Under the rule of the Mughal Empire (1526–c.1857), Indian artists developed a highly distinctive aesthetic. Court, Epic, Spirit: Indian Art 15th–19th Century at Luhring Augustine, in association with Francesca Galloway, demonstrates how very varied their painted subjects were. The works, loosely organized around the title’s three themes, encompass battle scenes, such as “Battle between the Iranians and the Turanians”(1450) and portraits — “Bust portrait of a prince, probably Muhammad Sultan, the son of Aurangzeb”(1670) is a good example. A number of scenes portray sacred Hindu themes. In the exquisite “Lakshmana gathers elephant flowers to make a garland” (1799-1810), for instance, three of the figures sit on a delicate violet-colored ground against a luscious dark green backdrop, while a fourth picks buds from a flowering tree on the right. The catalogue explains that here Rama, building up the confidence of Sugriva to fight his brother, Bali, asks Lakshmana to gather these flowers so that he, Sugriva, will be distinguished visually from his brother.
Are any artworks from anywhere in the world any more beautiful than these Indian miniatures? Using intense, flat, un-modeled color, employing shallow and usually aperspectival stage settings, the artists typically composed via addition, juxtaposing figures who often seem to exist almost without awareness of one another. And some of the subjects are marvelously fantastical. What is going on in “A prince, an ascetic and drug-addled sadhus” (1790), attributed to Pemji, in which a vast crowd is assembled before these three named figures and their companions, who sit in a deliciously elaborate setting? The very detailed catalogue description identifies the smoking ascetic, addressed by a young prince, who is holding a parrot and is accompanied by his armed guard. It explains that in the foreground are ascetics, “seemingly stoned out of their minds either smoking drugs or drinking bhang.” Though useful, that description doesn’t unpack the visual mysteries — what in the world is going on here? I really don’t understand, but I do love the elaborate setting, in which the architecture and vegetation frame the scene. In the simpler work “A man of commanding presence” (1700–1730), a man wearing a green striped garment sits before a golden background on a white cushion placed on a flowered fabric; an orange and yellow border frames the image. The colors flash against each other, inspiring prolonged aesthetic ecstasy.
Looking at these small pictures, originally book illustrations, is exhilarating. And describing them, which inspires enchanting memories of the Indian paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that I reviewed a decade ago (“Indian painters, 1100-1900,” Burlington Magazine, January 2012), is totally pleasurable. I especially enjoyed “Amir Hamza clings to the Rukh’s legs to carry him home across the sea” (1565), attributed to Dasvant, which shows the golden-feathered bird carrying Hamza through the pale blue sky. The colors are translucent, and the composition, dominated by the mythic bird who tries to peck at Hamza as he hangs on for life, is brilliant in the way that this bird covers the better part of the picture plane. Many of the artists seem attracted to allover patterns. In “Battle between the Iranians the the Turanians” (c. 1450), a folio page from the Jainesque Shahnama, the fearfully battling figures compose a design as elaborately detailed as that of a great Persian carpet. Consider, also, “The death of the demons Mahodara, Devantaka and Tristas” (1790), in which the battle between demons and humans unfolds in a pale green all-over setting that compliments the orange, yellow, pink, and blue bodies of the struggling figures. And in “Battle between Khwaja Qazi and Aba-Bikr at Uzgend in 1493-4” (1589), the group of heavily armed men attacking the castle paradoxically compose a beautiful decorative grouping.
Why are these Indian miniatures so dazzling? I have no idea. Maybe some neurologist can explain how the use of naturalism with full details in a flat space holds the eye. It can be tempting to compare them with familiar examples from the Euro-American canon — their intense color with that of Alex Katz or David Hockney — but that would do a disservice to these artworks, which are distinctive for their small scale and integration of decoration, and revelatory on their own. While “Madhu raga, third son of Bhairava raga” (1630-50), which depicts two seated figures on the left and one on the right, has an affinity with Henri Matisse’s “The Conversation,” (1908-12), in that both show frontal confrontations (Matisse’s with his wife) against a blue background, wherein the color is used to wash away conflict, the older painting’s figures seem — like those in many of these miniatures — to have no visible inner life, for they live so intently on the surface. The mythological stories may be unfamiliar to some viewers, but even without a grasp of the subject of “Krishna’s wives honor the sage Narada and Krishna carries his vina for him on his arrival in Dwarka” (1720), for example, the dispersal of these four figures on an intense red backdrop, framed by a broad yellow border with a blue curtain at the top, is compelling. I walked out of this show dead sober in mid-afternoon, but felt completely visually satiated, as if I were so high that my feet could barely reach to the ground.
Raja Ram Sharma, a contemporary Indian artist born in 1963 who was trained in this style of artmaking, does modernist versions of these “old master” works. He depicts landscapes, along with architecture and, in some cases, rider-less horses (but no people), in colors that are less assertive than those of the pre-20th-century Indian paintings at Luhring Augustine. In contrast to the wars and, sometimes, drunken revelry in the earlier works, he presents somber scenes showing deserted places in a style that evokes the modernist grid. Now the exuberant fantasy is replaced, often, by a sense of mystery, not unlike that found in Giorgio de Chirico’s early cityscapes. Sharma’s concurrent show at Victoria Munroe Fine Art is worth seeing by anyone interested in this artistic tradition, for it reveals that the tradition lives on.
Court, Epic, Spirit: Indian Art 15th – 19th Century continues at Luhring Augustine (17 White Street, Tribeca, Manhattan) through March 24. The exhibition was organized in conjunction with Francesca Galloway, London.
Raja Ram Sharma: Contemporary Indian Miniatures continues at Victoria Munroe Fine Art (67 East 80th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through March 12.
Editor’s Note, 3/7/2022, 11:53 am EST: Some details have been modified for accuracy since publication of this article.