Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Garden And Cosmos

I went to see the 'Garden And Cosmos' exhibition at the British Museum yesterday. Subtitled, 'The Royal Paintings Of Jodhpur', the exhibition contains 56 paintings from the 17-19th centuries on loan from the royal collection in the Mehrangarh Museum in Jodhpur. I have three small paintings from India in Mughal style that I got when I visited Delhi many years ago so I knew what to expect but these royal paintings were much bigger, full of detail and incredibly colourful (I've no idea how they mixed paints to retain their colour after all this time).

The paintings are arranged in order of the various kings of Jodhpur who commissioned the works, so they reflect their interests. Maharaja Bakhat Singh liked to be painted in his gardens or in his palaces surrounded by his women whereas Vijai Singh seems to have preferred religious painting, with scenes of Krishna frolicking with gopi girls or scenes from The Ramayana. Generally, the paintings are quite literal so you can 'read' the scene in front of you, drinking in the details and piecing it together.

One of my favourites is 'Death of Vali: Rama and Lakshmana Wait Out The Monsoon' (which is the painting on all the posters for the exhibition) with its magnificent monsoon clouds and elephants trumpeting with joy, welcoming the rain. In the middle of the painting are Rama and his brother sheltering from the monsoon in a mountain while, to the left, are other scenes from the Ramayana in which Rama kills Vali the usurper and we then see him cremated while his wife watches.It's a glorious painting and this photo here doesn't do it justice, losing the vibrancy of the colours.

Other paintings demonstrate yogic thinking with depictions of the chakras in 'body maps' and some, more minimal, paintings that depict Hindu philosophical concepts. One painting made up of three panels had a field of gold leaf in one panel, representing the Absolute, nothingness, then a figure appears in the next panel surrounded by the gold as a supreme being imagines himself into existence and in the next panel he sits on silver rocks as he imagines the world into existence (or at least that's how I see it). A meditation piece perhaps. Elsewhere there was the inscription: "Once upon a time I was formless and eternal, and I wished to create the world" attributed to the Nath Purana.

I enjoyed the exhibition, getting drunk on the gorgeous colours and shapes, reading the tales in the paintings and wondering how much I failed to see. If you get the chance, go and see it.

Outside the Museum, in the courtyard, is a complementary organic exhibition from Kew Gardens that shows off some of the plants and trees found in the paintings. I liked all the marigolds.

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