It's James Bond meets the Arabian Knights: giants and demons rivaling Grimms' and Star Wars' bad guys, monkey armies to match those en route to Oz. Heroic Rama, an incarnation of Vishnu, encountering drugs and women, uncontrolled emotions and stoical sages -- all in brilliant color dating as far back as the 15th century. Now playing at the Freer Gallery, the exhibit of 74 fantastic paintings is full of abductions, seductions, kidnappings, bloodshed, sorcerers and magic spells.
The Mughal emperors, a line of Islamic raiders from what is now Afghanistan, held court in 16th- and 17th-century India; they also wrote the book on illumination of manuscripts. "The Imperial Image: Painting for the Mughal libraries: the emperors considered books to be precious objects and employed the best illuminators, painters, papermakers and leather-workers to decorate the tomes in brilliant colors, dusted with gold and silver. Some manuscripts detail plants, animals and intricate architectural designs of the physical world, others recount action-adventure mythologies. For the first time in its history, the Freer is displaying its entire collection of major Mughal paintings, and jazzing up the normally sedate gallery with Lucite stands for some two-sided manuscripts.
Pages from the Ramayana, product of an oral tradition dating to around 500 B.C. that chronicles Rama's adventures, comprise a quarter of the exhibit. Unbound for the first time, the paintings by 15 or 20 artists for Akbar's court are in superb condition.
Accompanying texts narrate the legends and give capsule accounts of the lives of Akbar the Great (who reigned from 1556 to 1605), Jahangir the World-Seizer and Shah Jahan, builder of the Taj Mahal -- the three rulers who commissioned these works. Curator Milo C. Beach, an Indian-art scholar, stresses Emperor Akbar's intellectual liberalism: although the Mughals were Muslim, they ruled over Hindus and rejected orthodox Islam, applying Persian, Hindu and European styles and motifs in the paintings.
If the tales are fit for the silver screen, the paintings' technical aspects are as compelling. In "Krishna and the Golden City of Dwarka," (accompanied by a blow-up to better appreciate the detail), the life story of the Hindu god Vishnu painted about 1585, gold is molded on top of a chalky base, giving an opulent, three-dimensional air. In later works, the European concept of allegory appears. "Jahangir Embracing Shah Abbas" depicts the emperor standing on a thinking, handed down over the centuries, lion comforting a docile, meek shah of Persia standing on a lamb, both mounted on a globe. "It has nothing to do with historical fact," Beach says. Just a case of wishful the thick gold dust intact.
THE IMPERIAL IMAGE PAINTINGS FOR THE MUGHAL COURT -- At the Freer Gallery through January 18. Jefferson Drive at 12th Street SW (Smithsonian Metro station). Daily, 10 to 5:30.