Much Maligned Monsters: The History of European Reactions to Indian Art
The Classical Tradition in Rajput Painting
Coomaraswamy Vol.3: His Life and Work
Imperial Mughal Painting
Room for Wonder: Indian Painting During the British Period, 1760-1880
Indian Medieval Sculpture
The Mughal empire in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was splendid, the richest empire of its time, sucking in even the gold of Spanish America; and Mughal art had its admirers from the start. At the von Hirsch sale in London last year there was Rembrandt’s copy of, or variation on, a Mughal portrait of Shah Jahan, the painter’s contemporary (the turbaned head more European, less royal, the legs less pneumatic and formal). A modest tribute; but, until the work of the contemporary British painter Howard Hodgkin, no tribute like it was paid to the related art of the Hindu, Rajput principalities within the Mughal empire, particularly the miniature paintings of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Their Hindu motifs were too mysterious or simple; their flat patches of symbolic color—the world observed only to be reduced to pattern, the physical world more felt than contemplated—answered no European idea of high art until this century. This private art sank with the courts that produced it, and was forgotten.
It was in the three or four years before the First World War that Ananda Coomaraswamy made his great collection of more than 900 paintings; and at that time, as Dr. Pratapaditya Pal tells us, good Rajput paintings could be bought in India for the equivalent of one dollar. For some time after that, in spite of Coomaraswamy, Rajput paintings could be acquired for very little. The true rise in Rajput painting has occurred only in the last twenty years or so; the boom has come in the last five. A big hunting scene from the old Kotah state fetched $60,000 in 1977; a similar painting fetched more than $100,000 in 1978. (How hard it is today, in the sale room or the dealer’s gallery, to think of Kotah as a still living place! And it is harder, in the waterlogged peasant fields of Kotah, to imagine painting and drawing going on in the palace, as they did until a hundred years ago, celebrating that land of forest and rock as the hunting ground of princes.)
There are still finds for the sale-room amateur, if he stays away from the more elaborate work of Kotah and Bundi, Kishengarh and Bikaner—and the boom has more or less bypassed the painting of Central India. But money is now one of the more important things about Indian painting; all scholarship, however unwittingly, serves that cause. Every catalogue adds value to the work it celebrates. This recent development is left out of Much Maligned Monsters, Partha Mitter’s history of European reactions to Indian art. The book, which reads like a doctoral thesis, and is useful as a ledger and a reference book, begins with medieval travelers, takes in Hegel and Ruskin and William Morris, and ends with Coomaraswamy (who was half English, and wrote mainly for Europe and the United States).
Dour theses tend to have breezy titles. But this title goes somewhat against the theme of the book. Much Maligned Monsters is really about European…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.