Olivia Fraser: Reinterpreting traditional Indian miniatures

Lifelike painting of five men in robes, seated on a bench A character study by Olivia Fraser, painted in the 1990s

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A British artist's interpretation of traditional Indian styles was one the highlights of a recent major contemporary art fair in Delhi, as Amitava Sanyal reports.

Five years ago, Olivia Fraser was wandering around the India Art Fair as a jobbing artist. "I was giving out a DVD of my works to galleries. But no one got back to me - I think they just tossed them in the bin."

Though she had exhibited with a number of galleries before, Fraser was keen to show off her latest body of work.

She was apprehensive because, as she says, she was "putting on a new skin, a new me and definitely not a western me".

Fraser was already known for her architectural and travel watercolours, when she turned her hand to Indian miniatures a decade ago.

She learnt the rigorous technique used in the pichhvai miniatures by the Nathdwara school of artists in 17th and 18th Century Rajasthan, and re-interpreted the style.

Peter Nagy, director of Delhi's Nature Morte gallery, which has exhibited Fraser's work in the past, says: "She has taken the traditional form and fused it into a more contemporary idiom."

Painting of series of bulls in blue and white, layered over a large circle in dark blue background Blue Dawn by Olivia Fraser, 2012

In 2011, Fraser found a champion for her fusion style in Virginia Whiles, an art historian who had studied the Pakistani school of miniature.

Whiles introduced her work to the Grosvenor Gallery of London, which had already strengthened its links to the Indian art world through a collaboration with Delhi's Vadera Gallery, and Fraser was signed up.

Her works were exhibited in a group show in London that year, a well-received solo show followed in 2012 and the gallery took two of her prints to last year's India Art Fair, South Asia's leading contemporary art event.

They did so well there that this year, the Grosvenor Gallery showed only Fraser's works at its stand.

The roots of Fraser's style can be traced back to 1989, when she was preparing to travel to India for the first time.

Her then fiancé, the author William Dalrymple, gave her a collection of Indian paintings which had been commissioned in the early 19th Century by two of Fraser's ancestors from the Clan Fraser of Lovat.

While working in India, William and James Baillie Fraser had commissioned one of the largest sets of Indian landscapes and character studies, a collection that came to be called the Fraser Album.

The artists chosen by the Frasers included some of Delhi's master miniaturists such as the Mughal court painters Ghulam Ali Khan and his nephew Mazhar Ali Khan.

William Dalrymple, now Olivia's husband and co-author of the book Princes and Painters in Mughal Delhi, 1707-1857, says of the commissions: "It was the first time ever in Indian painting that ordinary villagers were getting painted in the royal style - with their names, castes and villages recorded - as if they were courtiers of Shah Jahan."

Abstract painting in green and white - floral motif in foreground, zig zag design in background Himalaya, by Olivia Fraser, 2013

Inspired by those, and landscapes painted by James Fraser himself, Olivia began painting in the same style - first in oils and then in watercolour as she travelled around India.

In her early years there, Fraser says she "almost went to Jaipur" to learn miniatures from the expert Bannuji, the late Bannu Ved Pal Sharma.

But she got another chance to learn the technique in the mid-2000s with Desmond Lazaro, a British-born artist and academic who had studied for years under the Jaipur master.

"She was drawing in an illustrative style at the time," says Lazaro, some of whose early works directly inspired Fraser's Dawn series.

With him, Fraser learned pigment-making techniques and the strict rules of the pichhvai tradition, in which, she says "you can draw a banana tree in only one way".

Abstract painting in grey, pink and white, flowers arranged in a circular pattern Moon, by Olivia Fraser, 2013

Lazaro himself has since added his own take on the Nathdwara tradition, going back to the textual roots of some of the paintings and moving into a contemporary style of his own.

Fraser's work, too, has evolved; her most recent pieces use more abstract, repetitive motifs of Indian forms such as chakras and flowers.

Conor Macklin, the director of the Grosvenor Gallery, describes it as a mix of "Indian styles and Bridget Riley's optical patterns".

Fraser has taken the legacy of her ancestors, as well as the traditions of Indian artists, to arrive at a style that is her own.

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