The Beautiful, Magical World of Rajput Art

Poetry and Devotion in Indian Painting: Two Decades of Collecting

an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, June 15–December 4, 2016
‘The Lovers Radha and Krishna in a Palm Grove’; miniature painting from the ‘Tehri Garhwal’ Gita ­Govinda (Song of the Cowherds), Punjab Hills, kingdom of Kangra or Guler, circa 1775–1780
Kronos Collections/Metropolitan Museum of Art
‘The Lovers Radha and Krishna in a Palm Grove’; miniature painting from the ‘Tehri Garhwal’ Gita ­Govinda (Song of the Cowherds), Punjab Hills, kingdom of Kangra or Guler, circa 1775–1780

In the intense heat of the Indian summer of 1739, a Persian army could be seen heading in triumph away from the looted city of Delhi. Delhi was the capital of the great Mughals, the Muslim dynasty, originally of Central Asian origin, that had ruled much of India since the mid-sixteenth century. As the Persian army made its way homeward through the Punjab, it carried away with it piles of treasures gathered from across India by many generations of Mughal emperors.

At the head of the column rode Nader Shah. Nader was the son of a nomadic shepherd from the Iranian-Afghan borderlands of Khurasan. He had risen rapidly owing to his remarkable military talents. In 1732 he had seized the Persian throne. Seven years later, in the spring of 1739, he invaded Afghanistan, then descended the Khyber Pass into India. At Kurnal, north of Delhi, he defeated three merged Mughal armies—around a million men—with a force of only 150,000 musketeers.

Nader Shah lured the old-fashioned Mughal cavalry into making a massed frontal charge. As they neared the Persians, his light cavalry then parted like a curtain, leaving the Mughals facing a long line of mounted musketeers, each of whom was armed with the latest in eighteenth-century weaponry: armor-penetrating, horse-mounted swivel guns. They fired at point-blank range. Within a few minutes, the flower of Mughal chivalry lay dead on the ground. Then the Persians moved into Delhi and began to systematically strip it of its vast riches: “Now commenced the work of spoliation, watered by the tears of the people,” wrote a Delhi courtier a fortnight later. “Whole families were ruined. Many swallowed poison, and others ended their days with the stab of a knife…. In short the accumulated wealth of centuries changed masters in a moment.”

For a month, hundreds of conscripted laborers were employed in melting down and casting into ingots the mountains of plundered gold and silver jewelry seized by the Persians. Nader Shah eventually left, carrying with him the bejeweled Peacock Throne of Shah Jahan, in which was embedded both the Koh-i Nur diamond and the great Timur ruby—probably the two most valuable jewels in the world—as well as many other priceless treasures loaded on “700 elephants, 4,000 camels and 12,000 horses carrying wagons all laden with gold, silver and precious stones.” Hundreds of pack animals carrying jewels and solid gold were lost in the monsoon floodwaters as the army crossed the swollen river Chenab; others fell down steep cliffs as it wound its way through the Hindu Kush. But most of the loot left South Asia for ever.

The humbled India Nader Shah left behind was a profoundly different place from the one he had entered a few months earlier. The Mughal Empire had been the principal political fact in South Asia, encompassing almost all of modern India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan, and although it had been in decline for half a century and often wracked in internal conflict, it had still ruled from Kabul to the Carnatic coast on the tip of southern India. Now, almost overnight, it was left shattered, broken, and bankrupt. But what was an unprecedented nightmare for the Mughal elite of the capital was, for many of its subjects, a sort of liberation: all over India a succession of regional courts, many of them ruled by Hindus, instantly regained their independence after two hundred years of Mughal rule.

Along with that political independence came an instant regional economic revitalization and, powered by that, a burst of artistic and architectural activity that redefined the arts of India. Miniature painting ateliers had already been well established in the regional courts since at least the end of the seventeenth century, but after 1739 revenues that used to be sent as tribute to Mughal Delhi were spent instead on rebuilding local forts, glorifying dynastic palaces, and commissioning artworks depicting the enthusiasms of the successor dynasties that everywhere sprang up to reclaim their ancestral lands. As in Renaissance Italy, each of these courts and city-states produced art that reflected the different aesthetic and devotional choices of their rulers.

Of nowhere was this more true than with the art of the courts of the Hindu Rajput caste. Across North India, stretching from the sands of desert Rajasthan to the Himalayan heights of the Punjab Hills, lay some two dozen Rajput principalities. The Mughals had conquered or allied then intermarried with many of these Rajput dynasties, so that for more than seven generations the two had come to form a strong multifaith and multicultural alliance, with their armies jointly conquering much of the rest of India. Mughal emperors were born from Rajput princesses, and the sons of the Rajput chiefs were often schooled in the imperial court, eventually assuming many of its cultural and aesthetic values.

In due course, some of the Rajput courtiers went on to become senior Mughal officials. Maharaja Surjan Singh of the Rajput principality of Bundi, for example, was made governor of Varanasi by the Mughal emperor Akbar, and when he returned home from his posting he brought with him the Mughal artists he had employed to ornament the governor’s palace in order to paint his own ancestral fort. In Amber in Rajasthan and Orchha in central India, Rajput magnates erected audience halls closely modeled on those of the Delhi Red Fort of the Mughal emperors. Some Rajput court poets were soon describing Akbar, who ruled between 1556 and 1605, as an avatar of Krishna.

Moreover, cultural influences flowed in both directions: by the 1730s, the same songs of the love play of Radha and Krishna were sung before the Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah and the Sufi shrines of Delhi, and essentially Indic forms of music like dhrupad were accompanied by instruments such as the sitar and tabla, which had never previously been heard in Mughal court music. Many Mughal emperors also made a point of celebrating Hindu festivals such as Holi, Dussehra, and Diwali.

Yet even at the height of the Mughal–Rajput alliance there was a clear stylistic distinction between the art produced at the Mughal court and that painted in the Rajput forts of its principal allies, each of which in turn varied from its neighbor. Rajput art used to be looked upon as a dim, provincial reflection of the sophisticated masterpieces produced by the Mughals in Delhi. The recent small but superb, jewel-like Metropolitan Museum exhibition “Divine Pleasures: Paintings from India’s Rajput Courts,” organized by Navina Haidar and accompanied by a seductively beautiful catalog written by her, Terence McInerney, and Steven Kossak, demonstrated once and for all—before it closed in September—that that was never the case. Instead, it showed how by the mid-eighteenth century Rajput art both abolished and developed the formal strictures of Mughal painting, and over the following century flowered into something unique and surprising as the Rajput miniature ateliers took the still and stately portrait style of the Mughals and in different ways supercharged it with narrative energy, sensuality, and color.

The paintings produced from Rajput ateliers at this time are full of verve and spirit and are often capable of expressing deep emotion and devotional intensity. There is sometimes a naiveté and even innocence in their execution; but they are wonderfully fertile with new ideas, and frequently combine complexity, paradox, and ambiguity. This period of creativity continued for nearly a century until, by the mid-1800s, India had been conquered by an aggressive multinational corporation, the British East India Company. The period of artistic independence slowly ground to a close in the face of both European mercantile imperialism and the rise of the new imported art of photography.

There is a paradox at the heart of the magnificent collection of Rajput paintings gathered in “Divine Pleasures” and described in its catalog. Although the period from roughly 1750 to 1850 was one of extreme instability and violence, comparable in some ways to the end of the Roman Empire in fifth-century Europe, with every region struggling to remake itself and taking up arms in order to measure its strength against that of its neighbors, the Rajput painting of the eighteenth century holds a mirror to a very different image of the period. It appears to reflect not a world at war but one seemingly lost in bucolic pleasure-seeking: a world where women eternally play on swings in pleasure gardens, lovers meet in dark forest groves, and princesses gaze over palace balconies, pining for lost lovers, as monsoon clouds mass over the Himalayas.

Sringara—the representation of love, in both its carnal and divine aspects, exploring the delights and traumas of love and lovers—is in fact the central Rajput theme. Series of hero-heroine paintings called nayaka-nayika were produced that encompassed, as the catalog puts it, “the emotional, and often conflicting, situations that plague lovers [and] the tortured games that the lovers play.” Popular texts that the painters delighted in illustrating included Keshava Da’s Rasikapriya (The Lover’s Breviary) and Bhanudatta’s Rasamanjari, which enumerates types of lovers and their different moods. As the great Indian art historian B.N. Goswamy has written in his The Spirit of Indian Painting, the Rajput painters created a poetic world “saturated in colours and singularly rich in the imagination.”

Here lovers cling to each other in abandon, surrounded by a mosaic of cushions and bolsters; elephants run amok and dart under the arches scraping their sides; armies of monkeys and bears turn into a vast cloud as they advance upon Lanka; the universe comes into being before one’s eyes as matter begins to form from void; a tiger shot in a forest tumbles nineteen times over before it falls to the ground; a blind poet envisions baby Krishna waking up; princes stand on marble embankments feeding crocodiles;…turbans adorning royal heads rise vertically in the air; boats ply on gentle waters while lovers escape to fragrant arbours. There is so much to see here, and savour, as painters play around with time and keep manipulating space at will.

This is an important departure from the art that preceded it. Mughal painting—the principal root of Rajput work—was focused on illuminating works of statecraft, memoir, and natural and political history: the Mughal world is one of portraiture, careful observation, and scientific naturalism, often martialed in the cause of dynastic propaganda.

The Rajputs were more interested in myth, epic literature, and poetry—themes that emerged in the “Divine Pleasures” installation, which highlighted literary narratives, especially works that concerned the world of religion and the world of pleasure, and that dealt in a visual language of allusion, analogue, and symbolism: “Flowers were never merely flowers nor clouds clouds,” wrote W.G. Archer, the colonial administrator turned pioneering Rajput art historian. Instead “the mingling of clouds, rain and lightening symbolized the embraces of lovers.”

Often, as when illustrating texts that told of the loves and longings of Lord Krishna, those two worlds, the devotionally human and the physically divine, grew amorously intertwined, with Rajput painters exploring “the sensual to kindle the divine,” as the collector and donor of the paintings in the Met show, Steven Kossak, nicely puts it in his introductory essay to the “Divine Pleasures” catalog. This was a continuation of an old and long-standing literary linkage in Indian thought between mystical devotion and erotic discourse, as devotees “burning with the fire of separation” sing to their god with all the emotional, sensual, and sometimes erotic intensity that characterizes the inner world of Hinduism.

Just as the Judeo-Christian tradition begins its myth of origin with the creation of light, Hinduism’s most ancient sacred text, the Rig Veda, begins its myth with the creation of kama—sexual desire: in the beginning was desire, and desire was with God, and desire was God. In the traditional Hindu scheme of things, kama remains one of the three fundamental goals of human existence, along with dharma, or duty, and artha, the creation of wealth. In medieval Hinduism, the linkage was usually expressed in erotic temple sculpture celebrating the fecundity of the gods and their beautiful attendants, the celestial apsara nymphs. That fertility could be transferred, so it was believed, to their more attentive devotees. By the eighteenth century, Rajput painting had become the principal artistic expression of this strand of devotional Hinduism.

But this rebirth of Hindu art grew partly from Mughal foundations. For as Navina Haidar shows in a brilliant essay in Divine Pleasures, the Mughals had an intense interest in Hinduism and sponsored a program of translations of the Hindu classics. Hamida Banu Begum, the mother of Akbar, for example, is known to have commissioned her own illustrated copy of the Ramayana, one of the two great epics of the Hindus, and asked for it to be brought to her on her deathbed.

Prince Dara Shikoh, the son of Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal, had the Bhagavadgita translated into Persian in the mid-seventeenth century, and wrote a comparative study of Hinduism and Islam that emphasized the compatibility of the two faiths and the common source of their divine revelations. His book was called The Mingling of Two Oceans. In it he speculated that the essential nature of Islam was identical to that of Hinduism. Following the Koranic injunction that no land be left without prophetic guidance, he became convinced that the Hindu Vedas and the Upanishads were the mysterious concealed scriptures mentioned in the Koran. Many translations of Sanskrit texts were illustrated by both Hindu and Muslim artists, and as Haidar puts it, the illustrations

initiated many of the styles and subjects that developed later in Rajput and Pahari court painting [of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries]…. Mughal patronage was a vital key to the development of Hindu subject matter.

‘Krishna and the Gopis on the Bank of the Yamuna River’; miniature painting from the ‘Tehri Garwhal’ Gita Govinda, circa 1775–1780
Kronos Collections/Metropolitan Museum of Art
‘Krishna and the Gopis on the Bank of the Yamuna River’; miniature painting from the ‘Tehri Garwhal’ Gita Govinda, circa 1775–1780

The Rajput courts took this Mughal initiative forward with generous patronage of painters throughout the later eighteenth century. In several cases they lured artists from Delhi: in 1719 after the death of his patron the emperor Farrukh Siyyar, the imperial artist Bhavanidas shifted from Delhi to the Hindu Rajasthani court of Kishangarh, just beyond Jaipur. Accounts show that the artists working in a Mughal style were often paid more for their painting than local painters; but under Rajput patronage the painting of Bhavanidas and his colleagues underwent a profound change.

For while the Rajputs may have used Mughal painting styles as their foundation and guide, there were always subtle differences that derived, at least partly, from the Hindu philosophies of the Rajput courts. These paintings were designed, as Kossak puts it in his introduction to Divine Pleasures,

for an aristocratic audience who sought to kindle rasa, the emotional flavor or taste evoked by an aesthetic experience, often explored in the context of Hinduism. A work of art was meant to enliven the soul as well as delight the eye. Its success depended not only on the artist’s use of color, line, space, and design but also on the sophistication of the viewer, both as a rasika (intuitive viewer) and as a rasajna (analytical knower).

Hindu aesthetic theory has since at least the first century CE always emphasized the reception of a work of art by the sympathetic connoisseur—one who has sahridaya, meaning “of the same heart.” For the Rajputs, a good painting should be full of bhava—feeling—so that the sensitive viewer would experience a strong and palpable emotional response on viewing it. This aesthetic experience was known as rasavadana, the tasting of a flavor, and an exceptionally strong response would be to feel romaharsha—meaning, literally, “the hair on my body has become happy.”

The “Divine Pleasures” exhibition was above all a show defined by rasa—in this case, not just the tastes of the original patrons but the aesthetic pleasures of Steven Kossak, who as both a former curator in the Indian department at the Met and a private collector has done much to bring this very Indian art to an international audience, while assembling one of the finest private collections of Rajput court paintings in North America.

Linked with “Divine Pleasures,” a smaller exhibition in the Indian department, “Poetry and Devotion in Indian Painting,” shows Kossack’s purchases as a Met curator and will continue into December. Both exhibitions are interesting barometers of the changes in taste that have taken place over the last fifty years as Rajput art has slowly come to be appreciated both in and outside India.

Fifty years ago, few American museums had significant collections of Indian art, and only one, the Museum of Fine Art in Boston, had significant holdings of Rajput painting. Indeed the Boston collection had been amassed by Ananda Coomaraswamy, the man who first effectively rediscovered Rajput painting as a distinct entity, publishing it and giving it its name.

Writing in the early years of the twentieth century, not long before the Partition of India and Pakistan, at a time when Hindu and Muslim Indians were beginning to think of themselves as separate peoples, Coomaraswamy exaggerated the differences between Rajput and Mughal painting, choosing to ignore the many commonalities; but he did so in passages of beautiful and deeply seductive prose. Rajput painting had a unique ethos, he wrote in Rajput Painting: Being an Account of the Hindu Paintings of Rajasthan and the Panjab Himalayas, which was published in 1916:

Rajput art creates a magic world where all men are heroic, and women are all beautiful and passionate and shy, beasts both wild and tame are the friends of man, and trees and flowers are conscious of the footsteps of the Bridegroom as he passes by. This magic world is not unreal or fanciful, but a world of imagination and eternity, visible to all who do not refuse to see with the transfiguring eyes of love.

As late as the 1950s, masterpieces that would now sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars could be bought for a few rupees from the impoverished descendants of Rajput princes or their dynastic court painters. This was the period when William Archer succeeded in assembling thousands of pages of Rajput art for the Victoria and Albert Museum in London; while private collectors such as Jagdish Mittal were able to form extraordinary collections on remarkably low budgets. This golden age for collectors continued through the 1960s and early 1970s, as Indira Gandhi’s fiercely socialist policies stripped away the assets of princely families, leading many to sell their entire miniature collections, flooding the market and reducing prices even further.

Steven Kossack began to collect in the early 1980s when that aesthetic gold rush was already over, but when American museums still had remarkably small collections of Indian art. Kossack was an aesthete who inherited a small fortune from his family’s cosmetics company. He initially bought entirely for his own pleasure, but in 1986 he became a curator at the new Indian department of the Met and, with the support of Cynthia and Leon Polsky, helped to shape the still-small painting collection as it grew over the next twenty years.

Kossak’s purchases, both for his own collection and as a Met curator, coincided with a great wave of scholarly work on Rajput painting, as scholars trawled through the vaults of princely collections, defining the characteristics of the different schools and the families of painters who created them, rather as Bernard Berenson did for the different Italian Renaissance schools in the 1920s. “Divine Pleasures” and its excellent catalog thus reflect the huge amount of new work that has been done collating the paintings of regional schools by a diverse range of scholars.

Few art historians have thought harder about what unites and divides Rajput painting from that of the Mughals than B.N. Goswamy. In The Spirit of Indian Painting, a book that is in many ways the summation of Goswamy’s entire career, he attempts to get inside the heads of those artists. Goswamy has shown how radically the circumstances and personnel in the different Rajput courts affected the style of the work produced. In the Hindu scriptures, he writes, the Kalachakra—the Wheel of Time—“moves in a cyclic fashion, making bends and loops, turning back on itself, rising spiral-like, splitting itself, assuming different speeds for different people. In short, mercurial, illusive, elusive.” As a result, the art of the Rajput courts, unlike that of the Mughals, often shows the same figure appearing more than once in the same frame, reflecting that the artists are “completely at home with the notion of time as manipulable and elusive.”

Likewise, Goswamy believes that there is an important difference in the way Rajput painters would paint their portraits; they aimed “at capturing as much the essence as the appearance,” concentrating on

some telltale detail…. Detaching their figures frequently from their backgrounds, which are rendered in strong, flat colors such as pure yellow or sage green, the figures of these rulers of men occupy the entire space of the picture, dramatically conveying an impression of monumentality.

Goswamy’s description perfectly captures some of the strong portraits in “Divine Pleasures” such as the “intensely realized” seated nobleman from seventeenth-century Mankot shown apparently kneeling, but in fact almost floating, on a striped, flat-weaved carpet as he stands out with enormous authority against the peori yellow of the completely flat background. Goswamy also carefully teaches us the difference between work produced by the family workshops of the Rajput courts, where the artists worked at home and all generations lent a hand, and that of the Mughal ateliers, where the best talent from across the empire was deployed under the strict discipline of a Muslim master.*

The most beautiful of all Rajput painting, for this writer at least, is the work produced for the courts of Pahari hill dynasties of the lower Himalayas at the end of the eighteenth century. This was, without question, the chief glory of “Divine Pleasures.” The last room of the exhibition—and the final chapter of the catalog—showed many of the greatest masterpieces not just of Rajput painting but indeed all Indian art, and what was in many ways the climax of the Indian miniature tradition: an extraordinary set of paintings of the life and loves of Krishna known as the “Tehri Garwhal” Gita Govinda, or Song of the Cowherds.

The painters of this text were almost certainly the four sons and two grandsons of the great Pahari master Nainsukh of Guler, who may have himself contributed the original underdrawings of wonderful fluency and elegance of line. During the eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries this family of artists created images of the greatest beauty and unfailing sense of color, as they distilled and idealized the pining, yearning, and anticipation of Radha, the long, passionate embraces she gives her lover, Krishna, and a succession of images of the cowherd god locked with complete abandon in final union with her—arguably the most potent mixture of eroticism and devotion in all Indian painting.

Perhaps the loveliest and most tender image in the show and catalog, The Lovers Radha and Krishna in a Palm Grove, depicts a moment when Nanda, Krishna’s foster father, asks Radha to take the young cowherd home: a stormy night is drawing in and, in the words of the poem, “clouds thicken the sky/tamala trees darken the forest/the night frightens him.”

It is on this journey that the couple first embrace, surrounded by the dark of the forest but strangely illuminated in a forest clearing, lit by brightly stippled stars and the silver of the moon. The painting shows Krishna’s left arm thrown over Radha’s shoulders as he reaches out with the other to touch her breast. She attempts to restrain him, but without conviction. She stands with her left leg crossed against the right, one foot arched over the other—a still and frozen moment of almost balletic poise and perfect balance.

As these images were being painted in the Punjab hills, below in the plains the armies of the East India Company were advancing up the Ganges to seize the economic centers of India. With those victories arrived a new aesthetic that would eventually end the courts and the painterly dynasties that created this most lovely moment of Indian art. Yet the fact that these images represent a world of infinite refinement on the very verge of extinction somehow only makes them all the lovelier.

  1. *

    Molly Emma Aitken is another scholar who has written with great perception on Rajput painting. In her remarkable debut work, The Intelligence of Tradition in Rajput Court Painting (Yale University Press, 2010), she, like Goswamy, tries to analyze the choices made by Rajput painters as they grappled with the representational problems presented by the texts they illustrated, often facing quite different issues from those faced by Mughal painters, “specifically the problems of illustrating memories and visions, ideal and sacred characters, and multiple temporal, geographic and ontological spaces.”

    She rejects the idea that court artists simply addressed tradition and “unthinking conventionality.” Why, she asks,

    in the face of a dazzling imperial [Mughal] tradition did Rajasthani court painters choose so often to work against the grain of Mughal art? In Rajasthan court painting there was a specific demand, on the one hand, to respond to the ideological power of Mughal portraiture, and on the other, to illustrate Hindu subject matter. Hindu subjects required artists to picture mental or divine and visionary realms and required them to distinguish the world in their pictures from the observable world of their viewers.