It is spring in Delhi. Brown leaves — that seem to have been shaded by Rembrandt — fall off the peepal trees at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA). Inside the sandstone building, colourful portraits have begun to chatter — about an old story, yellowed by time. The exhibition, “Painted Encounters: Parsi Traders and the Community”, goes back 250 years — an elaborate, extraordinary time travel through images — to reveal men, women and children, their plush drawing rooms and cavernous opium factories, and the ships on which they set sail to Canton in China. There the men sold balls of opium and bales of cotton. They also got their portraits painted — by Chinese, English and unnamed artists.
The works here, startlingly, are not so much about the artists as they are about the sitters. The portraits are not quite about colours and brushwork as they are about the small community of Parsis —what they did, where they traded and how they lived in the 18th and 19th centuries. These paintings demand more from the viewer than a gentle appreciating nod. They require you to step away and prod deeper. Then you see a grand panorama unfurling, you see how these portraits are part of the big picture — of early colonial history; commerce with China, especially opium; the building of the city of Bombay; and the newly acquired love, even fetish, for art among the nouveau riche Parsi businessmen. You have to read these paintings along with nautical maps showing trade routes and ledgers detailing marked-up prices.