We know that something in our world has changed when India is issuing travel advisories to its citizens, warning that Melbourne is a dangerous place. The subcontinent, with its poverty; its heartless caste system; its heritage of religious strife, bloodshed and social unrest, has suddenly turned and pointed the finger at the barbarous practices of the Best Little Country in the World. Is this an outrage or a wake-up call?
We would like the rest of the world to admire us for our enlightened attitudes, but instead they have noticed an increase in alcohol-fuelled violence and racism. In response, Australia has sent a procession of high-profile politicians off to India, laden with reassurances.
It may be a passing trend, but one could argue that in recent years Australians have become ever more complacent, materialistic, self-centred and stupid. This process was exacerbated by the mean-spirited attitudes of the Howard era, and shows no signs of disappearing. The fact that the same might be said about any number of countries does not make us any less culpable. Teenage binge drinking is a growing trend, but attendances at art galleries are static or declining, boosted only by the artificial blip of so-called blockbusters.
It seems that many people’s ideal of pleasure consists in rendering themselves insensible. Like any industry there is money to be made in this field, which is obviously why we need 24-hour pubs.
How agreeable it would be if we got off on art rather than booze, and here India points the way forward, with Garden & Cosmos, a remarkable exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW, featuring paintings from the royal courts of Jodhpur. This show was organized by the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington DC, where it debuted in 2008, and has already been shown at the Seattle Art Museum and the British Museum. After Sydney the tour concludes at the National Museum of India.
Garden & Cosmos features paintings from the 17th to 19th centuries that detail the pleasures and pastimes of the court, the religious rituals and stories that form part of the sprawling corpus of Hindu beliefs.
One might devote an entire column to tales of court intrigue, or the legends associated with Shiva and other deities, yet this would be futile because such basic data may be had from the catalogue or the wall labels. The mere conveying of background information could never prepare the viewer for the complexity and startling originality of these images.
Garden & Cosmos has that peculiar virtue of great exhibitions that deal exclusively with the art of another culture and another time: it is full of echoes of developments in western modernism. There are, for instance, monochrome panels of loosely brushed colour representing the Absolute. This is reminiscent of works by the French artist, Yves Klein, who was himself a student of eastern mysticism and the martial arts.
Such flashes of recognition remind us that all our methods of seeing and depicting are deeply conventional. There is no right or wrong in a picture, only a more or less persuasive attempt to engage our sensibilities. When Cézanne talked about finding the “truth” in painting, he was referring to a quality that transcended the accurate recording of appearances; a way of going beyond physical perception and looking through the eye of the mind. One thinks of “the subtle body” – a concept explored by both eastern and western mystics, which held that a human being’s physical form is only the reflection of the soul, or of a series of spiritual states that lead inexorably to God.
This is especially apparent in later works by artists of the Jodhpur courts, which are intended to engage the viewer’s moral and spiritual faculties. The painters arrived at this point through a set of deliberate stylistic choices, an evolving approach that unfolds step by step as we examine pictures from ateliers located in two royal fortresses in the north-western kingdom of Marwar – Mehrangarh in Jodhpur, and Ahhichatragarh in Nagaur.
Despite the bewildering cast of characters that appear in the catalogue, most of the work on display was created during the reigns of three notable Maharajas of the Rathore dynasty, Bakhat Singh (1725-51), Vijai Singh (1752-93) and Man Singh (1803-43). These reigns were marked by constant family tensions that led to uprisings, betrayals, shifting allegiances and assassinations. Bakhat Singh even murdered his own father, a deed that left a permanent stain on an otherwise impressive record.
It was a time that demanded a pragmatic approach to politics. The Marwar rulers were subordinates to the Mughals, who ruled over the subcontinent from 1526-1858. For the most part, this relationship between Hindus and Muslims rarely flared up into open rebellion or warfare. The Rathores provided troops for Mughal campaigns and enjoyed close ties with the imperial power. The greatest breach came in 1678, when the Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb, demanded that the Rathores convert to Islam. A short-lived war of independence followed in which the Rathores were defeated, and the Hindu temples destroyed.
With the death of Aurangzeb in 1707, and the assistance of a strategic marriage, Rathore sovereignty was freshly acknowledged by the Mughals. Although the state of Marwar was merged into the Indian nation in 1947, the Rathore dynasty remains intact. The current Maharaja, Gaj Singh II, has taken an active interest in the preservation of his family’s cultural heritage, establishing the Mehrangarh Museum Trust in 1972. Fifty-five works in this exhibition come from that collection, which totals more than three thousand items.
In the earliest works in this show we see how local traditions of folk painting were influenced, and occasionally overrun, by the more highly developed realism of Mughal painting. While some court artists were producing crude narrative pictures that illustrated musical and poetic texts – the ragamalas – others were painting small, delicate portraits of the Rathore rulers.
By the reign of Bakhat Singh the two modes had been blended into a new kind of art, in formats much larger than was typical for Rajasthani painting. Other innovations, according to curator, Catherine Glynn, included the use of fluid lines that showed a technical mastery of space and depth, a striking pastel pink, and the accurate representation of intricate textile patterns and architectural motifs. The subject of these works was almost exclusively the life of the court, mainly the life of pleasure pursued by Bakhat Singh and his harem – or zenana.
Bakhat’s son, Vijai, took a different approach to his duties, showing a deep interest in religion. The style of court painting changed to accommodate this preoccupation, as artists began to illustrate the stories of Krishna and other deities on enormous sheets of paper that became part of thick manuscripts. It is suggested that these pictures would have been held at each end for the Maharaja to examine them while readings were performed.
Some of the most breathtaking paintings in the show date from this period, including a series of works based on episodes from the famous epic, The Ramayana. Monkeys and Bears in the Kishkindha Forest shows a mesmeric series of rolling hills, interspersed with mounds of rocks as pink as lotus leaves. Throughout this rhythmic landscape one finds tiny bears, monkeys and herons, delineated with extraordinary finesse.
Another work, Death of Vali; Rama and Lakshmana Wait Out the Monsoon, is notable for its swirling, stylised clouds, and a herd of elephants on a vivid green backdrop. In all the paintings of this series, the colour and detail are staggering, as is the artists’ consistent inventiveness.
The third Maharaja, Man Singh, took Vijai’s religious inclinations a step further, becoming a devotee of a yogic sect called the Naths, who followed in the footsteps of the ascetic, Jallandharnath. The Naths practiced Hatha yoga, which, in its most advanced form, was said to confer supernatural powers such as levitation. The Naths were also known for the quantities of hashish they consumed, which was probably a more reliable method of getting high.
Man Singh elevated his guru and other Naths to lofty positions within the state, incurring the displeasure of his relatives and his subjects. The yogic influence was also felt in the type of art produced by the court atelier, which took a more mystical turn, incorporating tantric diagrams, areas of blankness and all-over patterning. Some pictures are surprisingly minimal, although many different approaches co-existed. For instance, the painting, Ganesha, Saraswati, and Jallandarnath, shows a mastery of colour and fine detail that matches the works of Vijai’s court.
While visiting this show I couldn’t help overhearing the comments of other viewers. The word most frequently uttered was “amazing”, and it would be hard to improve on that. Not only do these paintings demonstrate an incredible understanding of colour, composition and symbolism, they open a window onto a religious philosophy that seeks to explore the secrets of the universe. There is no need for drink or drugs here – the art itself is a powerful intoxicant.
Garden and Cosmos, The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur, October 29, 2009 – January 26, 2010
Published in the Sydney Morning January 16, 2010