Epic Tales Indian Paintings From San Diego Museum of Art’s Permanent Collectionby Brie Stimson June 26, 2018
With just one stroke of one hair of a brush, the romance, adventure and majesty of thousands of years of classic Indian literature are conveyed to the viewer.
Miniature paintings originally from texts such as the Ramayama and the Bhagavata Purana, weave tales of Vishnu, Krishna, Rama and Sita, the monkey god Hanuman and Ravana, the demon king of Lanka in deep, rich colors and exquisite detail.
“Many of them are painted with just a single hair of a brush,” Anita Feldman, deputy director and chief curator at the San Diego Museum of Art (SDMA), told me over the phone a week before “Epic Tales From Ancient India” opened in 5,000 square feet of the museum’s east wing. “You get close and you see all kinds of things in the distance, little castles and islands.” She says the paintings are so detailed, patrons need to use a magnifying glass to properly view them.
Feldman said the paintings were usually produced by a team of artists, and each artist focused on their area of expertise (i.e. faces, plants, animals, etc.) Artists worked on the floor with their pigments and utensils in front of them. “They used a lot of different media like insect wings to get red, and they’d grind them down and sometimes you’d have little bits of wings actually applied to the paintings to resemble jewels,” Feldman explained. “Pigments would be burnished and then layered and layered and layered.”
For SDMA, the exhibit is a point of pride. All of the 90 plus works are from the museum’s permanent collection – paintings that have been stored away in the vaults in some cases for decades before making their triumphant appearance in the galleries this summer. The exhibit went on a short tour to Princeton and the Blanton Museum at the University of Austin before briefly going into storage at SDMA in anticipation of their installation.
“We have a really careful policy about light exposure because the pigments are so fugitive, so we can’t display them for very long periods of time,” Feldman explained. “This tour, each venue is just three months and then the paintings will have to rest for at least nine years and not be seen again for nine years. So this is a chance to see them before they go in storage.”
Feldman said one of the striking attributes of the paintings is the perspective. “They’re very different from the Western conventions of painting in the sense that you have an arbitrary sense of perspective where you could see more than one scene at a time unfolding in kind of flat even light,” she told me. “Instead of having the kind of linear perspective that we’re used to in the West, you have all kinds of things going on in different places and also an arbitrary sense of scale, whereby the most important figures would be larger. It doesn’t have necessarily as much to do with distance as it does to importance, and quite often figures are in silhouette so that you can easily read who they are and what they’re doing much like Egyptian hieroglyphics. That kind of thing where things are a little more stylized and intended to be interpreted by the reader is very clearly what’s happening in the scene.”
In the exhibit itself, which will be designed in sumptuously deep blues and purples, each painting corresponds to the text it comes from and each text is a separate section of the exhibit.
“Everything’s organized by the stories that they’re telling, so it becomes for us more of a kind of narration and storytelling,” she explained. She said it hearkens back to the original purpose of the paintings “because most of these paintings would have been … bound into manuscripts and be pages, which would also contain a lot of text. These would be painted for the different courts.” Over the years the manuscripts were unbound, pages were sold “and the paintings rarely accompany those texts anymore. So this exhibition is an attempt really to bring them back to the original context and put them in the context of the storytelling.” The exhibition was curated by Marika Sardar, SDMA’s former associate curator for South Asian art, who now works at the Doha Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar.
The first section is an introduction to Indian Painting: how to read them and how they’re made.
The second section delves into the Ragamala, a series of paintings based on a range of melodies known as ragas. Ragamala literally means “garland of ragas.”
“They’re meant to kind of evoke not only the sound of the music but the things that would happen when that music was being played,” Feldman explained. “We have a certain way in the West where we’re used to a certain kind of narration. This is a little bit different because it’s presenting stories in a different way, of using music.”
The next section depicts paintings from the Ramayana, “which is basically the story of Rama and Sita, which is quite an exciting story,” Feldman said. “The Ramayana is a really popular story because it’s so colorful and full of adventure. Rama and his wife Sita are exiled to a forest and Sita’s kidnapped by a 10-headed demon. And they take her to the island of Lanka and Rama goes out on a quest to find her and then gets some help from Hanuman, the monkey army leader. And Hanuman and his monkeys and another contingent of bears help Rama go and rescue Sita.”
The last section of the exhibit focuses on Persian language and literature in India, concentrating on the Shahnemah, the Book of Kings, a sacred text in Iran.
“For a long time in India the Persians were holding a lot of important places in the court and had a lot of influence over the culture and the artworks that were produced in India, and so the Persian stories became very popular and were also created in India,” Feldman told me.
At the end of the exhibit is a performance space where musicians and dancers will perform on weekends and stories, activities and hands on workshops will be available every day.
While a few pieces from their 1,500-work collection are sometimes on display on a smaller scale, the museum wanted to exhibit the paintings in a more significant way. “It’s considered to be the most important collection outside of India of this material, and it covers every region and time period of Indian painting,” she added. And once the paintings go back into the vaults, they’re gone.