Friday, June 05, 2009

British Museum's 'Indian Summer'

image credit: Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

A six-month Indian Summer comes to the British Museum

Visitors to the British Museum between now and the end of September will find that the forecourt has been transformed into a colorful “India Landscape” garden. Chunky boulders, surrounded by a profusion of rhododendrons, represent the Himalayas, with purple-flowered rock jasmine growing in crannies. There are trees such as the Himalayan walnut, white-barked birches and the blue sausage tree and flowers including the Himalayan blue poppy.

The walkway through the India Landscape passes the trees and flora of three main climatic zones of India: the Himalayas, temperate woodland and the tropical lushness of the south. The garden includes a pool filled with lotus flowers; swathes of gold-orange marigolds; coconut, fishtail and betel nut palms; tiger bamboo; mango and peepul trees, and holy basil. At the end of the path is a gnarled banyan tree. The Landscape highlights the ways in which plants are used in Indian culture, as food, medicine and in trade.

The garden is a joint project of the British Museum and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, both of which mark their 250th anniversaries this year. The director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, says that “when the British Museum first opened its doors in January 1759, the culture that, beyond all others, most fascinated Britain was India.” The association between the Museum and Indian subcontinent “remains as close today as it was 250 years ago.”

The India Landscape is part of the British Museum’s six-month Indian Summer season, sponsored by HSBC. The season kicked off last week with the opening of the dazzling exhibition ‘Garden & Cosmos: The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur’, at a ceremony addressed by Prince Charles.

The exhibition consists of 54 large paintings from the royal collection at the Mehrangarh Museum Trust in Jodhpur City, Rajasthan, plus two works from the British Museum and two from the National Museum of India. The stunningly vibrant and detailed paintings were produced by artists in the courts of three maharajas – Bakhat Singh, Vijai Sing and Man Singh – who ruled between 1752 and 1843.

This is the first time that these unique paintings have been seen in Europe. The exhibition is organized by the Arthur M Sackler Gallery of Washington DC, part of the Smithsonian Institution, and has already been mounted in the Sackler Gallery and in the Seattle Asian Art Museum. After ending its run at the British Museum on August 23, the exhibition will open in November at the National Museum of India.

Co-curator of the exhibition Sona Datta [pictured] says: “These paintings confound all our expectations about what Indian painting traditionally is.” They came out of both the Indo-Persian tradition of the Mughal court and the folk idioms of traditional Rajasthani art. Whereas traditional art was in the form of miniatures, the Jodhpur paintings are in a landscape format.

The Jodhpur court paintings are in two distinct styles. One is the ornate style of portrayals of courtly life and of the verdant forests where scenes from ancient epics were played out; the other is metaphysical painting concerned with philosophical speculation and the origins of the universe.

At the press view of the exhibition last Thursday, Neil MacGregor said that as one walks around ‘Garden & Cosmos’, one goes “from a landscape of the senses to a landscape of the spirit.” The exhibition shows an “astonishing progression in one court, over two or three generations, in what landscape can attempt to do and the kind of areas of human experience it can address.”

The Rathore clan, ancestors of the Jodhpur maharajas, migrated from central to north-west India in the 1200s and established themselves in the Marwar region on the edge of the Thar Desert. Their rulers accepted the sovereignty of the Muslim Mughal Empire in 1564, and the painters at the Marwar court adopted many Mughal techniques when they encountered Mughal paintings.

Bakhat Singh murdered his father Ajit Singh in 1724. His elder brother Abhai succeeded to the throne of Marwar and granted Bakhat the territory and fortress of Nagaur, north east of Jodhpur. Bakhat Singh ruled there until 1751 when he acceded to the throne at Marwar, only to be poisoned by his niece the following year.

Bakhat Singh rebuilt Nagaur Palace in the Imperial Mughal style, turning it into a garden paradise. The paintings from his time show him indulging in courtly pleasures. In the 1737 painting “Maharaja Bakhat Singh at the Jharokha Window of the Bakaht Singh Mahal” he sits at a public viewing window while women below honor him with music and dance. [image reproduced courtesy of the British Museum and Mehrangarh Museum Trust]

During Maharaja Vijai Singh’s reign, 1752-93, the Jodhpur artists created monumental manuscripts, with pages that are full-length paintings, around 135 cm wide. These manuscripts tell the stories of epics such as the Ramayana. The settings have moved beyond palace gardens to the more open landscape of the forest. These magical landscapes are a riot of patterns with their repeated motifs of animals, plants, trees, figures and water.

The court painters at the time of Maharaja Man Singh, who ruled from 1803 to 1843, tried to put visual expression to such questions as the origins of the universe and they often worked in symbolic language. Datta says: “Some of the resolutions they come to are very modern in their outlook and some of the triptychs with their flat planes of gold wouldn’t look out of place hanging in a 21st century gallery in East London

[image courtesy of the British Museum and Mehrangarh Museum Trust shows The Emergence of Spirit and Matter from the Shiva Purna]

The Indian Summer season includes a series of lectures and talks on the ‘Garden & Cosmos’ exhibition and on aspects of Indian art and landscape. Seven Indian films are to be screened, ranging from the 1957 work “Mother India”, directed by Mehboob Khan, to Satyjit Ray’s “Kanchenjungha” (1962) and Shivajee Chandrabhushan’s “Frozen” (2007). For the artistically-inclined, there are two workshops on Indian botanical painting in June led by the acclaimed Indian botanical artist Hemlata Pradhan.

On June 12 there is an evening of readings of Indian poetry in English and several Indian languages, chosen by poet Ketaki Kushari Dyson, interspersed with Indian music. On July 17 there will be an evening of Indian music and dance by performers from Rajasthan, together with Indian food tasting from across the regions. From late July to late August there are daily children’s activities inspired by India Landscape and ‘Garden & Cosmos’.

For those interested in discussing not so much the past as where India goes from here, particularly in view of the recent elections, there is on September 19 a one-day conference on ‘India Now and in the Future’.
Susannah Tarbush

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