India's 'Garden' State

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.

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