THE surreal paintings of the Nath Charitra cycle from the Mehrangarh collection, of the royal house of Jodhpur, stopped me dead in my tracks. It was the summer of 2009, and we were at a show called ‘Garden and Cosmos’ at the British Museum. The large format gold and silver paintings, with their minimalist embellishments of near-identical Nath gurus, lotuses, antelopes, waves, clouds and iterative geometric forms, were clearly meant to convey the incommunicable; to visualize what cannot be communicated through language or indeed any other kind of representation. The overall effect was hypnotic. The paintings were from Rajasthan in the 19th century; we were at an exhibition in London in the 21st century. The states of consciousness, the psychic planes of bliss, knowledge, transcendence and awakening sought to be depicted had no temporality, they were outside historical time altogether. The narratives of the Nath tradition have their own historicity, and the princely state of Jodhpur had its own history of venerating the Nath teachers, as well as patronizing the artists of these astonishing works.
For me that exhibit was vertigo-inducing. When I spotted some paintings of the same style, period and region in the ‘Body in Indian Art’ show at the National Museum this year, I was immediately drawn to them, and marvelled once more at the successful effort to figure the abstract, to represent the unrepresentable, and to capture in a narrative form ideas, experiences, processes and phenomena that have no rationally demonstrable temporal dimension whatsoever.
In 2011, I saw two shows in New York that goaded me to further educate myself about Indian art, particularly medieval miniature painting. One was ‘The Wonder of the Age: Master Painters of India, 1100-1900’ at the Metropolitan Museum, and the other was ‘Vishnu: Hinduism’s Blue-Skinned Savior’ at the Brooklyn Museum. That year I also visited Berlin, where I saw more Mughal (as well as Safavid and Ottoman) art, including miniature paintings at the Museum für Islamische Kunst in the Pergamon Museum of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Whether Rajput, Pahari or Mughal, I found myself completely entranced by the North Indian miniature.
Somehow this came as a shock to me. For all the years that I had grown up and lived in India, I had never thought about the miniature except as cheap cloying kitsch, either for the consumption of tourists or for display in sarkari offices, the equivalent of the flute-and-sitar muzak that drones on in hotel lobbies and creates an ambience that is supposed to be culturally marked despite being aesthetically vacuous, even distasteful. To see the same miniature painting displayed in some of the world’s best museums, valued, cherished, prized, extolled and explained for the uninitiated spectator, changed its meaning for me. Belatedly, the aura of ‘art’ came to attach itself to a genre that I had never been taught to pay attention to.
After those and other eye-opening encounters with Indian art, both historical and contemporary, at museums in Europe, the US and the UK, I began to read about the miniature. I learned to recognize in particular works by Pandit Seu, his sons Manaku and Nainsukh and their family members and descendants from Guler, brought to life so vividly through decades of painstaking research by the art historian B.N. Goswamy. I soon realized that almost every work I felt mesmerized by could be attributed to this remarkable family of Pahari painters who were active in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Their pictorial narration of the Ramayana, especially, has a delicate beauty and a sylvan charm that act as the signature of these masters of Guler. Their rootedness in the landscape surrounding them, in the flora and fauna familiar to them, is another quality one learns to perceive and cherish in their oeuvre.
Through Gulammohammed Sheikh’s writings and speeches on a number of other pictorial styles associated with the Ramayana, emanating from different parts of India over several centuries, I gradually became accustomed to the protocols of referencing and conveying emotion, mood, event, character and tradition that are available within Indian painting over the full course of the second millennium. It seems almost as if by setting aside three-dimensional verisimilitude as a constitutive condition, and by suspending the regime of chronological time, art in India had explored, discovered and invented a whole universe of other, equally powerful and effective ways of making meaning.
Over the next couple of years, I made sure to go to the Met Museum, with its newly opened Islamic art galleries, to the Freer and Sackler galleries at the Smithsonian Institution, to the Asia Society Museum in New York, and to whatever other major museum happened to be in whatever city I was passing through. It began to dawn on me that I was using my time abroad to see and learn about Indian art, following exactly the logic that had dictated my entire career as a South Asianist, beginning with studying Indian languages, philology and intellectual traditions at Oxford and the University of Chicago.
The old questions that had haunted me as a young graduate student in England and America came back again: Why could I not engage with this art in India? Were there living masters of pre-colonial artistic traditions, and where in India might they be found? If I went to Guler, Kangra, Chamba, Jammu, Basohli, Nurpur, Mandi and all the places in the Himalayan foothills where Nainsukh and his family had lived and worked, would I find any of their art still in situ, at local palaces, museums or art institutions? If I could see great classical art in Cairo, Istanbul and Venice, why could I not see it in Delhi, Bombay and Calcutta – or, more accurately, in Jaipur, Varanasi and Baroda?
I started to think back to a time when reading Orhan Pamuk’s sumptuous historical novel My Name is Red had made me temporarily obsessed with Ottoman miniatures. I remembered a conversation with the Pakistani painter Shahzia Sikander, about a decade ago at her studio in Brooklyn NY. I considered her work to be part of what I called the ‘Indo-Persian Sublime’. She pulled out from her bookshelves illustrated art books of the kind I have now begun buying and reading, and said, as she flipped through their pages, that the miniature tradition came to artists like her through books, mostly produced in the West, and not through any kind of living lineage or active art practice in India, Pakistan or Iran. (Others in Pakistan would challenge the veracity of such a claim, but it was boldly and unequivocally made at the time.)
In the last few months, two great shows originally mounted overseas have travelled in some form to Delhi – in 2013, ‘The Mughals: Life, Art and Culture’ came from the British Library to the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, and in 2014 ‘The Body in Indian Art’ came from the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels to the National Museum. Both were superb, and yet one was in facsimile form and the other was somewhat truncated relative to the number of objects shown in Belgium. What was getting lost in translation? Why is it that one can find Indian artefacts in greater quantities, more accessible, better preserved and properly displayed abroad but not in India? Why are Indian museums not the obvious showcases of India’s enormous, diverse and rich artistic heritage? Despite a huge and lively community of art practitioners, scholars, curators and historians, a thriving art market, and plenty of money that could be sourced from collectors, philanthropists, dealers, investors and connoisseurs, why is the Indian museum in such dire straits?
Recent visits to the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum, and the National Gallery of Modern Art in Bombay; to the newly renovated Indian Museum in Calcutta; to the National Gallery of Modern Art, the National Museum, the IGNCA and the Crafts Museum in Delhi, to see exhibitions and shows many of which were of the highest standard, suggested that while things have been in a bad way for a long time, all is not lost. Dying museums can be revived, and broken ones fixed. New museums, too, can be built and sustained. It is possible, through the intervention of imaginative, motivated and hard-working individuals, to put on a good show and dispel the miasma of defeat and failure that has gathered over the decades and run many of India’s best arts institutions into the ground.
But of course the real answer is not to rely on a few good people and their passing good luck or occasional good ideas. There needs to be a comprehensive public debate, a rethinking of rules and laws governing the arts and especially museums, and a forum that can harness the country’s leading artists, conservationists, art historians and curators to think collectively and work in tandem with both governmental authorities and private enterprise to ensure that India modernizes its museum infrastructure. The new administration must undertake this task on a war footing. Even countries like Iran, Egypt and China, with far less political freedom than we in India ostensibly enjoy, complex and often unhappy ideologies concerning their history and the past, and certainly scholarly communities that are comparable to the one in India, have done a better job managing their inheritance of art and architecture than we have. What stops us from changing this state of affairs?