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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 November 2018

Miniatures on display for Louvre Abu Dhabi Talking art series

Nearly four years ago, curators from the museum acquired 98 Indian miniatures from the personal collection of James Ivory.
Director James Ivory pictured on October 18, 2009 in Rome, Italy. Franco Origlia / Getty Images
Director James Ivory pictured on October 18, 2009 in Rome, Italy. Franco Origlia / Getty Images
Veteran collector and filmmaker James Ivory explains what happened when he went looking for a Canaletto. It led him to the world of Indian miniature paintings and the people who would have a huge impact on his life and career.

Tonight, in a case of life imitating art and vice-versa, an award-winning film director will tell the compelling story of his surprising connection with Abu Dhabi's new Louvre museum.

Nearly four years ago, curators from the museum acquired 98 Indian miniatures from the personal collection of James Ivory.

The director, 86 , is synonymous with Merchant Ivory Productions, the longest-running partnership in independent cinema, responsible for the Academy Award-winning films Howards End and The Remains of the Day.

Ivory's career as an art collector is less well known, but as he will explain this evening, his filmmaking career cannot be understood independently of his passion for the art that is now a key part of the permanent collection of the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

As Ivory explains, he has a Venetian and a chance encounter in 1956 to thank for his introduction to the art of India, the world of collecting and the people who were to define his life and career.

"My very first film was my master's thesis at the University of Southern California," he says. "The film had a lot to do with Venetian art and as I was finishing it I had a desire to own a Canaletto print.

"One of my tutors said that there was a very good dealer in San Francisco who dealt in that kind of thing, but what he didn't know was that Raymond Lewis was also probably the only dealer in the US at that time who sold Indian and Persian miniatures.

"I went to find a Canaletto etching but what I found was about 100 miniature paintings spread out on tables from a previous client that he hadn't had time to put away."

Inspired as much by the miniature's cinematic potential as their beauty, Ivory gave up on the idea of buying a Canaletto and bought two 18th century Indian paintings instead.

Little did he know that the decision was to have a profound effect on his future filmmaking career and his private life.

"That's how I discovered India, through the miniatures in that gallery," he says. "I'd had success filming Venetian drawings and I knew how, if you did close-ups of some of those really quite small works of art, that you'd get a powerful impression on the screen.

"I knew at once with some of the Indian miniatures that there would be a strong image and I think that attracted me right away."

Two years later, the miniatures formed the basis for Ivory's next project, The Sword and the Flute (1959), a short film he now describes as a "kind of dream of India made by somebody who had never been there".

The film tells the story of the origins and development of Indian miniatures using the paintings, a soundtrack of Indian classical music featuring Ravi Shankar's sitar playing, and narration read by Saeed Jaffrey.

Jaffrey was an actor who also narrated Ivory's The Creation of Woman (1961) and would star in two Merchant Ivory pictures, The Guru (1969) and Hullabaloo over Georgie and Bonnie's Pictures (1978).

The Sword and the Flute's dreamlike quality is accentuated by the quality of Ivory's script, Jaffrey's skill as a storyteller and Mindaugis Bagdon's cinematography, which mimics the eye of a collector as it moves from one exquisite detail to the next.

"In the last half of the 16th century, the walled cities of northern India one by one opened their gates to the invading armies of the Emperor Akbar, the descendant of Tamerlane and the terrible Genghis Khan," Jaffrey narrates.

"Disregarding the Islamic law which forbids the making of images, he put talented Indians to work in the Imperial studios, where they learnt the Persian technique of miniature painting."

As he speaks, the camera moves from drawings of subdued generals, their heads bowed in submission, to images of war elephants, the god Krishna and herds of cattle raising clouds of golden dust.

"When I made it I didn't really know anything about the pictures, but they inspired me to know more about India and eventually to go there," Ivory says. "If I hadn't made that film, I would probably have never gone."

His career as a collector and a filmmaker was to intersect on several occasions over the later decades, but the miniatures had their most profound impact between 1959 and 1961.

Thanks to The Sword and the Flute, Ivory won a commission from New York's Asia Society that first took him to India to shoot the documentary that eventually became The Delhi Way (1964).

Even more importantly, it was The Sword and the Flute that provided Ivory with his introduction to the Indian film producer Ismail Merchant and a lifelong relationship that transformed both of their lives.

"I was editing The Delhi Way in New York when I met Ismail Merchant," Ivory says. "He had come to a screening of The Sword and the Flute and he just came up and talked to me.

"He had an idea about making feature films in India, in English, for the international market, which had never been done before."

The producer and the director soon formed Merchant and Ivory Productions and their first movie, The Householder, opened in 1963.

The film tells the story of Prem (Shashi Kapoor), a young schoolteacher, as he gradually gets to know his new wife, the charming and independent Indu (Leela Naidu). It was based on a 1959 book of the same name.

Merchant, who died in 2005, and Ivory had approached Ruth Prawer Jabhvala directly to see if the author would adapt her novel for their script.

"She said, 'I've never written a script'," says Ivory. "And so he said, 'Well, he's never directed a film and I've never produced one. So what?'"

With a single conversation, a creative triumvirate was formed. It was a multicultural collaboration that Merchant once described as a "strange marriage".

"I am an Indian Muslim, Ruth is a German Jew, and Jim is a Protestant American," says the producer. "Someone once described us as a three-headed god. Maybe they should have called us a three-headed monster."

The trio's output during the 1960s not only allowed Ivory to immerse himself in India but also to develop his collection of miniatures and drawings.

"The films provided me with the means of coming to India and the time to be there often," Ivory says.

"You never knew what the various dealers were going to come up with but I was able to pick up pictures at a time when there were many good ones on the market at a very good price."

It was during this period that Ivory met Stuart Cary Welch, an internationally renowned collector of Islamic and Indian art who curated the Art of Mughal India (1964), a major exhibition at the Asia Society.

The two men discovered a shared passion for Indian drawings.

"I learnt a hell of a lot from him," Ivory says. "But in a way, I didn't have an interest that was as deep as his.

"My reaction to the pictures wasn't intellectual, it was entirely aesthetic. I wasn't looking for certain kind of things, I was just a looking for what I considered to be good pictures."

Around 1974 to 1975, the first phase of Ivory's filmmaking in India ended and as he spent more time filming in Britain and the US, his forays into the miniature market also diminished.

But in 1978 he returned to miniatures with Hullabaloo over Georgie and Bonnie's Pictures, a movie commissioned by Melvyn Bragg at London Weekend Television.

"LWT were interested in doing something with us but it had to be about art in some way, and the only art I knew anything about was Indian miniatures, really, as by that time I'd had almost 20 years of collecting pictures and I knew Cary Welch very well," Ivory says.

"Most of the pictures in the film belonged to him and the Maharajah of Jodhpur, but the film is really about collectors and people's ideas about Indian miniatures in the West.

"Should they be left in India where white ants can get at them and where they might be robbed or should they be taken away to the safety of a museum like the V& A?"

Jabhvala based her screenplay for the movie on Ivory's experiences of collecting in India.

In many ways the film, like the story of Merchant Ivory's formation, provides an interesting parallel with the Louvre Abu Dhabi's collection and the cosmopolitanism of the wider Saadiyat Island Project.

Hullabaloo was first broadcast in July 1978 on The South Bank Show, a British television arts programme, and is being screened again this evening as part of the director's appearance at Manarat Al Saadiyat.

"I should add that it's not a serious film," the filmmaker insists. "It's a kind of fairytale, a romp or a comic thriller, really. You may get enlightened, but the purpose was to entertain."

nleech@thenational.ae

Louvre Abu Dhabi Talking Art Series, James Ivory Talks: Miniature Paintings and Films. Wednesday, January 28, 2015. Talk: 6.30pm-7.30pm, screening of Hullabaloo Over Georgie and Bonnie's Pictures, (duration: 85 minutes): 7.30pm-9pm. Manarat Al Saadiyat, Saadiyat Cultural District on the Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi. Prior registration for the talks and film screening is required. Email manaratalsaadiyat@tcaabudhabi.ae to register or call 02 657 5800.