Divine Pleasures: Painting from India’s Rajput Courts

Divine Pleasures: Painting from India’s Rajput Courts; The Kronos Collections by Terence McInerney, et al. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2016.

Divine Pleasures was published in conjunction with an exhibit of Indian miniature paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The paintings are mostly from the Kronos Collection, mostly water colors on paper. They are inspired by the painting traditions preserved in the Indian royal courts in Rajasthan and the Punjab Hills.

This Rajput princely class had allied itself with the Mughals, a warrior tribe from Central Asia, who ruled over the northern plain of India from the imperial cities of Delhi and Agra during the sixteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries. The Mughals also sponsored their own painting traditions based partly on Persian poetry and inspired by Central Asian artistry.

By the mid-nineteenth century, these small states in Rajasthan and Punjab were gradually being annexed by the East India Company. The East India Company (later the Indian Civil Service) took over the administration of their land revenue and court systems, claiming, with considerable truth, that they were poorly administered by their native rulers.

In 1857 there was a serious revolt amongst the sepoys (Indian soldiers in the East India Company army) which caused the British to reverse the policy of annexation and preserve most of the remaining princely states. It made good political sense to keep these ‘native states’ around and to encourage their patronage of Indian arts and crafts. Indian mythology was a rich, but also an innocuous source of inspiration that artists drew upon for their themes. The curators of Divine Pleasures have skillfully created an exhibition that illustrates these various artistic traditions, Rajput and Mughal.

The essays about the art in Divine Pleasures point out that the great temple-building, which culminated in the complexes at Khajuraho and Konarak, was over. Indian miniatures became the most celebrated surviving artistic tradition. Many of the paintings have entered world markets for South Asian art and are now dispersed. Fortunately Steven Kossack has been a major collector and his collection has been donated to the Kronos Collection at the Met.

This painterly tradition on paper was a continuation of the practice of painting the stone statuary that adorned the Khajuraho and Konarak temples and particularly the enormous entry gates to the temple complexes in the same bright colors.

Why are these Indian miniatures so appealing? Certainly it is in large measure due to the use of color. Bright reds and yellows dominate. Each painting was framed by a colorful border carefully chosen to augment the paint. Sometimes a silver band is included.

The artists are good story-tellers. The paintings are commonly divided into several ‘scenes.’ Most involve a young woman pining away for a missing beloved. She has numerous ladies-in-waiting who participate in the anguish of unrequited young love. Most commonly the lover involved is either Vishnu or Krishna, one of the avatars of Vishnu. Caste is not mentioned in Divine Pleasures, but these tales are drawn mostly from the traditions of the Kshatriya or warrior caste and from their embrace of the bhakti movement, involving personal devotion to a god. Though a warrior caste, the males are rarely pictured fighting.

The authors believe that we are more likely to enjoy these Indian miniatures because we have been introduced to abstraction through western art. At times both these Rajput and Punjab art traditions do adopt a playful abstraction in their landscapes. For example their “lollipop trees.” But the landscapes are more often realistic. Most trees look like trees, and their leaves are carefully drawn and colored.

It is obvious that the Indian royalty enjoying this art were also fond of fabrics, and particularly fine cottons and silks. Rajasthani women wear long skirts rather than saris, mostly of beautiful cottons. They are often augmented by translucent scarves. The young women are commonly engaged in making music, on sitars, sarods, vima (all stringed instruments), and tubla (drums.) The men are youthful, handsome, and usually have trimmed facial hair. They wear colorful turbans and cummerbunds. Both men and women wear jewelry. Both frequently are smoking tobacco through a hookah or water pipe.

When the women are not lamenting an absent lover, they are actively engaged in the early stages of coitus with that lover. Lots of groping. Onlookers seem not to bother them.

I am particularly enthralled by of the representation of towns and large country villas located in the middle-ground or back-ground of a painting and mostly simple shapes and colors. They are definitely ‘abstractions’ of the reality of Indian urban life.

Gainesville is fortunate to have had a collection of Indian art, including Indian miniatures, given to the Harn Museum of Art by various collectors.


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