This is the last month to view the SAM exhibition, which tells a remarkable story of premodern India relatively untouched by British influence.
Tucked in a corner of the exhibition “Peacock in the Desert: The Royal Arts of Jodhpur, India,” now on view at Seattle Art Museum, is a little gem: a page from an illuminated manuscript from India from the late 16th century.
It is approximately 10 inches by 8 inches, but do not be deceived by its small size. This miniature painting shines with brilliant intensity. On the top of the page is a script in black ink resembling the orderly stride of a marching band. Below it unfolds a springtime scene of delicious desire and longing. Three figures in an architectural space are visible through open windows: a woman at the center with a lotus in hand is flanked by two ladies-in-waiting in elegant poses. Outside, curvaceous trees laden with pinkish-white flowers sway in the wind. Love is in the air, you might say. The museum caption says that the page is taken from a manuscript on music, and that the painting evokes the mood of a melody. Hush, and you will hear an exquisite serenade.
Spreading across two levels of the museum, the exhibition brings together about 250 artifacts that illustrate the royal life and cultural achievement of the Rathore dynasty, a Hindu warrior clan that ruled the arid Marwar-Jodhpur region in northwestern India from the 15th century till after India gained independence from British rule in 1947. The exhibition tells a remarkable story of pre-modern India relatively untouched by British influence.
Kingship is at its heart, and it is appropriately showy. Size matters. Visitors are greeted by life-size elephant mannequins, massive thrones, canopies, tents, palanquins, swings and swords that impress by their sheer weightiness. Dazzling jewels encrusted on clothes, chokers, tiaras, brooches, headgear, swords and daggers capture the opulence of the Rathores. Large photomurals show the imposing Mehrangarh Fort and Museum from Rajasthan from which most of the artifacts are drawn. The rest is from the collection of Queen Elizabeth II and the ruling family of Kuwait, Al Sabah. All this is awe-inspiring. And yet for me, it was the small illuminated page from the manuscript that encapsulated the reach and depth of India’s cultural heritage that this exhibition is getting at.
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The paintings in the exhibition — there are about 50 — are spectacular too, but in a more subdued way than the large-scale objects. Most of them are small. Rarely, you learn the names of individual artists. Colors run riot: green, yellow, red, shimmering gold and lots of blue: sky blue, midnight blue, cerulean blue, peacock blue. Matisse would be moved.
For viewers used to the post-Renaissance Western pictorial tradition, the representation of figures, time and space is a bit of a shock. Smack in the middle of what looks like a naturalistic painting is a three-headed monster. Aircraft shaped like gorgeous peacocks fly over lush green landscapes. The value of these paintings is that they make us question what now goes as common sense in the West and, because of the British Empire, around the world: concepts of a linear time and a secular world order. They allow us to see the world in radically different ways. There’s a tremendous care for form and formality in these paintings. Architectural space is depicted with astonishing precision. Symmetrical structures create the effect of balance, order and harmony. At times you see the influence of Western pictorial tradition: vanishing perspectives, chubby cherubs with bare bottoms holding up heralds. The Western influence is more pronounced toward the end of the exhibition as large full frontal portraits of kings in the Western tradition replace miniature paintings. They tell of a sad loss of a unique way of seeing the world.
But what about romantic love — the dominant way in which intimate relationship is conceived of in the West? Many of the paintings, including our little manuscript page, give lie to the assertion that the concept of romantic love came to India with the British. Going through the collection, I wondered: What place did romantic love have in the lives of the royal family of the Rathores? Judging from the artifacts in the exhibition, it would be highly problematic in the order of things.
The exhibition highlights that royal marriages were strategic transactions involving power play and transfer of property. The practice of polygamy was common; many of the paintings show kings consorting with multiple women. The latter were sequestered from view and segregated in living quarters known as the zenana. We glimpse the figures through the windows in the illuminated manuscript because the all-important screens have been scandalously drawn for a moment. After abolishing the practice of widow immolation in 1829, the British turned sequestration of Indian women into one of their weapons justifying the civilizing mission; the alleged deplorable condition of women in the zenana was a way to get at Indian men. The postcolonial scholar Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak aptly describes the imperial impulse as the drive of white men saving brown women from brown men.
It’s difficult to comprehend the life of women in the zenana for which so few records survive. The exhibition sheds valuable light into the darkness. Various artifacts show that women were engaged in sports, religious festivities, arts and cultural activities, wielding substantial power on public affairs from behind the screens. That’s a lot more nuanced view than the one promoted by the British: Indian women as passive creatures locked up by sexually jealous men.
“Peacock in the Desert” is a fascinating show because it allows us to experience sensibilities that are different; what would we gain if we reopen the doors of our perception to the marvelous? You can wonder about that at this exhibition, on display through Jan. 21.
“Peacock in the Desert: The Royal Arts of Jodhpur, India,” 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursdays, through Jan. 21; Seattle Art Museum, 1300 First Ave.; $14.95-$24.95 (kids 12 and under free); 206-654-3100; seattleartmuseum.org