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
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
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.