SHOWCASING the Freer's collection from the Indian subcontinent, "The Arts of South Asia" opens a window on colorful legends and lore.
Along with a handful of sculpture and a fearsome dagger made from a meteorite, the collection holds mostly paintings, covered every inch in opaque watercolors. Even their borders are sometimes ornately decorated, aflutter with birds on gold branches.
The paintings reveal enchanting stories. From an oral tradition dating to 500 B.C., the "Ramayana," a Hindu religious epic, tells tall tales -- of big-clawed fiends and monkey friends of the hero Rama. In paintings for a 16th-century manuscript, the general of the monkey army carries a mountain of medicinal herbs to a battlefield so that Rama's men can defeat the monstrous Ravana. The monkey was able to leap to the Himalaya in a single bound. Later, after Ravana steals off with Rama's wife, the monkey king takes a big chunk out of Ravana's brother's nose.
As the relationship between man and woman is symbolic to the Hindus of union with the divine, many are the love stories. In a series of expressive drawings, Nala and Damayanti are the star-crossed pair. Damayanti says it makes her sad that the Chakravaka birds always leave each other at dusk. But Nala tells her, "If the grief of the Chakravaka pair is causing thee pain, I thy servant will go to the river and beseech the sun resting on its waters not to set."
The paintings are accomplished in such intricate detail that you almost have to squint to see the finer points -- a tiny prince on horseback, parading on a street of miniscule tiles. The lavish borders in some cases were painted 200 years after the original work, when 18th- century manuscript illuminators in Iran prepared a collector's album for the Shah.
This show is another installment in the ongoing Indian Festival. In the main, these "Arts of South Asia" date from the 15th to the 18th century, and so, quite conveniently, highlight a different era than does the Indian sculpture show at the National Gallery, which takes us to the year 1300.
THE ARTS OF SOUTH ASIA -- At the Freer Gallery of Art through November.