The vibrancy and detail of the paintings are captivating. Beyond the scenes of lavish palace life and great Indian epics, however, also lays a deeper insight into the political climate and changing cultural influences in this north-western corner of India, in the 18th and 19th centuries. The paintings were created for the personal pleasure of the maharajas and reveal two different styles of court painting. The very title of the exhibition summarizes the two distinct cultural and aesthetic influences that are represented.
‘Garden’ refers to the paintings created for Bakhat Singh (1725-1751) and for his son, Vijai Singh (1752-1793); ‘Cosmos’ to those commissioned by Man Singh (1803-1843), Bakhat Singh’s great-grandson. The first series of paintings depict the temporal pleasures of courtly life, with elaborate palaces and lush gardens, and illustrate great Indian epics such as the Ramayana. The Ramayana is the story of the Hindu god Rama’s 14-year exile during which he travelled to Larka to free his wife Sita, who had been abducted by Ravana, and fought to restore the harmony of the kingdom. Rama’s reign was considered perfect in the eyes of many Hindu kings and was notably an inspiration to Vijai Singh. The paintings are colourful, ornate and hugely detailed and depict scenes such as elephant combats or the celebration of the Hindu spring festival Holi, the festival of colours, during which people throw colours at each other.
‘Cosmos’ reveals a radical change from the mundanity of courtly life to something ‘supramundane’, beyond the tangibility of daily life, which is reflected in a series of cosmographic paintings. Nothing is certain and this second series of paintings created for Man Singh reflects, instead, an interior and spiritual world of philosophical speculation. The colours of the paintings are just as vibrant, but the spectrum is limited to two or three colours, which are used in blocks, in a surprisingly similar way to 20th century western art. The paintings contain fewer details and some depict geometrical figures and shapes.
Man Singh was a devotee of the Nath yogi Jallandharnath. The Nath tradition was a Hindu cult founded in the thirteenth century, which sought to uncover the mystery of existence and understand the concept of the ‘Absolute’ from which the universe allegedly emerged. Under Man Singh, the tradition became a state-sponsored religion. One fifth of the kingdom’s income was donated to the Nath cult and Man Singh commissioned over 1,000 paintings to illustrate metaphysical concepts and to establish the political legitimacy of the group.
The paintings depict Nath greatness and teachings and also attempt to illustrate the ‘Absolute’. Nath gurus are presented as superior to the Hindu gods and are physically painted above the Hindu gods in many of the works. In one particular painting the Nath yogi sits above the Hindu god Shiva and is lecturing Shiva. The superiority of the Naths is also reflected, once again, in a representation of the origins of the Ganges River. Whereas the river is traditionally depicted as flowing through Shiva’s hair, in this painting the Ganges flows from a Nath guru. The concept of the ‘Absolute’ remained a mystery, however, to many Nath gurus and the meaning of many of the paintings in this section is also a mystery.
Whilst the ‘Cosmos’ paintings may not help to solve the mystery of existence, they are a window onto the political changes and challenges of the time. During Man Singh’s rule, the sovereignty of the royal court of Jodhpur became increasingly threatened by British advances and Man Singh sought to use the Naths to deflect attention from British interference. The British notably sought to repress the Nath influence, which was viewed as increasingly corrupt. In 1843, they arrested two prominent Naths for allegedly kidnapping a Brahmin girl. Man Singh left his place in protest and lived as a hermit. He died shortly after and following his death, Nath influence gradually declined as their revenue decreased and many of their leaders were exiled. In 1858, just 13 years after, the death of Man Singh, British rule was formally established in India.
For further information on Indian art, read our article Art and Nationalism in India
For further information on the establishment of British rule in India, read our article The Making of the Hybrid Raj, 1700-1857