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.
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.