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A girl with curving hips, bending to whisper in his ear,
Cherishes her kiss on her lover’s tingling cheek
Hari (Krishna) revels here as the crowd of charming girls
Revels in seducing him to play
[Gita Govinda canto 1, verse 41]
Steeped in the poetic traditions that were so popular from the 17th to the 19th century, the ruling classes focused much of their patronage on paintings that emphasized themes of love and longing, especially when these concepts could be framed as the actions of the gods. For these elites, subtle allusions to literary conventions were paramount.
Across North India, rulers patronized regional schools of painting associated with various courts. Featured in this exhibition are works from the important Rajasthani kingdoms of Bikaner, Udaipur (Mewar), Kota, Bundi, Jodhpur (Marwar), Kishangarh, Jaipur, and further south from Malwa.
In the foothills of the Himalayas are the smaller Pahari courts, where again numerous paintings were produced; featured are works from Jasrota, Basohli, Guler, and Kangra. In each of the Rajasthani and Pahari centers, artists purposely employed remarkably distinct and contrasting stylistic vocabularies.
Grounded in earlier traditions, rulers often commissioned paintings in an effort to present themselves as powerful leaders who possessed military might. Historically, the Rajasthani kings vied for power and control of territory, but by the 16th century, these principalities had become vassal states within the powerful Mughal Empire. When Jagat Singh, the Maharaja of Jaipur, commissioned this topographic view of the immense Ranthambhor fort, he was clearly positioning himself within a longstanding European tradition of showing military fortifications from above that he would have known from prints. Ranthambhor, with its 24 miles of walls, effectively emphasized his claim to military standing, but in fact, during his reign, it primarily served as a hunting lodge.
Equestrian portraiture was another way to express royal standing, as seen in the image of Maharana Sangram Singh from Mewar. He sits on a rearing horse flanked by attendants holding fly whisks, following a longstanding convention of dynastic portraiture. A radiant halo further aggrandizes the king and references his dynastic descent from the sun god.
The arts of music, dance, and poetry, especially as they related to courtly life, began to take center stage, as military exploits had little place during this time of peace. Great fortifications gave way to luxurious gardens and palaces, as in this painting showing the Jagniwas Water Palace, where the Maharana Ari Singh is shown together with his chiefs looking on with appreciation at a festival performance of dance and music. Ari Singh appears again in the lower left, next to a pool filled with fish and surrounded by tiny wall paintings populated with erotic scenes and the 10 avatars (appearances) of Vishnu. The painting reflects the luxurious pursuit of refined culture rather than an expression of military might.
Fitting themselves into the poetic discourse, rulers often took the places of the protagonists and actually participated in the narratives. In the work at right, a nobleman ascends a rope to visit his lover, who reclines within the palaces’ defended walls. The clandestine tryst is a theme that runs through the poetry, and certainly the tension of this forbidden act would have appealed to royal tastes. Presenting this scene in the somber tones of night is an innovation of the important artist Chokha.
Ragamala paintings representing the essence or mood of a musical composition were another popular genre that often also had devotional significance. In this work, which represents the Vasant Ragini musical composition, the central dancing nobleman plays the role of Krishna in celebration of the coming of spring. He holds a vina (stringed instrument) over his shoulder and lifts up a pot out of which a flowering plant emerges. His skirt of peacock feathers makes his association with Krishna clear, while the surrounding female musicians recall Krishna’s rāslīlā dance with the gopis (cow-herdesses).
Equally, courtly life can be seen as reflecting the realm of the gods. In the image below, a woman—the personification of the ideal of feminine beauty (a nayika or heroine) as conceptualized in Indian devotional poetry— strums a tanpura. Her elaborate jewelry and the sheer textiles clearly place her as a member of the court. At the same time, there is the allusion that she is Radha, the divine consort of Krishna, who was so important to these Kishangarh patrons.
These royal patrons had artists give form and context to their relationship with the gods. In the image at right, Krishna and Radha appear as Raja Balwant Singh’s devotional vision. Subtly, the artist Nainsukh creates two contrasting worlds, one occupied by the gods and the other by their devotee, who stands at the threshold. Balwant Singh looks into Krishna’s eyes and in turn receives his Lord’s grace (darshan). The setting is a terrace of the raja’s court framed by a landscape, and the orange canopy draws you into the divine space of the gods. Nainsukh gives tremendous power to this work by omitting embellishing design and thereby focusing on the protagonists.
At this time on the plains of Rajasthan, it was primarily Krishna, in all his varied roles, that fueled the pious devotional imagination of patron and artist alike. The stories associated with Krishna’s life formed the basis for a major pilgrimage tradition that especially focused on the region of Braj. In the painting below, Krishna appears as the auspicious seven-year old Sri Nathji in the act of lifting up Mount Govardhan to protect his devotees from a violent storm invoked by the god Indra. He is dressed to mark a specific festival, and his physical form is based on one of the self-manifest stone sculptural images (svyambhu) that stood at the center of this devotional tradition.
At these pilgrimage centers, large painted cloths (pichhwais) were hung behind the primary stone images of Sri Nathji in accordance with the festival calendar. The textile below was produced for the Festival of Cows (Gopashtami), which takes place in the late autumn to celebrate Krishna’s elevation from a herder of calves to a cowherd.
Note the range of cows and frolicking calves that populate the flower-strewn field. The indigo ground and extensive use of gold and silver are typical of pichhwais that were made for a community of Sri Nathji devotees who moved to the Deccan during this period. Emphasized is the idea of natural abundance central to the Shri Nathji tradition, Shri actually carrying the meaning of prosperity.
Krishna’s love for Radha came to be expressed using many of these same ideas. Here the divine couple is show within a fertile, flowering landscapes filled with pairs of birds. While the exact poetic source for this painting is not known, similar metaphors run through the erotically charged poetry popular at this time time such as this passage from the Gita Govinda:
Crying sounds of cuckoos, mating on mango shoots
Shaken as bees seek honey scents of opening buds ...
By tasting the mood of lovers’ union
[Gita Govinda, canto 3 verse 36]
Popular devotional poetic works also included great epics stories of the gods. The Ramayana, which tells of Rama’s quest to save his beloved Sita from the demon Ravana had tremendous appeal at both the Rajasthani and Pahari courts. In the work below, smoke rises from the funerary pyre of the monkey king Vali, who was murdered by his brother and rival Sugriva, with the help of Rama. At the upper left, Sugriva approaches Rama, shown seated in a cave, who affirms his standing as king of the monkeys. A small scene set within the mountains to the right shows Sugriva, Hanuman, Lakshmana, and the monkey army returning to their vast and impenetrable golden capitol to crown the new king.
Equally dramatic, and the subject of many paintings, is the Devi Mahatmya, a devotional text which recounts how Durga rid the world of demons. In this work, Durga manifests as the fierce emaciated goddess Kali. At the center of this frenzied battle, Kali beheads the demons Chanda and Munda. She appears again in the upper right presenting their heads to a benign form of Durga, who stands with many arms holding a trident. In recognition of slaying these demons, Durga bestows the name Chamunda on her terrible manifestation.
The goddess could also appear in her universal form as Mahadevi (literally Great Goddess). In this 20-armed form, Mahadevi holds an array of weapons affiliating her with all the male gods. The weapons she holds also align her with Durga, the slayer of the buffalo demon Mahisha. Ultimately powerful and creative, Mahadevi is understood as the totality of all the goddesses and as the the true reality by her devotees. As she was protector deity of the ruling household of Bikaner, this representation would have had a special significance for the court.
The installation Poetry and Devotion in Indian Painting: Two Decades of Collecting celebrates the contributions of Steven M. Kossak, who, as a curator in The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Department of Asian Art from 1986 to 2006, guided the institution in building a significant collection of Indian paintings from the Hindu courts of Northern India with the generous support of several important donors. This display is intended to complement Divine Pleasures: Painting from India’s Rajput Courts—The Kronos Collections, on view in the Museum’s Galleries for Drawings, Prints, and Photographs, which documents gifts and promised gifts from Kossak. Taken together, the two exhibitions, spanning two decades of collecting, constitute one of the most important assemblages of Indian painting in the West.