Thursday, August 4, 2011

Indian paintings at the San Diego Museum of Art

I went to the San Diego Museum of Art a couple days ago to take my students on a field trip of the Asian Art collection, and while we were there I happened to take in some lovely Indian paintings created by the artists of the courts which were in the present-day state of Rajasthan during the 1700s. The capital was moved from Amber to Jaipur during this time, and the kings were the subjects of the Mughal emperors from 1562 until the British colonized India in 1858. Mughal influence inspired many of the Amber and Jaipur court members to be connoisseurs of the arts, commissioning artists to create illustrated manuscripts and album pages, practices that had been learned from the Persians.

Todi Ragini, India, Rajasthan, Opaque watercolor and gold on paper, ca. 1700
In this lovely garden scene, a young woman wistfully dreams of her absent lover and is framed by deer who are almost all intently focused on her.  Her pose is linked with ancient sculptural symbolism related to plant pollination in which a beautiful young woman touches and kicks a tree, causing it to burst into flower and produce fruit.  The erotic undertones would also have been quite recognizable in the time of this painting's creation as the fruit and flowers of the banana tree (seen on top of the hill) were considered phallic symbols.
Don't think my head is in the gutter though!!!  This beautiful painting caught my eye first because of its color palette. I love the mauve landscape forms, that seem to imply movement with the slightly lighter and golden swirling details incorporated, and those sections especially jump out when viewed against the flat, blue-green middle ground. The deer are so elegant, and I love the detailed depiction of foliage.

Todi Ragini, India, Rajasthan, Amber Court.  Opaque watercolor and gold on paper, ca. 1720
 Again, we see a beautiful young woman surrounded by animals, all painted with the utmost precision and care. There is little attempt at realistic perspective - many of the forms are flattened - but its stylized landscape motifs and elegant representations of animals create a charming example of Rajasthani painting from the 18th century.

The poem at the top of the page reads:

She is in meditation like an ascetic. 
Every limb of her body is filled with a beautiful intoxication.
Her heart is filled with the pain of separation from her lover.
She is singing at night with her heart filled with the thoughts of her lover,
and these echo in her song.
Surrounded by peacocks, filled with pangs of separation, she drowns herself in music. 

Lord Shiva attended by Parvati, India, Rajashtan, Jaipur court. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper, ca. 1790.
This is the piece that I spent the most time looking at during my visit - the detail was absolutely stunning. It was interesting to see that, unlike most of the others on display, this piece showed a more accurate depiction of space and depth, with the city on the banks of the Ganges River receding and the mountains trailing off into the distance. The view is of the city of Jaipur, which was founded in the early 1700s, and  Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II was said to have studied maps and the architecture of Versailles and other European cities when developing plans for this new capital city. As I was drawn into the details of this piece, I was blown away by tiny details of the city, stunningly precise and minute. There were even tiny people populating the streets!

The main figure are Lord Shiva, a major Hindu diety seen as a creator and destroyer figure, and  Parvati, his wife, who is sometimes considered a diving maternal figure.  Shiva and Parvati are surrounded by guards, yogis, and their elephant-headed son Ganesha.  Shiva appears intoxicated, perhaps by bhang, a beverage derived from cannabis, which is said to be his favorite intoxicant as it keeps the world safe from his anger.  Bhang is still sold in India, where it is generally not considered a drug, but instead sleeping aid or appetizer.


  1. My knowledge of art is so limited!!! Being a "Westerner", I never would have imagined these pieces weren’t from a later date...