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Garden and Cosmos: The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur

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Garden and Cosmos: The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur photo
Courtesy of Mehrangarh Museum Trust

Editorial Review

India's 'Garden' State
Lust, Asceticism Flower Side by Side in Sackler's Jodhpur Exhibit
By Paul Richard
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, October 13, 2008

New art seldom startles. It would like to, but it doesn't. Once you've seen a bit of it, you'll have a pretty good idea what you will see next -- digital photographs, big assemblages on the floor, plotless videos, the usual. More startling by far are the antique Indian paintings that open the fall season at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

The maharajahs' exhibition "Garden and Cosmos: The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur" is the opposite of usual, its pictures wholly unexpected. For a century or two, they've been stashed in saving darkness in a fort in northern India. Who knew they existed?

Their manner, too, surprises. It's as if you had taken the familiar sheen of Mughal court art (its polished Persian suavity, its allegiance to the scale of page and book) and the similarly familiar flash of Indian folk art (the hot ebullient colors, the rhythmic repetitions) and melded them for a style unlike either. These pictures carry you -- in leaps -- to places you've never been.

For instance: The exhibition starts before the world begins. Here's the cosmic ocean: Sometimes it's all yellow, sometimes it's all orange, all is dissolution. The images fill your field of vision. The ocean feels unbounded. It rolls off to infinity in neat concentric waves.

The steep mountains, when they come, are made of petals, not of stone.

The landscape is inhabited by colored birds and tigers but not by common people. Here you live as kings live, and the kings live like the gods.

The exhibition's tone is set by "Sage Markendeya's Ashram and the Milky Ocean," the first picture you see. It was painted, in opaque watercolor and gold, in the 1780s. Vishnu, the great god, is sleeping on a silver sea. His bed looks like one of those inflatable plastic mattresses that float in suburban swimming pools, except it's made of snakes. Welcome to Rajput painting. You're not in Kansas anymore.

You're in Rajasthan, in Jodhpur, in the Kingdom of Marwar, high on a rocky hilltop in a castle called the Mehrangarh, "the fort of the sun," where these pictures were commissioned and very likely painted, then put away.

A mighty fortress is the Mehrangarh. Its walls of reddish stone are 1,500 feet long, 120 feet high and 70 feet thick. Here maharajahs live, and have done so for 700 years. One resides there still, His Royal Highness Gaj Singh II, the 36th of the Rathore line. His Kingdom of Marwar lost its independence in 1947, and without his royal favor, its art would not be here in Washington.

Oz was mostly emerald and tasteful. Here, no single hue dominates, and strangenesses erupt. Colors zing and clang.

What would it be like to live as a maharajah? These paintings show you. Under their transporting spell, you, too, become an Indian king, ruling your domain from that lofty dwelling.

Your every wish is granted. There are jewels in your turban. Ropes of pearls are draped around your neck. Blossoms scent your gardens. Your swimming pools are large enough to float a fleet of pleasure craft. Hungry? Feasts of 50 dishes will be served to you alone by long lines of lithe women. Lusty? You have as many as you want. You're sort of like a god.

And like a god, you get to see whatever you imagine. The painters in your palace are there for just that purpose. It's a little bit like having a Steven Spielberg studio in your basement busily producing pictures of your dreams.

* * *

"Garden and Cosmos" could have been called "The Three Maharajahs."

The first maharajah is a voluptuary. The second is conventionally pious. The third, an ash-smeared yogi, takes to living all alone in the corner of the garden in a wretched little hut.

All appear in profile (as rulers do on coins). All wear swooping black mustaches, and, being maharajahs, all are shown as larger than lesser human beings. Otherwise, each is different. The paintings at the Sackler take you far into their minds.

Maharajah Bakhat Singh (1706-1752) reminds me of Hugh Hefner. He was mighty as a warrior and ruthless as a son (Bakhat became king after murdering his father), but you wouldn't know this from the art he commissioned. He doesn't ride or hunt. What Bakhat does is party, party all the time.

In "Amusements on a Moonlit Water Terrace" (circa 1720), dozens of young women are bringing him his dinner. Others pluck sitars. One, no doubt his favorite, sits beside him. Another of his paintings is called "Revels in a Pleasure Boat." Elsewhere he is shown playing in a swimming pool with 20 of his women; he's squirting them with water jets from a big long brass syringe.

(Then his elegant young niece brought him a new coat, one she'd dipped in poison. That's how Bakhat died.)

When Maharajah Vijay Singh (in Marwar, all the males bore the surname Singh) ascends to the throne in 1752, the paintings lose their spice. Vijay was no sybarite. We're still in the great fort. The setting hasn't changed. We still see the same fountains, terraces and gardens, but the playgirls have been banished, as have the all-girl orchestras. We're now surrounded by gods.

The pleasure craft still float in the palace pool, but now they're there for the god Rama. Or we're in the palace gardens and a party's going on, but the figure frolicking is Krishna with his cowgirls, rather than the king.

When Maharajah Man Singh takes the throne in 1803, the pictures change again.

Man credits his ascension to the grace of Jallandharnath, that most ascetic of ascetics, a being so perfected that he's become immortal. Man now turns his back on the hereditary nobility and dedicates his kingdom to the yogis known as Naths.

They took their name from Jallandharnath, practiced his harsh disciplines and prayed to him continuously. The maharajah did the same. He was an unusual sort of ruler. He "cared nothing for himself nor for worldly affairs," he wrote, "as the greatness of Nathji enveloped his heart." You see this in his art.

In the paintings he commissioned, Naths aren't hard to spot. Their skin is gray. They all wear heavy earrings (Nath earrings pierce the cartilage rather than the lobes). And they all wear pointy hats.

The Naths were problematic. Many Hindus scorned them. Those yogis were not clean (they ate with lower castes), nor were they settled (often they just wandered), and they smoked a lot of hashish. As royal favors fell upon them, their behavior seemed to worsen. They formed abusive gangs. They kidnapped well-born children and stole the goods of merchants. But what could good folk do? They had to be most careful. The Naths had mighty powers. It was known that they could fly and see the far-away and peer into the future and, to make things even scarier, you could never be quite sure if the yogi you had shooed away was a beggar or a god.

To make yourself a yogi, you first had to devote yourself to 12 years of study. The dogmas of their practice, and of their metaphysics, had been written down for centuries but seldom before painted. Now hundreds of Nath pictures were painted for the king.

The Sackler's Debra Diamond, the curator responsible for the show, has arranged these 60 paintings (which, after leaving Washington, will travel to Seattle, the British Museum in London and the National Museum of India) to evoke yogis' progress. The maharajahs' exhibition takes you all the way from photographs of Jodhpur and frolicking in gardens, to the realms of pure abstraction.

The Naths could live on air alone and meditate for days in ligament-stretching postures. Eventually they merged their beings with the absolute.

What does that state look like? Well, it's pure and oceanic, glittering and golden. Also it presages by more than a century the all-gold field paintings made by Robert Rauschenberg, the all-blue ones of Yves Klein and Mark Rothko's glowing atmospheres. It's like a prophecy. You can see it in this show.

Garden and Cosmos: The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW. Through Jan. 4. The exhibition, organized in collaboration with the Mehrangarh Museum Trust, is supported by a grant from Air India. The Leon Levy Foundation helped to pay for its 397-page catalogue. The Sackler is open daily, 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. For information, call 202-633-1000 or visit http://www.asia.si.edu/exhibitions. Admission is free.