It can be tempting to compare these historical Indian paintings with familiar examples from the Euro-American canon but that would do a disservice to these artworks, which are revelatory on their own.
Under the rule of tolerant Muslims, Indian artists of the Mughal Empire (1526–c. 1857) developed a highly distinctive aesthetic. Court, Epic, Spirit: Indian Art 15th–19th Century at Luhring Augustine, in association with Francesca Galloway, demonstrates how very varied their painted subjects were. The works, loosely organized around the title’s three themes, encompass battle scenes, such as “Battle between the Iranians and the Turanians”(1450) and portraits — “Bust portrait of a prince, probably Muhammad Sultan, the son of Aurangzeb”(1670) is a good example. The exhibition includes one magnificent large still life, “Iris on a gold ground” (1669). A number of scenes portray sacred Hindu themes. In the exquisite “Lakshmana gathers elephant flowers to make a garland” (1799-1810), for instance, three of the figures sit on a delicate violet-colored ground against a luscious dark green backdrop, while a fourth picks buds from a flowering tree on the right. The catalogue explains that here Rama, building up the confidence of Sugriva to fight his brother, Bali, asks Lakshmana to gather these flowers so that he, Sugriva, will be distinguished visually from his brother.
Are any artworks from anywhere in the world any more beautiful than these Indian miniatures? Using intense, flat, un-modeled color, employing shallow and usually aperspectival stage settings, the artists typically composed via addition, juxtaposing figures who often seem to exist almost without awareness of one another. And some of the subjects are marvelously fantastical. What is going on in “A prince, an ascetic and drug-addled sadhus” (1790), attributed to Pemji, in which a vast crowd is assembled before these three named figures and their companions, who sit in a deliciously elaborate setting? The very detailed catalogue description identifies the smoking ascetic, addressed by a young prince, who is holding a parrot and is accompanied by his armed guard. It explains that in the foreground are ascetics, “seemingly stoned out of their minds either smoking drugs or drinking bhang.” Though useful, that description doesn’t unpack the visual mysteries — what in the world is going on here? I really don’t understand, but I do love the elaborate setting, in which the architecture and vegetation frame the scene. In the simpler work “A man of commanding presence” (1700–1730), a man wearing a green striped garment sits before a golden background on a white cushion placed on a flowered fabric; an orange and yellow border frames the image. The colors flash against each other, inspiring prolonged aesthetic ecstasy.
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