The Dutch fascination for black tulips dates back to the 17th century—the Dutch Golden Age. That was when the tulip was a prized product and the price of tulip bulbs reached extraordinary levels. “But there is no black tulip, nobody has ever seen it," says Dutch artist Lita Cabellut.

In her first exhibition in India, the Netherlands-based artist has explored the idea behind the black tulip through a series of life-size portraits. “To me, the black tulip symbolizes the Dutch people’s mercantile spirit. They succeeded in turning something as transitory, vulnerable and unpredictable as the tulip into something of value," says the 53-year-old. For Cabellut, this belief or “magic", as she calls it, also resonates with her idea of India and its people. “India is a land of mysticism and beliefs. There are many mythological stories that people believe and they sell, just like tulips in my home," she adds.

The Black Tulip, which is on in Mumbai till 20 June, comprises 32 portraits inspired by the Dutch masters of the Golden Age, like Rembrandt van Rijn and Johannes Vermeer. “The Golden Age is a wonderful historical moment with an unprecedented diversity of features: passion, longing, sensuality, freedom as well as protest," says Cabellut, who started working on this series in January 2013.

“But I wanted to contemporize it by painting people who live around me, including my gardener, a bread-seller..., in dresses and attires dating back to that era," she says.

This fusion of old and new is also reflected in the artworks as they seem like portraits of that era, with the subject sitting upright and looking straight, but with modern techniques reflected in the use of colours.

The series is divided into four parts: Calvinists, Puritans, Protestants and Catholics. The differences in attitude, clothing and expression is simultaneously subtle and clear.

Cabellut has also tried to show how those masters were inspired by India. “While the Calvinists used to wear hats and black dresses and the Puritans wore nothing but black, the Protestants were hugely inspired by India and wore bright-coloured scarves. The Catholics, however, were completely inspired by India not only in terms of bright colours but also spiritually, which is evident in the dominance of orange in their art and culture," she says.

While the search for the non-existent black tulip continues, Cabellut hopes that this exhibition will give a glimpse of the Netherlands to the Indian public, but with a twist. “Facebook profile pictures in that era would have looked like this," says Cabellut.

The Black Tulip is on till 20 June, 10am-5pm (Monday closed), at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), East Wing, MG Road, Kala Ghoda, Colaba (22029613). Entry, 70 (for Indians) and 300 (for foreigners). The exhibition will be showcased from 1-16 September, 11am-7pm, in New Delhi, at the Lalit Kala Akademi, Rabindra Bhavan, 35, Feroz Shah Road (23009200).

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