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