by that title. Deco referred to Art Deco, the style that emerged in France in the1920s and went on to dominate interwar Europe and the United States. It was characterised by geometric motifs and a streamlined design, undergirded by a celebration of functional beauty and technological modernity. Norblin had long cultivated a Deco sensibility. Sieradzka discusses the artist’s deployment of the principles of the style in his practice. His posters, Sieradzka observes, comprised a “a flat panel in a contrasting colour, surrounded by a prominent thick border, containing sparse but very legible lettering.” According to her, Norblin’s work drew comparisons to English poster designers such as Aubrey Beardsley (although of the Art Nouveau persuasion, his sinuous, stern-faced figures clearly influenced Norblin’s protagonists), Frank Bagwyn, Fred Taylor and Frank Newbould, as well as French Art Deco illustrators George Lepape or Georges Barbier. Norblin’s professional profile made him a good fit for the kind of artistic culture gaining purchase in India.

By the time Norblin landed in Bombay, the association of Art Deco with cosmopolitan modernity was well-established globally. Jaffer explains that due to their embrace of western culture in the wake of the British Raj and encouraged by education, travel and acquisition of high-end products in Europe, Indian royal families had become champions of modern architecture and design from the West. In particular, Art Deco bespoke a 20th century celebration of glamour and progress, which possibly held appeal for the maharajas looking to position themselves as personalities embodying a new age. The Maharaja of Indore’s Manik Bagh palace designed by the German architect Eckart Muthesius in 1930 and Jodhpur’s Sadar Samand hunting lodge designed by George Goldstraw in 1933 are early examples of this inclination. At the same time, Sieradzka writes, “they [the maharajas] wanted to combine modernity with a note of native exoticism. A simplified design, enriched by use of expressive high-quality materials took on picturesque characteristics when juxtaposed with monumental, colourful murals.”

In 1941, Norblin was commissioned by the Maharaja of Morvi, Gujarat, to decorate his New Palace, reports Piotr Zigmunt Kowalski in his essay Stefan Norblin – A Conformist Precursoring Fusion-Art. Jaffer described the residence as “a carnival of de luxe Art Deco…[in] the style of ocean liners, luxury hotels and cinema interiors of the period.” Two years later, in 1943, Norblin took his talent to the palace of the Maharaja of Ramgarh Raj in Bihar. Simon is of the opinion that this palace was constructed by the firm Modern Homes Ltd, so he might have been hired through their Bombay office. Norblin’s last major project, between 1944 and 1946, was at Rajasthan’s modern Umaid Bhawan Palace, also in the Indo Deco style, and the Sadar Samand hunting lodge nearby.

At Morvi, Norblin made 25 murals and paintings on canvas. Among these were two large-scale works enlivening the bars in the New Palace, one on each of its storeys. The scene in the lower bar featured a group of women dancing in a garden, presumably apsaras who, Kowalski points out, are wearing Art Deco necklaces and “Parisian jazz age” costumes. In his essay The Art of Stefan Norblin in India, Joachim K Bautze suggests this tableau’s affinity with those at the Ajanta caves that Norblin might have viewed (the first volume of archaeologist Ghulam Yazdani’s photographs of the Ajanta caves Colour and Monochrome Reproductions had come out in 1930). In the maharaja’s bedroom was a painting called Shiva and Parvati on Mount Kailas, the classical Uma-Maheshwar type rendered in the Deco style, as evinced by the elongated lines of the protagonists’ forms, Shiva’s geometrical nimbus and the fountain flowing down from his hair in the shape of three concentric arches. Set in the ceiling of the palace’s entrance hall is The heroes of Mahabharata showing Krishna and Arjun dramatically driving a chariot against the backdrop of the sun. The angular bodies, motifs such as sunrays and stylised wings that suggest speed, and flat, poster-like spatial arrangement are typical of the Deco aesthetic.

At the Ramgarh Raj residence, Norblin made eight paintings of Hindu deities and two genre scenes of Indian women, according to Małgorzata Reinhard-Chlanda in her essay Stefan Norblin’s Painting in India. In the catalogue of the 1996 exhibition, Art Deco for the Maharajas: Stefan Norblin in India, ten of these works are listed as “Preserved at the royal family’s Patna residence, Ramgarh House”. However, by the time Simon writes his second essay in 2015, they have been declared lost. One of only two works from this collection reproduced in the 1996 catalogue, Bust of God Shiva, articulates Shiva through both Art Deco and Art Nouveau modes. His pharaonic headdress bespeaks the Egyptomania, which infused the decorative arts following the 1922 opening of Tutankhamen’s Tomb, while his necklace suggests the ornamental excess of Art Nouveau.

It is at Umaid Bhawan Palace that Norblin’s ability to synthesise epic Indian narratives with western representational techniques reached its zenith. In particular, the six large-format murals based on episodes of the Ramayana that he made for the Throne Hall are among the most ambitious of his India works. The faces and forms of the main characters so ingrained in the South Asian imagination are made in the prevailing European manner, while the events are interpreted in a distinctly Deco format and iconography. Apart from the geometric organisation of space, lean figuration and gilded colour scheme, quintessential Deco symbols abound across the series: chevron helmets, zigzag manes and sunburst sigils, for example. Sieradzka comments, “The scenes, inspired mainly by Hindu mythology, but also incorporating genre, zoomorphic and floral themes, skilfully combined characteristics of local Indian art newly discovered by the artist – colourfulness, horror vacui, density of motifs, flatness and linearity – with the style of European Art Deco – synthesis, geometric rhythm, monumentalism, decoration and a refined eroticism which unified the two styles.”

In Umaid Bhawan’s adjacent Sadar Samand hunting lodge, the goddess Durga appears with her tiger and usual accoutrements, albeit attired in what Bautze characterises as “a long dress…that follows the trend of the art deco period”. Sieradzka tells us that Norblin also ended up designing furniture for Umaid Bhawan after the original order from the London store Maple & Co. was lost when the ship transporting them was torpedoed in 1943 by a U-Boat. She goes on to describe them as being “designed in a uniform French-inspired style of luxurious Art Deco with uncrowded placements about the rooms, their lines clean yet not overly geometrically severe, decorative by means of their very shapes accentuated with high-grade materials.”

Reviewing Norblin’s 1944 exhibition at the Sir Cowasji Jehangir Hall (now the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai) in The Times of India, Rudolf von Leyden remarked: “India has not succeeded in brightening up his rather subdued palette.” Norblin’s transcultural experiments took place in a context in which Indian artists were also inventing a modern grammar in the fine and decorative arts. Raja Ravi Varma’s 19th century practice of rendering Hindu deities in the vein of the then-dominant European naturalism anticipates Norblin’s hybrid treatment of the subjects. The Bengal School practitioners of the early 1900s responded to developments to their west and east, and revived pre-colonial forms like the Mughal-style miniatures and Ajanta cave murals, from which Norblin borrowed as well. During his India stint, the Bengal School’s Nandalal Bose and his Santiniketan students worked on a royal commission similar to the Umaid Bhawan one. They created four frescoes at the Kirti Mandir for the Maharaja of Baroda, Partha Mitter informs us in Art and Nationalism in Colonial India: 1850-1922. The lean and long characters of Natir Puja (1943) and dense and dynamic action of Abhimanyu Vadha (1945) bear comparison with Norblin’s Ramayana sequence. It’s also important to keep in mind the colonial politics and orientalist tendencies of Euro-American modern art in general. Norblin’s paintings of white and brown apsaras, for example, sit awkwardly alongside self-portraits by the Indian-Hungarian artist Amrita Sher-Gil who had innovated a modernist vocabulary in the 1930s for depicting the female body marked by racial difference.

In 1946, following their two-year-old son Andrew’s close brush with malaria, the Norblins finally set sail for the United States, writes Simon, summarising the last years of the artist’s life. Settling in San Francisco, Norblin continued to paint portraits but did not ever manage to regain the professional success he had enjoyed in Poland and India. Realising that he was losing his sight, Stefan Norblin killed himself in 1952. At Lena’s deathbed behest, Andrew destroyed most of his father’s works, making his India oeuvre extremely valuable. It wasn’t until Simon’s rediscovery of his palace paintings in the early 1990s, recounted at the beginning of this essay, that interest grew in Norblin’s art.

Over the last fifteen years, since the restoration of the murals at the Umaid Bhawan Palace in 2007 supported by the Polish government, there have been a number of documentaries, permanent installations and exhibitions of Norblin’s works, including a show titled Stefan Norblin 1892-1952: A Master of Many Arts (2011-2012) mounted at Regional Museum of Stalowa Wola and the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi and Mumbai. Norblin’s body of work in India represents a unique compound aesthetic which harnessed the futurism of Art Deco to revitalise ancient Indian mise en scènes. It is a souvenir of an art historical zeitgeist, but one that the traveller left behind for his host to preserve.

Kamayani Sharma is an independent writer, researcher and podcaster based in New Delhi. She is a Kalpalata Fellow in Visual Culture Writing for 2022.