Vasu Deva Sharma
Today 15 June 2013 marks the 132nd birth anniversary of my great grand-father, Vasu Deva Sharma. He led a very fascinating life given that he was one of the rare Indians in his time who studied at the Royal College of Art in London in the 1920s. Pursuing his passion for art, after his RCA graduation he traveled widely across Europe before returning home to Lahore, then in undivided India, working as a fine art professor and a professional artist.
Over recent months, I have shared his story with some unique online projects :
The Indian Memory Project: An award-winning initiative founded by Anusha Yadav which is collating a visual and oral history of the Indian sub-continent via family archives.
Drawing Over the Colour Line: Geographies of art and cosmopolitan politics in London, 1919 – 1939. This is being run by University College of London’s Equiano Centre which is researching the history of black and Asian students, artists, models and other creative people in interwar London.
Family Histories and Interwar Black History: A research project by Camara Dia Holloway, Assistant Professor of American Art at the University of Delaware.
Vasu Deva Sharma was born on June 15, 1881 to Pandit Bhagwan Das in Pakpattan Sharif, District Montgomery, Punjab, now in Pakistan. In 1910, he passed the Senior Vernacular Teachers Certificate Examination of the Punjab Education Department and in 1911, joined Central Training College, Lahore as a Drawing Professor.
The same year he married Saraswati Devi and on 3 December 1912, the couple had a son, Ved Prakash Sharma. In 1914 they had a daughter, Ved Kumari. Tragically, in 1915 Saraswati Devi passed away. Living in a joint family, his brother Pandit Bhim Sen and sister-in-law Kaushalya Devi helped raise the children.
Setting Sail for London
In 1920, Vasu Deva Sharma gave up his job at the Central Training College, Lahore and sailed for London to join the Royal College of Art on an RCA scholarship. He was 39 years old when he sailed from Bombay (Mumbai) on the ship Kaisar-I-Hind on the P&O line arriving in London on September 25th 1920. (Thanks to historian Gemma Romain at University College of London’s Equiano Center for sourcing this information from The National Archives, UK – Incoming Passenger Lists, 1878-1960; Record for Mr V D Sharma, via ancestry.com.)
Arriving in London, he stayed in a furnished flat at 12, Eardley Crescent, Earls Court, SW. His RCA studies began with a basic course in Architecture and Lettering in the first term and his RCA student file (which I sourced from the RCA archives in 1995), remarks: “Inexperienced in European design and draughtsmanship. Indefatigable in his studies. Has made rapid progress. Shows great promise.”
His painting course began from the second term, as part of which he also studied art teaching methods in provincial art schools in Britain which meant he traveled to other parts of the country, away from London.
There is an interesting anecdote recounted by a family relative, sourced by my father Kul Bhushan, who is also researching Vasu Deva Sharma’s legacy. For his final RCA presentation, Vasu Deva Sharma painted an iconic scene from Indian history – Maharana Pratap‘s battle against the Moghuls. To obtain authentic proportions of Maharana Pratap’s horse and the Moghul Emperor’s elephant, Sharma visited the London Zoo and obtained special permission to measure a horse and an elephant.
In 1923, his final year, he moved to other lodgings, the Sikh Boarding House at 79, Sinclair Road, W.14 with some fellow students. As for his progress in his final year studies, the remarks in his student file state: “Plodding, ambitious of improvement, industrious, this Indian student has taken full advantage of the methods and initiative a European School of Art can offer.”
RCA – Class of 1923
Vasu Deva Sharma graduated in 1923 with an A. R. C. A. – Associateship in ‘Decorative Painting’, Royal College of Art. The RCA graduation ceremony was held on 20 July 1923 and diplomas were given away by Sir Montague Barlow, Minister of Labour.
Sharma sent his graduation cap and gown to his widowed sister-in-law as his ‘earnings’.
When I contacted the RCA again in late 2012, I managed to source the graduation photo of his class which included some names who went on to become British art icons: renowned sculptors Sir Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth.
(Special thanks to Neil Parkinson, Archives & Collections Manager, Information, Learning & Technical Services, RCA, for sourcing the photo and the list of graduates).
More interestingly, his fellow graduates included two other Indians – Uday Shankar Choudhry and the famous painter-engraver Mukul Dey from Kolkata. (UPDATED 17 January 2014: I contacted the Mukul Dey archives to request for any information and received this mail from Satyasri Ukil, Mukul Dey’s grandson after he posted a comment via the India Memory Project : “Mukul Dey passed out from RCA in 1922, and returned to India in December, 1927. Going by the years they were at RCA, Mukul Dey and Vasu Deva Sharma must have known each other. But apart from Eve Maggs (who was with MD at the Slade School of Art) and Uday Shankar, we haven’t yet come across any papers of MD’s classmates there. I will keep your request in mind, and would be most happy to share info with you if I find any.”)
Following graduation, Sharma embarked on an extensive tour of Europe to study the original works of art in museums in major cities. According to my father’s research, the travels spanned Scandinavia, France, Germany, Italy and Greece. Little is known about his travels in Europe: while he had his family’s support that funded his travels, it is also possible that he worked as a commissioned artist to earn some extra income. But to imagine a traveling Indian artist in Europe at such an important time in the continent’s history makes Vasu Deva Sharma’s story a very fascinating adventure.
One of the only photos in our family archives show him working as an artist in a photo studio in Berlin. Dressed impeccably in a well-tailored suit, Sharma is seen posing in front of an easel with a brush in hand, with the canvas depicting a portrait of a possibly aristocratic European lady.
The photo (probably taken in 1925) is by a photographer named Karl Alexander Berg with his studio address at Joachimstaler Strasse in Berlin. Looking at the stamp under the photograph one can see that Berg was appointed to a German royal court, without any indication which court this might be.
In 1927, Sharma returned to Lahore. By sea cargo, Sharma sent around 30 suitcases and boxes full of art books, art reproductions, art materials, studio cameras, full studio equipment and hundreds of other art objects, garments and personal effects.
Interestingly, the photography equipment he brought was for his son (my grand-father), who later opened a photo studio in Lahore called Omega Photo Art Studio.
Vasu Deva Sharma joined Chief’s College in Lahore as an arts professor while practising as a professional artist for commissioned portraits. According to some family sources, he was also commissioned by Indian royal families, such as the royals of Chamba (in North India).
In 1929, he started construcing a huge bungalow at 30A Empress Road, Bibian Pak Daman, Near Shimla Hill, Lahore.
According to my father’s research, for furnishing his bungalow, one of his students at Chief’s College – who was a Prince of Chamba – gifted him a railway wagon full of the best timber. In addition to making furniture, Sharma made seven easels to teach art to his students at home and gifted some of them. A cupboard made from this wood still exists with a family relative in New Delhi.
In 1937, his son Ved Prakash Sharma married Sumitra who was renamed Shakuntla. On 8 March 1938, they had a son, Kul Bhushan, born in Shakuntla’s family home in Gurdaspur, Punjab. Two years later, a daughter Aruna, was born in Gurdaspur on 22 March, 1940.
At this point, it is important to note the very significant connection between then RCA president Sir William Rothenstein (from 1920-35) and Indian art. Rothenstein took a keen interest in Mughal painting and in 1910 established an India Society to educate the British public about Indian arts. He also traveled extensively in India around that time to research Indian art.
According to my father’s recollections, Rothenstein traveled again to India in 1944. He visited my great-grand father at his mansion in Lahore (which also housed his studio and artworks) to see how his former RCA student was doing. As a six year old boy, my father recalls that this was a major event for which he also summoned his son, who was working in Pakpattan town to come to Lahore, to welcome Rothenstein.
Vasu Deva Sharma passed away in 1946, a year before the partition of India and Pakistan following the end of British rule.
Suffering from diabetes, he went into a coma with paralysis and passed away on 6 February 1946 at the age of 65.
Soon after, his son was appointed manager of Punjab National Bank in Ahmedabad and thus his family moved there just before the violent partition riots of August 1947. Due to the riots, the family could not salvage the artworks and invaluable artefacts which were left behind in the mansion. The few belongings that the family could save were his original RCA diploma and the photograph from Berlin. Given the turmoil at the time, it is understood that the mansion was ransacked and looted.
Ved Prakash Sharma was later transferred to Mumbai and was almost emigrating to the United States following a job offer but that didn’t work out for some reason. His sister, Ved Kumari, settled in Delhi after her marriage to Vidya Bhushan Sharma, a government officer.
In 1952, Ved Prakash ended up moving to Kenya, East Africa, and became an educationist, eventually starting his own college with his son. While he couldn’t pursue photography as a profession, he retained a great interest in photography, art and calligraphy (which he also taught to his son and daughter).
Ved Prakash Sharma passed away in Nairobi, Kenya on 19 August 1966 following his third heart attack. In a karmic twist, 19 August has been celebrated annually as World Photography Day since 2009 to mark the 170th anniversary of the day photography was invented in 1839 with the Daguerreotype photographic process.
My father visited Lahore in 1977 and went to Empress Road to see the family home. By then, it had been turned into a housing estate with many apartments. But my father noticed that the original marble name plate outside the house was still there, mentioning Vasu Deva Sharma’s name in English with his RCA degree mentioned below. However, today the site is a commercial building with no hint of the past, as confirmed by a family acquaintance on a visit to Lahore around 2004.
Thanks to the wonders of the internet, my research has led to some encouraging developments. I shared Vasu Deva Sharma’s story with a very interesting project referred to me by the RCA, “Drawing Over the Colour Line: Geographies of Art and Cosmopolitan Politics in London, 1919 – 1939”. This is being run by University College of London’s Equiano Center which is researching the history of black and Asian students, artists, models and other creative people in interwar London.
As per a latest update on the project’s blog: “Our contact with Nyay Bhushan, the great grandson of Vasu Deva Sharma, has been a fantastic opportunity for us to find out about Sharma’s migratory history and learn more about Sharma’s experiences of life as a Royal College of Art student in interwar London. We’ve created a select list of students and artist’s models all based in London during the period we are researching.”
It goes without saying that one of my main project aims is to look for any surviving artworks by Vasu Deva Sharma which could be in the UK, Europe, Pakistan and India. In addition to pursuing this as a transmedia project, as an award-winning fine-art photographer and film-maker, I am deeply interested in exploring my forefathers’ artistic endeavors – be it Vasu Deva Sharma’s paintings or his son Ved Prakash Sharma’s interest in photography.
At the same time, this story offers invaluable opportunities to explore the political-social-cultural implications of the time while charting a family’s journey across three continents.