Inspired by the exquisite landscapes of the Himalayan foothills, and patronized by the Hindu Rajput kings who ruled the area, painters in 18th and 19th century northern India captured a world of extraordinary grace and beauty. These artists not only recorded palace life, but also illustrated ancient religious epics filled with tales of quests, battles, romances, and intrigues. Today it is rare to find complete sets of these illustrations, but the Philadelphia Museum of Art offers a unique chance to explore these extraordinary stories in Fashion's Favorites: From Rococo to Romantic, on view in Gallery 227 from November 23, 2005 – May 2006.
Each of the twenty-three paintings and drawings in this exhibition is accompanied by at least one other from the same set, bringing together scenes from these lavishly illustrated loose-leaf books, or series, which have largely been dispersed over the years. The expense and time required to create each series was virtually prohibitive, so that only the wealthiest patrons could afford them. These narrative paintings reflect the artists’ vision of a 'perfect' world where clear rivers, lush foliage and flowering trees frame uniformly handsome people. Also included will be two rare nineteenth-century textiles from the same region, exquisitely embroidered with related scenes and motifs.
"In the modern era, the illustrated pages from these series came to be valued as individual works of art and have been scattered to collections all over the world. It's a rare treat to reunite at least a few and see how the artists told these complex stories-- capturing consecutive moments, depicting different times of day, even manipulating the landscape to echo the different mood of each episode," said Darielle Mason, the Stella Kramrisch Curator of Indian and Himalayan Art.
Among the popular Hindu religious epics illustrated are the Ramayana, which details the adventures of the divine hero-king Rama; the Mahabharata which chronicles a monumental family feud; and the Bhagavata Purana, an account of Krishna's superhuman deeds and lively loves. Because religious meaning was embedded in the exciting tales, texts were illustrated not only for the entertainment of their courtly owners but also for devotion.
The stories were told in hundreds of sequential images that are rather like stills from an animated film, both in content and process. Artists worked in stages to complete an illustration, first creating a charcoal sketch on untreated paper, and then painting a complete underdrawing in black watercolor. After the page was coated with primer and burnished, the artist would create a detailed outline drawing, which was then filled with color. In some cases only a selected portion of the text was illustrated; in others a series was completed by succeeding generations of painters.
With often minimal or no written text attached, the images alone told their stories, which might involve a birth or death, battle scene or coronation, or a vision of chariots descending from the sky. The artists were fond of including details that would please and amuse their patrons, such as delicate trees whose boughs overflow with blossoming flowers, or animals with distinctively human characteristics. Often there are multiple scenes or actions contained in one frame.
Pandu Shoots the Ascetic Kindama, Who is Disguised as a Deer reflects the dense compression of multiple moments of a story onto a single page, as well as the cheery colors and doll-like figures that characterized the workshop of the artist Purkhu of Kangra. Here Kind Pandu is shown in various stages of this critical episode from the Mahabharata: shooting a buck that is revealed to be the ascetic Kindama in disguise, receiving the news of his curse, and eventually consulting with his sage to determine a resolution.
A Night Battle, which illustrates one of the many clashes in the great war that ends the Ramayana, shows the height of a bloody, complex battle between Ravana’s demons and Rama’s armies of monkeys and bears. Its carefully focused diagonal composition captures the feeling of an epic battle, as Rama and Lakshmana gaze toward a distant shore where demons and monkeys struggle amidst uprooted trees, dead horses, and bloody body parts. In the foreground a ferocious, horned demon clashes with the monkey army, and is apparently slain by a great monkey warrior.
Throughout the exhibition dramatic and colorful scenes from the great Hindu stories display both their religious purpose and their dramatic attributes, as well as reflecting the spectacular real-life landscapes of the region from which they emerged.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art contains one of the finest collections of South Asian art in the United States, including the spectacular Pillared Temple Hall (16th century) from Southern India, paintings and sculptures from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Nepal and Tibet; an important group of textiles; and a variety of decorative and arts. Works from the Indian and Himalayan Art Collections are displayed in a series of galleries (224, 227, 229-232) located on the second floor. The William P. Wood Gallery houses changing installations of 16th- through 20th-century art. Gallery 232 is devoted to works from Nepal and Tibet, including Buddhist paintings, metal images of Buddhist and Hindu deities, and ceremonial implements.