Olivia Fraser must be a happy artist. She has retained her identity in spite of being the wife of a superstar author. Most of the people accidentally stumbling (as this reviewer discovered) into her art exhibition at New Delhi's Triveni Kala Sangam art gallery were unaware of her or her connections to William Dalrymple. The couple is originally from Scotland, but spends a good time of the year in Delhi.
Shockingly, a few had no idea of even Mr. Dalrymple. Ms. Aanchal Kataria, a young student from Indraprastha College, had never heard of Mr. Dalrymple's classic City of Djinns, a book which carried prints of Mrs. Fraser's sketches of everyday life in Delhi. Some of those drawings were included in the exhibition.
The watercolor paintings trace their origin to the early 90s when Mrs. Fraser first started living in the capital. While her husband gathered anecdotes for his book, she did explorations of her own. An excerpt from City of Djinns makes it clearer:
"It was now cool enough for Olivia to go out painting in the mornings. Everyday she would get up at eight and disappear with her brushes and her watercolours. She had given up her place at art school to come out to Delhi and was determined to make the most of the opportunity. For the rest of the cold season she toured Old Delhi's kuchas and muhallas sketching the people, the buildings and the ruins. Some day she would not return until dusk."
Watching the fascinated expressions on the faces of the gallery visitors, her outings were not in vain. "The details are good. She has finely captured the street scenes of Delhi, its culture and its grand Mughal architecture. These are things we Delhites do not usually notice." Ms. Kataria said.
But were the illustrations real or merely romantic?
Mrs. Fraser has painted Delhi in Lonely Planet-style exotica that only a westerner could have noticed - a carefully decorated Hindu holy Cow, a mahout sitting serenely on his elephant, a cowherd playing a flute in a verdant ground, a boy flying a kite, a man attending to his pigeons, and a Bollywood actress dancing between Palm trees. Fine portrayals, but clichéd and disconcertingly similar to Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution posters – clean, idealistic, and unreal.