Rustom Siodia: A Forgotten Master


January 16, 2020

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Art in India has largely been a niche world, with few artists being known beyond the rather small circle of connoisseurs. But even within this small world, some brilliant artists and their work have been forgotten or lost with the passage of time. One of them is Rustom Siodia.

Article by Anshika Jain | Live History India

Siodia, who is little-known, was a brilliant Indian artist, who lived at the dawn of the 20th century. This was a a time when the art scene in the country was rapidly evolving. It was an exciting time to be an artist then as art schools were being set up in different parts of the country, new ideas and methods were being introduced, artists were developing their signature styles and there was exposure to distant cultures.


Siodia was born in 1881 in a Parsi family in Bombay. His father worked for the well-known Parsi businessman and philanthropist Byramjee Jeejeebhoy, who built colleges and hospitals in the city.


Siodia in his studio|Chatterjee & Lal

Siodia was born at a time of great change. From 1860s onwards, Bombay had emerged as the commercial capital of India due to a combination of factors like the opening of the Suez Canal, setting up of cotton mills, and a booming trade in cotton and opium. Awash with money, the city’s richer denizens were also turning their attention to the arts. Many of them were getting their portraits painted, and were interested in collecting art and antiquities. Around the same time, Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy had funded the establishment of the Sir J J School of Art in 1857.

The Parsi community that Siodia belonged to was at the forefront of many of these activities.

Siodia showed an early talent for art and studied at the Sir JJ School of Art in the first decade of the 1900s. As a student there, he did not agree with the teaching methodologies introduced by the then principal, Cecil Burns. Siodia, in fact, believed that academic realism was the most appropriate method of teaching art.


Untitled (Camel and rider), 1911|Chatterjee & Lal

Siodia decided to further his education and, in 1908, enrolled at the Royal Academy in London, making him a pioneer of sorts as he was only the second Indian and the first Parsi to study there. He returned to India in 1913 and in a couple of years set up a studio in the Grant Road locality of Bombay. His talent and reputation brought him countless commissions.

Siodia started his career as a portrait artist, when the ‘Salon’ style was popular.

Many Indian kings, princes as well as wealthy businessmen and traders were getting their portraits painted. Many curators see Siodia and his contemporaries like M V Dhurandhar and Bomanjee Pestonjee, who had also studied at the Sir JJ School of Art, as successors of Raja Ravi Varma.


Untitled (Study of hands and feet), 1913|Chatterjee & Lal

While Siodia focused on portraits during his early days, one sees a shift to landscapes and historical themes in his later work. There is even a discernable shift in his palette. According to Mortimer Chatterjee, art curator and founder of Mumbai-based art gallery Chatterjee & Lal, this may have reflected the influence of his teachers like John Singer Sargeant (1856-1925), who was considered one of the leading portrait artists of his generation.


Untitled (Forest), 1939|Chatterjee & Lal

Siodia showed an early talent for art and studied at the Sir JJ School of Art in the first decade of the 1900s. As a student there, he did not agree with the teaching methodologies introduced by the then principal, Cecil Burns. Siodia, in fact, believed that academic realism was the most appropriate method of teaching art.

Artistically, Siodia’s most productive period is from 1915 to 1939, when he not only created a large number of works on paper and canvas but also won prestigious commissions to paint murals at the Imperial Secretariat (Rashtrapati Bhavan) in New Delhi and the Royal Opera House in Bombay.

One of his most interesting work is his artistic reproductions of Ajanta, which he executed between 1922 and 1925.

While most of the documentation at Ajanta at the time focused on reproducing the paintings inside the caves, Siodia looked at the external architectural features and reproduced them in a rather innovative way.


An illustration from ‘Legends of Ancient Persia’|Chatterjee & Lal

He used the architectural elements he saw at Ajanta and recast them as quasi-Achaemenid structures in his works, which were depicted themes and stories from ancient and medieval Persia. He liberally used these elements in his illustrated manuscript Legends of Ancient Persia.

Siodia’s exploration of Persian themes in his art is quite unusual for his time and this can also be ascribed to his exploration of his own Parsi heritage. He depicts and celebrates the cultural legacy of pre-modern Persia in many of his works from the 1920s onwards.


Study for “Kamrelzaman before his father”, for Rashtrapati Bhavan, Circa 1929|Chatterjee & Lal

One of Siodia’s grand successes was painting murals at the Imperial Secretariat when the British Government held an open competition for the decoration of the interiors. The Sir JJ School of Art, under the guidance of its principal Gladstone Solomon, emerged victorious over competitors like the well-regarded Bengal School spearheaded by Abanindranath Tagore.

Besides the faculty and students of the JJ School, many of the murals were also painted by former JJ students including Siodia, who painted six or eight of them. These murals had diverse themes and one can see the different influences in his murals, from his British education to his exploration of Persian elements. He depicted subjects like Cinderella, Bluebeard, the four seasons and even tales from Harun al-Rashid. He covered 750 square feet in less than six weeks in 1929.


A misunderstanding in Art, 1933|Chatterjee & Lal

Siodia was not only an accomplished artist, he was also an enthusiastic essayist and humorist and was a regular contributor to The Times of India.

Siodia had married Hirabai at a relatively young age and had one daughter, Cumi Dallas. She was born in 1907 and married Hormazdyar (Homi) Dallas. Cumi was also an accomplished artist and left behind a rich artistic legacy of her own as well. The Dallas’s were active members of the Parsi community and Homi Dallas, who was an accomplished architect, had even served as president of the Indian Institutes of Architects and had also helped renowned architect Hafeez Contractor when he went to study in Columbia University in the United States.

Unfortunately, despite his accomplishments, Siodia was quietly forgotten and didn’t occupy a place in the art world after his death in 1946. Most of his artworks and papers remained in the possession of his descendants or in private collections, with few opportunities to publicly exhibit them and no major art historical study of his work. One of his few works on public display is a portrait at the CSMVS museum in Mumbai, where it is a part of an exhibition on the Sir JJ School of Art’s role in the development of art titled ‘Pravaha’.

His grandson Darayas Bilimoria and great-grandson Behzad Bilimoria preserved much of Siodia’s work at their home in South Mumbai.In 2018, the Bilimoria family reached out to Atul Tolani, an independent Art manager and a family friend regarding their collection. Atul recognized the importance of the Siodia’s position in Indian art history and went on to advise the family to reintroduce the artist back in the public domain.

In 2019, Atul Tolani, who also represents the family estate, reached out to Chatterjee & Lal to hold a retrospective on Siodia, and bring out many of his works, which had been in storage for a good 73 years. They were displayed at an exhibition aptly titled ‘Realism & Fantasy’ held from November to December to 2019, the first time a major body of his work has been displayed. We hope that with this renewed attention, Siodia finally gets his due.