The deliriously beautiful art of India’s master court painters

In the 16th century, when Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael were futzing about with single-point perspective and trying vainly to resuscitate old gods, artists in India began producing some of the most concentrated, trance-inducing and deliriously beautiful art ever made.

Take, for example, a small painting on cloth by two Mughal artists, Basawan and Jagan. It presents a bird’s-eye view of an enclosed, Persian-style garden with a slender tower, a fountain and a pink pavilion. It teems with trees and flowers. Some grow in the garden; others ornament the pavilion and garden wall. The flat, stylized rendering of both blurs the line between real and decorative.

The painting (more on which in a moment) is one of the most striking works in “Indian Skies,” a three-room exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The show, which was organized by Navina Najat Haidar and John Guy, doesn’t make a fuss or clamor for attention, but I can’t think of a more beautiful show I’ve seen in the past year.

“Indian Skies” marks the recent gift to the Met of 80 works from the British artist Howard Hodgkin. Hodgkin is better known in Europe than in America, but he was one of the most captivating painters of the past half-century. His paintings are boldly colored, loosely brushed and subtly layered, and they tend to cover not only the canvas but also the frame.

Hodgkin’s collection of Indian court art (which flourished from the 16th century up until European influences began to prevail in the 19th) was well known even before he died in 2017. The painting of the garden by Basawan and Jagan, in gouache and gold, is one of the first pieces Hodgkin acquired. It blends the formal serenity of Persian art with the deep colors and dynamic poses of the Indian tradition.

Colorfully dressed women populate the upper and lower floors of the pavilion. One of the women, wearing a transparent veil over a bright-orange dress, leans out of the upper level. Powerful and accomplished, she is the archer Mihrdukht. Her whole body is dynamically flexed as she aims her bow and arrow at a ring held in the beak of a golden bird on top of the tower.

End of carousel

The picture illustrates an episode from the Hamzanama, or Adventures of Hamza (Hamza was the uncle of the prophet Muhammad). Trying to repel her many suitors, Mihrdukht tells them that if they want to win her hand, they must match her level of skill, which she proceeds to demonstrate.

The painting was part of a series of about 1,400 illustrations of the Hamzanama. The project was instigated by the Mughal emperor Akbar, who had brought two Persian artists to his court in India. Unfortunately, only 10 percent of these works have survived. Three are in the Hodgkin collection.

Educated at Eton College, Hodgkin began collecting Indian art when he was 14 years old. His art teacher, Wilfrid Blunt (brother to the notorious Soviet spy and art historian Anthony Blunt) sparked Hodgkin’s passion when he showed him Indian works from his own collection. Blunt went on to organize an exhibition of Indian court art with loans from Windsor Castle, just a few minutes’ walk across the River Thames from Eton. (The Royal Collection boasts some of the greatest examples.) Hodgkin later became close friends with Stuart Cary Welch, the Harvard scholar and curator who was one of the world’s leading experts in Indian and Islamic art.

Hodgkin went to India for the first time in 1964. The place became, in the words of his friend the writer Bruce Chatwin, “an emotional lifeline,” and he returned almost every year. “Each winter,” according to Chatwin, “he traveled all over the subcontinent, sopping up impressions — of empty hotel rooms, the beach at Mahabalipuram, the view from a railway carriage, the color of cow dust in the evening, or the site of an orange sari against a concrete balustrade — and storing them for pictures he would paint at home, in Wiltshire.”

More than Indian court art, as Guy has noted, it was India itself that had the biggest influence on Hodgkin’s work. He had a Proustian sensibility: He thought of himself as a representational rather than an abstract painter, but what he was “representing” were memories — and the emotions to which they gave rise.

Color was his most important tool. So the obvious thing to say about any connection between his work (two marvelous examples of which have been included in the show) and Indian court art is that both are richly — and often surprisingly — colored.

Hodgkin collected Indian art from a base of deep knowledge, but he was not a scholar and showed little regard for conventional categories or classifications. What mattered to him was how each piece looked, and how it (or simply that it) affected him emotionally.

He tended to choose larger, bolder works (perhaps to kick against talk of “Indian miniatures”). There are small, exquisitely detailed works in the collection but, thanks to their saturated colors, even these often have the kind of gravity and intensity you might associate with an artist like Matisse.

There are portraits of princes, maharajahs and courtiers; bird and botanical studies; erotically charged depictions of courtesans; images of palaces, bazaars, hunts, music parties, marriage processions and dervishes; and religious depictions of Hindu gods and heroes drawn from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. There is even a satirical depiction of a feast laid for noblemen threatened by a giant swarm of flies.

Hodgkin loved depictions of animals. An entire, enthralling room is devoted to elephants. They are shown eating, fighting, raging and in rut (or “mast”), engaged in tiger hunts, bearing maharajahs and bathing in dust. You emerge from the room with a powerful sense of not only the central importance of these astonishing creatures to Indian culture but also the personalities of individual elephants.

Engrossing, inimitable and surpassingly vivid, every work in this show (which is rich in Rajput and Deccan as well as Mughal painting) rewards prolonged attention. All are crowded with interest and incident. All combine clarity of construction, riveting detail and ravishing color.

Indian Skies: The Howard Hodgkin Collection of Indian Court Painting Through June 9 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. metmuseum.org

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