Royal Navy mystery portrait


04 May 2023
Mysterious portrait of Indian Navy sailor unveiled by the National Museum of the Royal Navy.

As part of the over two million objects in the collection of the National Museum of the Royal Navy, the painting Appreciating the Situation may seem unassuming, but its link to the long and proud history of Indian men and women in the Royal Navy makes it something special. Now visitors can get close to the painting, conserved and framed, after it was unveiled by a son of the subject.

Originally chosen by Chat Over Chai, a local community group, as part of the Exchange Community-Led research project, little was known about the painting. The ultimate goal was to find out more about this mysterious painting, assisted by members of the Royal Navy’s Diversity and Inclusion team and staff from the museum. Ultimately all the team had to work with was two names, Ahluwalia and Chowdhury, and a mysterious label with a code on it, when it came down to finding out who painted the work, and who was the Sub-Lieutenant in it.

All three groups used their expertise and experiences to unravel the image. The title itself Appreciating the Situation is in fact a navigational term in the Navy, fitting as we later discovered that the subject and the painter then trained in navigation and became pilots.

Chat Over Chai felt a deep connection to the mysterious subject due to the South Asian heritage of many of its members, and some recounted that he looked like a family member, and were taken with the reflective tone of the portrait.

As part of the project the National Museum of the Royal Navy employed a researcher who, along with our curators, uncovered the name Suresh Ahluwalia, and the fact that Suresh had unfortunately passed away in 2017. When the family were contacted the existence of a portrait of their family member was a complete shock. From the family it was discovered that Suresh attended naval college in the UK alongside his good friend Inam Chowdhury in 1955. Confirming that the subject of the painting was indeed his father, Nikhil Ahluwalia and his wife Sunil were invited to see this historic family portrait go on display.

In the words of Nikhil’s wife Sonali and daughter Tara, Suresh was a kind man eager to help wherever he could, had he known about the project he, “Would have been very pleased. And hearing from the community group how much it has meant to a lot of people, I think he would’ve been very emotional, because he was very giving, he loved people. And to have an impact on people he had not met, I think that would’ve been something that was quite significant to him.”

Appreciating the Situation serves as a timeless legacy to two friends who left their homes to serve in another country, an experience felt by members of the armed forces even today. This portrait, far more than the sum of its parts, takes pride of place at the National Museum of the Royal Navy.




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