Divine Pleasures

From 1750 to 1850 India experienced one of its most turbulent and violent periods. Fissures in the Mughal Empire that had controlled most of the subcontinent since the early sixteenth century allowed competing states to take control. Written down as history, it sounds like yet another shuffling of rulers and borders, but for the contemporaries it meant slaughter and starvation. When you keep in mind the scope of the calamities, the ethereal world of the art produced at the time comes as a surprise.

“Here lovers cling to each other in abandon, surrounded by a mosaic of cushions and bolsters; elephants run amok and dart under the arches scraping their sides; armies of monkeys and bears turn into a vast cloud as they advance upon Lanka; the universe comes into being before one’s eyes as matter begins to form from void; a tiger shot in a forest tumbles nineteen times over before it falls to the ground; a blind poet envisions baby Krishna waking up; princes stand on marble embankments feeding crocodiles;… boats ply on gentle waters while lovers escape to fragrant arbours. There is so much to see here, and savour, as painters play around with time and keep manipulating space at will.”

So writes William Dalrymple in his NYRB article about the recent Metropolitan Museum exhibit called Divine Pleasures: Painting from India’s Rajput Courts. As the artist circles at the Mughal court started to break up, the painters found employment at the smaller courts, and their collective output led to the creation of a distinct type of painting–joyous, romantic and exuberant.

The underlying principle is pleasure. In the Hindu tradition, the the three aims of life are dharma (righteousness), artha (power), and kama (pleasure). The talk of pleasure as frivolous and superfluous–“who needs pretty pictures in the time of war?”–wouldn’t have made sense to Indians in the 18th century, as throughout most of their long history. Pleasure is a goal in itself. It makes things whole. It is about literature and religion, poetry and history, culture and politics. Artists capturing the god Krishna surrounded by flower adorned maidens or enchanted landscapes with magical birds and vines aimed to touch the viewer’s soul by delighting the eye. They’re full of emotion. Art–along with music, literature or perfume–works when it’s a whole aesthetic experience and a source of kama, pleasure.

After the British put down the Great Uprising of 1857 and started rapidly absorbing the subcontinent into their empire, the world of the Rajput courts and their refined arts vanished. 19th century British colonial officials, such James Mill, saw Indian culture as backward, underdeveloped, and on the low civilizational level, “very nearly the same with that of the Chinese, the Persians, and the Arabians.” For them it became a matter of policy that “the arts, the knowledge, and the manners of Europe … be brought to their doors, and forced by an irresistible moral pressure on their acceptance.”* And force the British did.

rao-raja-bishen-singh

Those who aren’t able to experience Rajput art at the museum, the lavishly produced catalogue of the Divine Pleasures exhibit (edited by Terence McInerney with Navina Najat Haidar and Steven M. Kossak) will be a window to a vibrant and whimsical world. The flowers are lover’s lips, and the clouds are their tender embraces. Animals have feelings. Gods enjoy playing innocent pranks on their devotees, like stealing their clothes while they’re bathing. Officials are presented as holding fragrant blossoms to their noses–we’re in a society where the knowledge of scents is a mark of culture and intelligence.  The colors are rich and saturated: ochre, sienna, emerald green, and saffron yellow. It’s the kind of experience described in the Hindu aesthetics as rasavadana, the tasting of rasa–delight, essence, bliss.

*J.Mill, ‘Bruce’s Report on the East-India Negotiation’, The Monthly Review, 70, 1813.

Divine Pleasures: Painting from India’s Rajput Courts—The Kronos Collections
an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, June 14–September 12, 2016
Catalog of the exhibition by Terence McInerney with Steven M. Kossak and Navina Najat Haidar
Metropolitan Museum of Art, 262 pp., $50.00 (distributed by Yale University Press)

Image: 1) Krishna and the Gopis on the Bank of the Yamuna River, miniature painting from the Tehri Garwhal Gita Govinda, circa 1775–1780. 2) Rao Raja Bishen Singh of Uniara, photography by Bois de Jasmin. Kronos Collections, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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32 Comments

  • Annie: I love the dashing looking gentleman with a flower! Thank you for another interesting post. December 12, 2016 at 10:12am Reply

    • Marc: He’s wearing some serious jewelry there. December 12, 2016 at 10:23am Reply

      • Victoria: And I betcha, plenty of perfume! December 12, 2016 at 11:17am Reply

        • Annie: I can only imagine what he was wearing. Sandalwood? Rose? December 12, 2016 at 12:07pm Reply

          • Victoria: Most likely a mixture based on sandalwood, since the Indian style attars at the time were based on this wood, with other ingredients added–rose, champaca, ambergris, musk, vetiver. Even today they make mixtures that are similar, but without the natural animal essences. December 12, 2016 at 12:25pm Reply

            • Annie: Wow! Are they used in perfumes today? I’d love to smell them. December 12, 2016 at 12:41pm Reply

              • Victoria: They’re used in perfumes locally and also in fragrances made for the Middle Eastern market. Lotus Aromatics used to carry a whole collection of attars, some of which were very good. It was a long time ago, however, since I’ve tried their products. December 12, 2016 at 1:25pm Reply

          • sara: I thought of Neela Vermeire Trayee or Mohur. December 16, 2016 at 9:36am Reply

            • sara: Sorry, wrong spot. I meant to reply under Victoria’s comment about perfumes with attars. Mohur and Trayee smell like they have it. December 16, 2016 at 9:38am Reply

              • Victoria: Ah, I see what you mean. They don’t contain attars, but they recreate the effect with other ingredients. December 16, 2016 at 9:32pm Reply

            • Victoria: Those two would fit! December 16, 2016 at 9:31pm Reply

    • Victoria: He’s part of the Met’s permanent collection on display, by the way. And yes, he’s my favorite too. December 12, 2016 at 11:16am Reply

  • kekasmais: I saw this exhibit over the summer! They had incomplete sketches of scenes from the Bhagavata Purana that were marvelous to behold. Even basic outlining of these pieces required no small amount of mastery. December 12, 2016 at 10:53am Reply

    • Victoria: The Victoria & Albert Museum in London also has some of the great examples from the period, and they’re mesmerising. The level of detail and color layering makes you realise how complex the technique was. December 12, 2016 at 11:19am Reply

    • meena: how did i miss it when i was in nyc this summer?? December 13, 2016 at 5:02am Reply

      • Victoria: Some of the paintings are part of the Met’s permanent collection, and I’m sure they will feature them again at some point. December 13, 2016 at 8:34am Reply

  • Lesley A: Thank you. I ordered this book for my daughter for Christmas. December 12, 2016 at 12:37pm Reply

    • Victoria: You’re welcome! I hope that she will enjoy it. December 12, 2016 at 1:24pm Reply

  • Sowmya Dakshinamurti: As a classical Indian dancer (bharatanatyam & kathak) I love reading about this! This is the time period in which many lyrics were written that have become staples for interpretation in dance. I have danced many items in which the physicalization of sensual experience (ie any experience of the senses, including smell) reveals the deeper emotional landscape, and the underlying spiritual or metaphysical truth. Sometimes the scent of rose and sandalwood means SO much more… December 12, 2016 at 6:13pm Reply

    • Victoria: I would have loved to learn more about classical Indian dance. One of my favorite photographs of ballerina Anna Pavlova is of her wearing a bharatanatyam costume. It’s such an ancient dance tradition. December 13, 2016 at 8:28am Reply

  • Claudia: I’m a first time commenter here. Your blog is a delight and I thank you for all that you put into it.
    I now live in a small town with only one small local museum. I miss my former big city life–but I now have a flower garden and it makes up for it. I enjoyed this posting very much! December 13, 2016 at 3:58am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Claudia! And welcome to Bois de Jasmin.

      Oh, a flower garden is my idea of heaven. 🙂 December 13, 2016 at 8:33am Reply

  • Tim: “Art–along with music, literature or perfume–works when it’s a whole aesthetic experience and a source of kama, pleasure.”

    I can’t agree more! Wearing Knize Ten this morning, again. It’s my source of pleasure. :-” December 13, 2016 at 4:17am Reply

  • Aurora: You make me want to go see the Indian collection at the V&A. What you say about the turbulent times while this world of art was flourishing reminds me of Orson Welles in The Third Man and the cuckoo clock speech! December 13, 2016 at 5:48am Reply

    • Victoria: I love that line! Whenever there are big upheavals, the artists interpret the events in their own ways, so perhaps it’s not surprising. But of course, we know that the old Chinese curse of living in interesting times. (Which apparently is just an apocryphal expression attributed to the Chinese only to make it sound more profound.)

      The V&A and British Museum, unsurprisingly, have rich Indian collections. If you stop by the V&A, do be sure to notice this lovely snake charmer:
      http://boisdejasmin.com/2016/07/snake-charmer-and-sandalwood.html December 13, 2016 at 8:39am Reply

  • Karen A: Oh darn it! Sorry to not have known about this, a trip up to see it would have been a treat! Thank you for the interesting post and lovely pictures. December 13, 2016 at 6:10am Reply

    • Victoria: My pleasure!
      The Indian art collection at the Met alone is worth a trip. I mentioned earlier, but this bejeweled dandy is on the permanent display in the Eastern art wing. December 13, 2016 at 8:40am Reply

      • Karen A: A day trip up by train sounds like a perfect idea for a dreary, cold January day! December 13, 2016 at 5:09pm Reply

        • Victoria: And you can pay a visit to my favorite Persian bowl (the black on white Nishapuri ware I wrote about not long ago.) December 15, 2016 at 8:07am Reply

  • Nora Szekely: Dear Victoria and perfume lovers,

    Such a wonderful concept : instead of considering pleasure as frivolous an no noble goal to reach to include it among the aims to strive for.
    As for olfactory pleasures, I can only imagine how divine cultivated people smelled in this era.
    The artwork us wonderful, one more thing for me to view when I go to New York. December 16, 2016 at 4:13am Reply

    • Victoria: Very true! After all, it makes perfect sense, especially as all three aims are kept in balance. That’s a constant negotiation one has to do with oneself. But denying pleasure altogether as some puritans do is also wrong. December 16, 2016 at 5:15am Reply

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