Ahmedabad-based gallerist and well-known portrait collector Anil Relia’s dream is to give India a portrait museum. This year, at the Ahmedabad Heritage Festival in November, Relia will be organising more exhibitions covering portraits from various schools of painting. He says, “In all, I have created 10 sets for exhibitions to showcase the history of portraits.” Even as his reputation in the arts business grew, Relia says he never lost his fascination for colours, prints and graphics. “I still explore scrap dealers, junkyards and storerooms in search of prints and pictures that fascinate me. On one such visit in the early-1990s to a scrap seller in my home city, Surat, I saw a fine portrait. I bought the canvas and tried to find out more about the person represented in the portrait. It was a prominent businessman and philanthropist of Surat,” says Relia.
A major in Applied Arts, Serigraphy and Photography from the prestigious Fine Arts Faculty of M S University, Vadodara, Relia started a graphics studio and screen printing unit to make fine art serigraphs soon after his graduation in the 1970s. In order to increase his collection and know what he was buying, Relia connected with the scrap sellers. Most of the times, the scrap dealers would inform him about the portraits that turned up in the scrap. “Once, I ordered a portrait over the phone after agreeing on the price. I got lucky—it was a portrait by Raja Ravi Varma. One day someone sold me a portrait of Dhirubhai Ambani painted by M F Husain. The painter told me it was done with the industrialist sitting for his portraiture. The first few portraits intrigued me.” Relia says he began to realise that portraits in various media were a window into the past and that they show the clothing and headgear of the period, often, with other aspects of the lifestyle and culture of the period through furniture, landscapes, and events depicted in the painting or the photograph. “I also began to enjoy the research and documentation that went into labeling each portrait I had collected, trying to find out more about the person represented and the artist who had created the portrait,” he adds. Over the years, Relia has searched for portraits in Rajasthan and the southern states. The search has yielded a good number of portraits. He says, “In the 1990s, many people were sprucing up their homes and wanted to get rid of ancestral paintings. Some of them had lost the sentiments for an ancestor. Also, as houses were sold, many of the possessions went to scrap, including large portraits. I started collecting portraits at the right time when many lifestyle changes were happening in families.”
Apart from the ancestral portraits, Relia has collected portraits from different Indian art genres and schools of miniature paintings, especially, the Company period paintings, the Bengali school of art, portraiture by artists like Ravi Varma, and modern Indian art. “I love the portraits in miniature paintings as much as I like the striking portraits by Francis Newton Souza who founded the postcolonial Progressive Artist’s Movement along with S H Raza, M F Husain and K H Ara, among others.” In 2010, Relia displayed a selection of portraits at an exhibition he organised in Ahmedabad called The Indian Portrait which showed the history of portrait painting in India from Rajasthani and Pahadi miniatures, Deccan paintings, the Company period and the Bengal movement to modern works by Hussain, Amit Ambalal and Souza. “When my exhibition was held in Mumbai, M F Hussain who inaugurated it suggested I visit the national portrait gallery in London. I did that. I organised two more exhibitions, one on Nathdwara paintings showing the journey of the revered Tikayat Govardhanlalji in the late 1800s and early-1900s, and the other on the history of portraits in various print techniques like woodcut, lithography and copper engraving.” The catalogues of all three exhibitions are published by his art company, Archer.