Painting the Cosmic Ocean

Peacock in the Desert: The Royal Arts of Jodhpur, India

an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, March 4–August 19, 2018; the Seattle Art Museum, October 18, 2018–January 21, 2019; and the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, March 9–September 2, 2019
Catalog of the exhibition by Karni Jasol
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 295 pp., $85.00 (distributed by Yale University Press)
Varaha, the boar avatar of Vishnu, surrounded by illusions created by the demon Hiranyaksha
Chandigarh Museum
Varaha, the boar avatar of Vishnu, surrounded by illusions created by the demon Hiranyaksha; painting by Manaku from the Bhagavata Purana, circa 1740–1745

In the late 1820s a Mughal scholar named Khair ud-Din, who was working for the East India Company at its opium factory in Patna, began work on a monumental history. The Book of Cautionary Tales attempted to explain how a handful of traders from the furthest rim of Europe, “men who had yet to learn to wash their bottoms” and who worked not for a nation-state but for a mere corporation based in a small office five thousand miles away in London, had managed, in less than half a century, to conquer the richest empire on earth—that of the Great Mughals of India. Khair ud-Din writes:

From Babur [the conqueror] to the Emperor Aurangzeb, the Mughal monarchy of Hindustan had grown ever more powerful, but then there was war among his descendants, each seeking to pull the other down…. Disorder and corruption no longer sought to hide themselves, and the once peaceful realm of India became the abode of Anarchy. Soon, there was little substance left to the Mughal realm: it had faded to a mere name or shadow or dream.

By 1803, when the East India Company captured the Mughal capital of Delhi and the blind monarch Shah Alam, sitting strangely poised and dignified in his ruined palace, it had trained a private security force of around 200,000—twice the size of the British army—and marshaled more firepower than any nation-state in Asia. In just over forty years, a small group of businessmen had made themselves masters of almost all the subcontinent, succeeding an empire where even minor provincial nawabs and governors ruled over areas both richer and larger in size and population than the biggest countries of Europe.

But what looked like the end of civilization in Delhi looked quite different in other parts of India, as a century of imperial centralization under the Mughals gave way to a revival of long-dormant regional identities, states, and forms of governance. Between the beginning of the collapse of the Mughal Empire at the death of the Emperor Aurangzeb in 1707 and the final victory of the East India Company and its nationalization in the mid-nineteenth century, the decline and disruption of the Mughal heartlands around Delhi were matched by astonishing growth, prosperity, and rebirth in the peripheries.

In the center of India, the city of Pune and the Maratha hills, flush with loot, entered their golden age. For Jaipur, Jodhpur, Udaipur, and the other great Rajput courts, this was an age of resurgence as they regained their independence and began building many of their most magnificent forts and palaces. To the east, in Awadh, the baroque towers of Lucknow rose…

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