Fluid Dynamics - Self and Other, One and Many

The exhibition presents approximately seventy paintings created at South Asian courts from the 16th through the 19th century. Themes of power and desire that relate the pictures in the exhibition are matters that continue to preoccupy us to this day. Although painted for the pleasure and purpose of rulers of kingdoms that comprised pre- modern India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Kashmir, these pictures speak clearly to the modern sensibility on matters of status, position, love and longing, and the relationships of human beings to something greater than themselves. Distances of time and place are bridged by visual brilliance, storytelling power, and above all, keen observation of the human emotional landscape: pride, protectiveness, the unconditional love of parent and child, duty, rapture, peevishness, delight, mischievousness, jealousy, humiliation, shyness, expectation, fear, bravery, the devotion of lovers. It goes on and on. If one can enter these pictures, their small size expands to cinematic dimensions as one reads the tales and emotions they portray.

A ruler with his nobles, the Hindu god Rama battling the demon king Ravana, the love- god Krishna awaiting his beloved Radha in a forest grove - each of these stories of power and desire is frequently illustrated in Indian court paintings from the 16th through the 19th century. These diverse images, produced for various Hindu and Muslim courts in distinct styles, may seem as multi-polar and cacophonous as India itself. And yet, like the subcontinent, they too share certain social, cultural, philosophical, and psychological underpinnings. They are visual manifestations of relational definitions of the self, the society, and the universe, embodied in Indian myths, stories, and behavior. Underlying the polytheistic imagination reflected in these diverse images is a view of relationships as fluid and knotted together, not determined by a fixed point of view or perspective. Relationships are a web, a matrix, in which roles are configured by karma (actions), not by particular and independent selves.

Power and Desire is organized to follow the spirit, meaning, and implications of the web- like, fluid relationships among humans, and between humans and divine powers as expressed in court paintings of the 16th to 19th century. Both ancient texts and contemporary scholars point to the main thematic contents of Indian culture and its artistic expressions as the definition of an individual absorbed in and constructed by surroundings, not as a separate being, but existing in myriad connections. Categories do not hold; they move, transform, and are defined by action and the unfolding play of being.

Actions flowing from power and desire construct recurring narratives and relational situations in Indian thought and painting. Looking at a selection of paintings on themes of power and desire drawn exclusively from the San Diego Museum of Art's collection, we find not only the vivid dynamic of narrative moments but also the fluid nature of relationships, perceptions, and forms.

Each of the three sections of the exhibition focuses on a particular kind of relationship-ruler / subject, lover / beloved, god / human- but the exhibition experienced as a whole suggests, as well, an overarching understanding that all human and divine relationships are shaped and changed by differing contexts. For example, in the official audience (darbar) of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, a Rajput ruler is depicted as a subordinate of the emperor; his power is defined in relation to the emperor (fig. 1). At his own court, he would be shown as the supreme ruler, commanding his own hierarchy among courtiers. Even his title would differ in the two contexts. A Rajput ruler, seen merely as a courtier in a Mughal setting, might, in works produced at his own court, appear with a halo, or in the presence of a god. To underscore his divine origins, he might actually position himself as the humble servant of a god, where the god assumes not only divine power but also royal power and the king is reduced, or rather elevated to a "courtier" of the god.

The fluid structure of identity defined by relationships among humans and between humans and the divine is well- articulated in the exhibition section devoted to Love and Longing, with its several illustrations of the romance of Radha and Krishna. Krishna is simultaneously a supreme deity, mischievous playboy, vanquished suitor, pining lover, and a humble supplicant to his beloved Radha (fig. 2). Radha punishes him for his dalliances with the milkmaids and longs for him when he does not appear. Their love is turbulent and sensual in very human terms, and understood to express, at the same time, human longing for union with the divine. A viewer of such pictures, often male, would be simultaneously sensually and spiritually aroused. The interplay of human and spiritual dimensions in the love between Radha and Krishna is vividly expressed in a painting from the court of Kishangarh (fig. 3). Here Krishna and Radha lie on a bed of pink lotus petals, sheltered by a bower, equals in a passionate embrace. The painting is also intended to suggest the passion of the ruler of Kishangarh, Sawant Singh, for his courtesan Banithani. By entertaining this equivalence in the picture, the ruler also partakes of the nature of the divine: he and his courtesan become Krishna and Radha incarnate.

Even the divine realms of the gods are not always separate from the human world. Gods routinely come down to earth to take care of important business, such as destroying demonic forces that threaten the balance of the universe. They can also be envisioned as earthly rulers, taking care of earthly matters or providing support for rulers. While each god may have specific qualities, each would also be seen as the supreme divine power, and not simply as having a partial authority. The activity of these gods may change, depending on the circumstances and needs at any given time. The pattern of these deities is like the pattern of a kaleidoscope: one twist of the wrist, the pieces change places, but pattern re- emerges.

The god Rama is the model king and hero; the story of his dutiful conduct, bravery, and battles is told in the Ramayana. This story, however, is also the story of the demonic king Ravana, who accumulated enough virtue by good deeds in his previous life to be born into his next life with tremendous power: he was awarded one-hundred arms and ten heads. Ravana uses this power to abduct Rama's wife, Sita. The misuse of god- given power brings about his demise. In the Indian philosophical system, no one is inherently good or bad or perennially powerful or weak; all judgment in matters of power and desire depends on context, situation, and the relationship among the characters in question.

Krishna, among the gods, is the guide in matters of love, experiencing all the drama, disappointment, bumblings, and foibles that human passion engenders. He is, however, both human and transcendent, and he leads the devotee to experience human desire for union with the beloved as human desire for union with the divine. Aspiration for ultimate union with god, known as pushti marg, is an important aspect of the Krishna tradition in later Hinduism. Many paintings created at Hindu courts in the period covered by this exhibition are closely connected with this form of Krishna worship.

Another Hindu god well represented in the exhibition is Shiva, who embodies duality within himself. He is a contradiction that transcends contradiction. He is simultaneously an acetic who roams mountainsides and cremation sites and an ultimate erotic being, who can be visualized by his phallus, through which he can impregnate the world. He is, on the one hand, a family man, inhabiting the peaks of the Himalayas with his wife, Parvati, and his two children, the elephant- headed Ganesha and the warrior- child Skanda. On the other hand, he is an esoteric god manifesting his destructive powers dancing on a skeleton. He is the androgyne, half male, half female, united as one (fig. 4).

The number of gods in the Indian universe is seemingly infinite, but it is broadly understood that multiplicity is but a dimension of oneness; multiple forms are means to represent "no- thing- ness." Like a piece of clay which is one but can take on many different forms in the shapes of pots, dishes, and plates, the divine form is one reality, but diverse names and forms are used by devotees. The representation of divine beings as abstract symbols, seen in the last group of pictures in the exhibition, is the choice of a visual language, which, by its visual properties, recognizes human modes of understanding, but, in its denial of simple human visual order, calls upon other powers of comprehension (fig. 5). These images take on representation of the "the one and the many," an idea that eludes rational comprehension, but remains fundamental to Indian art and thought.

The exhibition is co-curated by Vishakha N. Desai, Senior Vice-President and Director of the Galleries, Asia Society; Kavita Singh, Research Editor, Marg Publications; and Caron Smith, Curator of Asian Art, San Diego Museum of Art.
(fig. 6)

(FIG. 1) Vishwarupa (all-encompassing form
Panjab Hills, Bilaspur
Opaque watercolor and gold on paper, ca. 1740
12 1/16 in. x 9 1/32 in. (30.6 cm x 22.9 cm)


(FIG. 2) Celebration of Shah Jahan's
Abid, son of 'Aqa Reza
Mughal, reign of Shah Jahan (16281658)
Opaque watercolor and gold on paper, January 16, 1640
14 7/16 in. x 9 27/32 in. (36.7 cm x 25 cm)


(FIG.3) Krishna scrubs Radha's feet
Panjab Hills, Jammu
Opaque watercolor and gold on paper, ca. 1760
8 9/32 in. x 5 31/32 in. (21 cm x 15.2 cm)


(FIG.4) Asavari Ragini
Central India, Malwa
Opaque watercolor on paper, ca. 1640
7 15/16 in. x 6 11/32 in. (20.2 cm x 16.1 cm)


(FIG.5) Radha and Krishna in a jungle lotus bower
Nihal Chand
Rajasthan, Kishangarh
Opaque watercolor and gold on paper, ca. 1745
9 11/32 in. x 12 29/32 in. (23.7 cm x 32.8 cm)


(FIG.6) The lord whose half is woman
Panjab Hills, Mankot
Opaque watercolor, silver and gold on paper, ca. 1715
8 9/32 in. x 8 1/16 in. (21 cm x 20.5 cm)



Edwin Binney 3rd Collection