This major survey of works from the lake city of Udaipur in Rajasthan brings together 63 works on paper, cotton, and scrolls, including international loans, to reveal how artists sought to convey the sensory and lived experience of the lake city. Many of the paintings have never been publicly exhibited or published before. The exhibition includes 51 works on paper, five monumental works on cotton, a 9-feet long scroll, with works ranging from the 17th through 19th centuries, as well as six photographs from the 19th and 20th centuries.
The small kingdom of Mewar has been celebrated for centuries as one of the most illustrious of the small kingdoms that made up the northwestern region of India. This powerful Hindu kingdom in Rajasthan has its capital at Udaipur, a city known for its beautiful palaces and vibrant cultural traditions. Mewar’s defence of its first capital at Chittaur against waves of Muslim invaders between the early 14th and the late 16th centuries caused it to be celebrated as the most heroic of the Rajput states. In response to the siege of Chittaur, the Mewar capital was moved south to Udaipur in the 1560s. And it is from that base, until 1615, Mewar stood as the last holdout until it, too, was forced to submit to the Muslim Mughal empire.
n the 18th century, the artists of Udaipur shifted their focus from small poetic manuscripts to large-scale paintings of the city’s palaces, lakes, mountains and seasons. They sought to convey the bhava (mood) – the emotional tenor and sensorial experiences that make places and times memorable – this was unlike anything else in Indian art. The paintings express themes of belonging and prosperous futures that are universal. A Splendid Land also explores the environmental, political, and emotional contexts in which this new genre emerged. Udaipur’s economy depended on annual monsoons, extensive water harvesting, and securing the loyalty of nobles and allies. By celebrating regional abundance and courtly refinement, the paintings strengthened friendships in the changing political landscapes of early modern South Asia.
In defending his state and its values, a Mewar ruler was expected to measure up to the ideal of heroism. Paintings of princely hunts and sport, produced throughout India’s courts, immortalise such heroism. Royal hunts were occasions for displaying wealth, territory, and resources, as well as demonstrating the martial prowess with which every Indian ruler was expected to have to enable him to guard his state and his subjects. In paintings of the Maharanas of Mewar, Jaipur, and some other states, a golden nimbus represents their mythical descent from the sun, however, this feature is not seen in portraits of princes, noblemen, attendants.
Rulers as Patrons of Art
Rulers were also expected to be generous patrons supporting their communities. Over the centuries, these rulers therefore made gifts to schools and religious institutions, as well as to artists, artisans, and performers. Most courts maintained painting workshops, but in Mewar, court artists made a speciality of documenting the activities of reigning kings. Two particularly memorable royal patrons from this period are examined in the exhibition. During the reign of Bhim Singh of Udaipur (1778-1828), continuous internal power struggles resulted in the eventual acceptance of British suzerainty yet the continual commission of grand paintings reflected the previous glories of the state. Udaipur was the overlord of the smaller state of Devgarh, which had an equally vibrant culture. From 1786-1821, Devgarh was ruled by the physically immense and intellectually complex Gokul Das, who took political and artistic advantage of his over lord’s weaknesses, making a dramatic impact on courtly painting in the region.
The artworks featured in this exhibition reveal how painters developed this new genre centred upon the lived experience of local landscapes, lake systems, and palaces. The atelier became an incubator; over some 200 years, artists found ever-new ways to evoke ambience, trigger memories and create feelings of connection. This departure in subject matter differs from the body-focused visual traditions of Indian art over two millennia. A Splendid Land is the first exhibition to closely examine this shift and how it expands people’s understanding of emotions and sensorial experience, as well as climate and natural resource management, in early modern India.
In two 18th-century paintings in the exhibition, Maharana Ari Singh II of Mewar (r 1761-73) is portrayed at prayer and at an evening entertainment. Mewari paintings show great attention to detail and unconventional approaches to perspective to create visually complex and sophisticated scenes. Tamasha (a large spectacle or event) paintings feature important ceremonies, special activities, daily occurrences, or noteworthy episodes in the lives of the Rajput kings and their royal court. Enthusiastic to have themselves represented as cultivated and passionate rulers, maharanas can be seen in palace surroundings enjoying music, dance, and performances. The backdrop can provide fascinating details, as they are set within ornate palace courtyards lined by columned arcades and arches that generations of Udaipur’s ruling maharanas were depicted in dollhouse-like settings indulging in their favourite pastimes.
Some paintings served as important records of significant events hosted by the king. Depictions were made, for example, of durbar (public gathering), official receptions held for the maharana to receive sardars (chieftains), or visiting delegations that often included foreign and British dignitaries. As well as being diplomatic statesmen, Rajput kings were enthusiastic religious practitioners and eager to have themselves recorded performing acts of religious piety such as making an offering to a yogi (holy man) or Hindu deities, such as in the painting of Maharana Ari Singh at Worship in the City Palace. Religious devotion and piety were paramount for Rajput royalty’s day-to-day existence and ruling legitimacy, hence paintings can be found of members of the Rajput court visiting shrines and holy sites to make offerings to the gods and perform devotional puja (prayer rituals). During the Mughal period, the majority of Rajput kingdoms defied conversion to Islam and used Hindu legends, poems, teachings and the Hindu pantheon of gods as their creative inspiration.
A third painting in the exhibition is of Prince Amar Singh II walking in the rain. The unusual technique used in this painting is attributed to ‘stipple master’. The artist who executed the work used a distinctive stippling technique that is otherwise unknown in Rajput painting, though it does have Mughal and Deccan precedents. This distinctive approach coupled with a sparse use of colour allows the paper substrate to show through, giving the painting a dreamlike quality seen in works from the period only by this artist, creating in this painting the atmospheric feeling of walking in the rain.
Journey through Udaipur’s Sounds and Landscapes
The paintings have been organised to take the visitor on a journey that begins at Udaipur’s centre and continues outward: first the lakes and lake palaces, then to the city, the countryside and finally to the cosmos. Deborah Diamond, the Elizabeth Moynihan Curator for South Asian and Southeast Asian Art at the National Museum of Asian Art, and an expert in Indian court painting, explained that the structure of the exhibition directly responds to the visuality of the paintings and the historical goals of the artists. Each gallery centres upon the emotions engendered by a particular place or season. The sequence of immersive moods aims to heighten the sensorial experience of place for museum visitors. The exhibition is co-curated by Dipti Khera, associate professor at New York University, whose ground-breaking work on historical emotions is also central to the exhibition.
An ambient soundscape by the renowned experimental filmmaker Amit Dutta (b 1977, Jammu) underscores the sensorial elements in the paintings, inviting contemporary audiences to sense – and not just see – the moods of these extraordinary places and paintings.
A public symposium entitled Monsoon: Histories and Futures, takes place on 9 December; and Yamuna/Ancostia: Rivers and Environmental Racism, on 10 December. It explores the ways that art reveals cultural attitudes towards natural resources and speaks to climate crises in South Asia, bringing perspectives of the past together with insights of the future. There is also a related film series beginning on 2 December.
A Splendid Land; Paintings from Royal Udaipur, until 14 May, 2023, Arthur M Sackler Gallery, Washington DC, asia.si.edu
Read Asian Art Newspaper’s articles about the Mewar Ramayana here