The de­light is in the de­tail in a be­guil­ing new ex­hi­bi­tion of South Asian paint­ings, writes Se­bas­tian Smee

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

WHAT’S worth re­mem­ber­ing as you wan­der among the pic­tures in In­ti­mate En­coun­ters, the Art Gallery of NSW’s en­chant­ing over­view of In­dian paint­ing, is that th­ese works were never in­tended to be dis­played on walls. The idea, in­stead, was that you held them in your hands and ex­am­ined them up close.

Don’t get any ideas: this is a mod­ern art gallery, and the ‘‘ do not touch’’ rule re­mains very much in place. But from this lit­tle in­sight spring sev­eral big­ger ones.

First of all, it’s easy to fig­ure out why the colours of In­dian minia­tures re­main so in­cred­i­bly rich, three, four, even five cen­turies down the track. They weren’t ex­posed to light. Rather, they were kept in loose bun­dles and wrapped in cloth. Thus, they were beau­ti­fully pre­served.

Sec­ond, we be­gin to see th­ese paint­ings not just as pic­tures but as or­na­mented ob­jects that could be passed from hand to hand. It’s not by chance that In­dian minia­tures are so of­ten de­scribed as jewel- like. Yes, the colours are in­tense, re­mind­ing us, per­haps, of turquoise, ru­bies, emer­alds and sap­phires.

But more than that, th­ese images, by virtue of their small size, set up a par­tic­u­lar re­la­tion­ship with the viewer ( al­ways sin­gu­lar, never plu­ral). They an­nounce them­selves not as grand, iconic il­lu­sions of the real world, but as things — por­ta­ble, cher­ish­able, full of private mean­ing.

Fi­nally, we are re­minded by the aura of pre­cious­ness around In­dian minia­tures that they were not an art for the peo­ple. They were a court art, pro­duced in work­shops sup­ported by courts or wealthy pa­trons for their private delec­ta­tion, rather than for the en­joy­ment or ed­i­fi­ca­tion of the masses.

All this adds to the feel­ing of priv­i­lege one has at this show. It was put to­gether by Chaya Chan­drasekhar, with works se­lected from col­lec­tions of In­dian art across Aus­tralia, and is the latest in a string of su­perb ex­hi­bi­tions in the Art Gallery of NSW’s en­trance- level Asian wing.

In­creas­ingly, this space is a re­quired first stop for vis­i­tors to the gallery. It scarcely mat­ters if the show is de­voted to Ja­panese manga, jade carv­ing or Chi­nese scrolls: the ex­pe­ri­ence is al­most al­ways in­tense, beau­ti­ful, rev­e­la­tory.

In­ti­mate En­coun­ters is no ex­cep­tion. It at­tempts to give a mod­est over­view of In­dian paint­ing from about the 15th cen­tury to the 19th, trac­ing its de­vel­op­ment from pre- Mogul Jain and Hindu tra­di­tions to the great flow­er­ing of Mogul minia­tures, and on to paint­ings com­mis­sioned un­der the Ra­jput rulers of Ra­jasthan, cen­tral In­dia and the Pun­jab hills. It fin­ishes with a se­lec­tion of paint­ings made to please West­ern tastes by In­dian artists un­der Bri­tish rule and some aquat­ints by Bri­tish artists who vis­ited In­dia, record­ing views of ar­chi­tec­ture in a con­ven­tional West­ern id­iom.

All this in one square room, sen­si­tively di­vided by tall par­ti­tions painted in rich orange, ma­roon, green and blue. Some of the works have been seen in re­cent ex­hi­bi­tions such as Ra­jput: Sons of Kings at the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria and the Art Gallery of NSW, and the trail­blaz­ing God­dess at the AGNSW.

But many have not, and the de­ci­sion to fo­cus on paint­ing, when so many peo­ple’s aware­ness of In­dian art hinges on sculp­ture, is wel­come.

From the mere hand­ful of pre- Mogul paint­ings — most of them frag­ments of il­lus­trated manuscripts — it is hard to dis­cern much in the way of gen­eral ten­den­cies. But some early Jain images give us a feel­ing for that tra­di­tion’s pref­er­ence for flat fig­ures, pointy faces and a lim­ited pal­ette.

Es­pe­cially lovely is a page from the Jain Kal­pa­su­tra , or book of pre­cepts, owned by the Na­tional Gallery in Can­berra. The bold, con­fi­dently drawn green leaves in this small frag­ment are set against a sat­u­rated orange ground. Th­ese, and the loose border dec­o­ra­tions with golden arabesques and blue flower mo­tifs, give an idea of the bright- coloured id­iom that would soon be blended with the more re­fined Per­sian tra­di­tion ( light lines, del­i­cate modelling, ex­quis­ite de­tail) un­der the three great Mogul em­per­ors, Ak­bar, Ja­hangir and Shah Ja­han.

‘‘ There are many that hate paint­ing,’’ Ak­bar once de­clared, ‘‘ but such men I dis­like.’’ He was talk­ing specif­i­cally about fig­u­ra­tive paint­ing: con­tro­ver­sial in the Is­lamic world, which has tended to favour dec­o­ra­tive ab­strac­tion over rep­re­sen­ta­tional art.

But Ak­bar went on to de­fend his po­si­tion in the­o­log­i­cal terms: ‘‘ It ap­pears to me as if a painter had a quite pe­cu­liar means of recog­nis­ing God; for a painter, in sketch­ing any­thing that has life, and in de­vis­ing its limbs, one af­ter the other, must come to feel that he can­not be­stow in­di­vid­u­al­ity upon his work, and is thus forced to think of God, the giver of life.’’

The rea­son­ing may seem spu­ri­ous. But be grate­ful that Ak­bar went to the trou­ble to ra­tio­nalise his de­light in paint­ing, for un­der his pa­tron­age, Is­lamic art un­der­went a tremen­dous, thrilling trans­for­ma­tion.

Ak­bar ( 1542- 1605) was il­lit­er­ate. He was also, mind you, one of the 16th cen­tury’s most suc­cess­ful and en­light­ened rulers, a fig­ure on a par with Europe’s Charles V or Turkey’s Suleiman. But it’s im­pos­si­ble not to re­gard his in­tense in­ter­est in paint­ing as re­lated in some way to his in­abil­ity to go be­yond the rudi­ments of read­ing and writ­ing. ( That said, he had a mag­nif­i­cent li­brary from which his ser­vants read aloud to him, and he com­posed po­etry.)

Un­der Ak­bar, paint­ing was in­ti­mately bound up with the court and its of­fi­cial view of it­self. He com­mis­sioned an il­lus­trated bi­og­ra­phy of his reign, and 1400 il­lus­tra­tions to ac­com­pany an edi­tion of the great Per­sian nar­ra­tive cy­cle, the Hamzanama ( or Tales of Hamza).

From his fa­ther Hu­mayun, Ak­bar in­her­ited many mas­ter artists. But he also opened his court to artists from other lands, es­pe­cially Per­sia. He is said to have in­spected the work of all his artists — by the 1590s more than 100 of them, most of them Hin­dus — ev­ery week.

The look of Mogul paint­ing un­der Ak­bar de­rives quite ob­vi­ously from the Safavid art of minia­ture paint­ing in Per­sia. But, pre­sum­ably be­cause of the in­flu­ence of the many Hindu

artists in Ak­bar’s re­li­giously tol­er­ant strik­ing dif­fer­ences quickly emerge.

Out­lin­ing and fill­ing in with colour re­main sep­a­rate tasks, some­times car­ried out by sep­a­rate artists, as they were in Per­sian art. But colours have be­come much bolder. ( The rich reds used in In­dian paint­ing were ob­tained from in­sect resin, blues from the indigo plant and lapis lazuli and yel­low from the urine of cows fed on man­goes.)

Nar­ra­tive, too, is em­pha­sised more strongly, and hints of West­ern per­spec­tive ( achieved, for in­stance, by mak­ing ob­jects smaller in the dis­tance) en­ter into play un­der the in­flu­ence of the West­ern artists Ak­bar wel­comed to his court.

Un­der Ak­bar’s suc­ces­sor Ja­hangir, paint­ing be­comes more re­fined, closer to Per­sian pro­to­types, and less ob­vi­ously of­fi­cial. It is aimed more at private con­nois­seurs. Ja­hangir was so con­fi­dent of his con­nois­seur­ship that he boasted he could tell whether dif­fer­ent artists had worked on the same paint­ing sim­ply by study­ing them.

Dur­ing the fol­low­ing cen­turies the for­tunes of paint­ing in In­dia waxed and waned. It was al­most stamped out un­der the zeal­ous, icon­o­clas­tic rule of the Mogul em­peror Au­rangzeb. But un­der the Ra­jput war­lords, some of the loveli­est In­dian minia­tures were pro­duced in an id­iom that blended na­tive tra­di­tions with the im­pe­rial art of the Moguls.

Many of th­ese il­lus­trate themes of love, hu­man and divine. What be­comes most en­tranc­ing is the fine dis­cern­ment they ex­press be­tween va­ri­eties of love. There is arousal, ec­stasy, jeal­ousy, ten­der­ness, plain old han­ker­ing and a great deal be­sides. In­deed, the tra­di­tional an­cient Greek dis­tinc­tion be­tween eros and agape , droned on about with such crush­ing pre­dictabil­ity at wed­dings, is made to seem hope­lessly prim­i­tive be­side In­dia’s flour­ish­ing tax­on­omy of love.

Of all the sen­ti­ments that form the ba­sis of In­dian aes­thet­ics, love- in- sep­a­ra­tion is the most im­por­tant, since it is so closely fused in the

court, Hindu imag­i­na­tion with de­vo­tion to the gods.

One Mogul paint­ing from about 1580 shows a wo­man and a par­rot. The scene il­lus­trates a well­known story of a wo­man who had to be dis­tracted ev­ery night from com­mit­ting adul­tery by a par­rot be­guil­ing her with sto­ries.

A sim­i­lar theme — avert­ing dis­as­ter through gor­geous dis­trac­tions — is il­lus­trated in a later Hindu paint­ing. A young wo­man, charged with watch­ing over crops in a field, is shown singing to some deer. Her singing, ac­cord­ing to the story, is so beau­ti­ful that the deer for­get to graze and the crops are saved. The paint­ing all but en­acts the story through sheer, dis­tract­ing love­li­ness: the wo­man wears a yel­low robe with a fine orange stripe, and she stands on a hill painted a warm green against a cool blue­green sky.

Many In­dian paint­ings, known as raga­mala , are in­ti­mately bound up with par­tic­u­lar dance ar­range­ments and po­etry. The melodies and their ac­com­pa­ny­ing il­lus­tra­tions each re­late to a mode of love, or the emo­tion con­nected to a par­tic­u­lar sea­son. Lovers ( of­ten based on the pop­u­lar myth of the divine Kr­ishna and his cowherd lover Radha) may be ex­cit­edly an­tic­i­pat­ing a tryst, cel­e­brat­ing an ac­tual union, swoon­ing from frus­trated love or re­mem­ber­ing past rap­tures.

In­dian love po­etry can be ex­tremely frank: ‘‘ Lis­ten­ing to my moans as you touch cer­tain spots, / The pet par­rot mim­ics me, and O how we laugh in bed!’’ The im­agery in this show, though not so openly erotic, can still drip with emo­tion. One il­lus­tra­tion, for in­stance, con­nected to the lalit ragini, or ‘‘ love ful­filled’’, mu­si­cal mode, presents us with a wo­man left alone with her com­pan­ions af­ter her lover has de­parted. The pat­tern­ing is ex­quis­ite, the pal­ette of pur­ple, red, orange, pink and green richly har­mo­nious.

I have only enough space to touch on a few of the themes em­braced by this small but, in scope, am­bi­tious show. There is no cat­a­logue ac­com­pa­ny­ing it, but the wall texts are clear and in­for­ma­tive, and the pre­sen­ta­tion a treat.

Minia­ture mar­vels: From far left, Todi Ragini , a wo­man charm­ing deer with her mu­sic; fo­lio from a dis­persed se­ries of the Bha­ga­vata Pu­rana ; Vas­ant Ragini ; and Ja­hangir as Prince Salim Re­turn­ing from a Hunt

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