Quick, what does Misty Copeland have in common with Katy Talati?
One is a groundbreaking African-American soloist at the American Ballet Theatre, and the other…wait, who’s Katy Talati again?
Katy Talati was an Indian artist who mastered Chinese brushstroke painting, an art form historically closed off to all but a narrow elite. Like Misty, Katy, the daughter of a common merchant, was the ultimate outsider in her chosen milieu. And like Misty, she refused to let her outsider status get in the way of her art.
Truly, with luck and determination, anything’s possible.
Katy’s father came to Beijing penniless at the turn of the twentieth century and built a fortune on the fur trade.1 Although she grew up in comfort, her plebeian antecedents meant that Katy’s upbringing in Beijing’s insular expatriate quarter was limited by little access to Chinese art and erudition–even though she lived in the nation’s cultural capital.
Nonetheless, the Talatis moved between many worlds: as Parsis, they were from India, but of Persian extraction; they were also British citizens who had never been to England. They had more Chinese friends than other expatriates, and perhaps it was through these friends that Katy developed an interest in Chinese painting. She began her artistic studies with a Belgian Catholic priest, albeit one who was exceptionally empathetic for his times.2
Paradoxically, when the Japanese took over Beijing in 1942, Katy’s narrow world expanded dramatically. During internment in Japanese camps, the formerly sheltered Katy encountered all sorts of people, including the less savory but more interesting expatriates of Beijing’s demimonde.
The experience of the war caused those who returned to Beijing at its close to cast aside old conceits and hierarchies. For Katy, this opened doors that would have been closed previously.
Prince Pu Quan, a cousin of the last emperor of China, admitted her as his student upon recognising her talent. The prince represented the apex of China’s noble literati tradition–the literati were the guardians of Chinese culture–and Katy could not have hoped for a better teacher. She was allowed a precious few years of instruction with Prince Pu Quan before communism drew a curtain across China. The Talatis had known no other home but China and were not so hasty to leave as other expatriates.
By 1948 Katy was packed off to England, carrying with her a large number of Prince Pu Quan’s paintings—thus preserving his legacy. Back in England, she continued to paint in obscurity.
Today, the world of the Indian ingénue and the Manchu prince has long since vanished, but there remains a significant relic of that era: the Tianjin First Hotel. In its original incarnation, it was the Talati House Hotel, owned by Katy’s family. As you wander through its still-elegant art deco interiors, you might imagine yourself as a young girl, opening her eyes to the beauty around her for the very first time.