Long before TV and the Internet provided home entertainment for folks with free time and the right equipment, civilized people all over the world got together at the end of the day to tell stories, read poems and look at pictures. In what is now north-central India, the rulers, or Rajput, of large and small Hindu kingdoms commissioned full-time and freelance artists to make paintings. They depicted religious myths, illustrated ancient poems and recorded court life, often viewing its festivities and foibles through respectful and rosy lenses.
At the Norton Simon Museum of Art, “Painted Poems: Rajput Paintings From the Ramesh and Urmil Kapoor Collection” displays 80 of these richly tinted watercolors, along with 20 exquisitely decorated domestic objects, such as ornamental vases, boxes and rose-water sprinklers.
Forty-five of the enchanting paintings, nearly all on page-size sheets of paper, have just been given to the museum by the Kapoor family; 14 more are promised gifts.
The show is a treasure trove of delightful details, each more lovely than the last. The size of the images makes it difficult for more than one viewer to examine a single picture at a time. This makes you feel as if each meticulously rendered detail were made for you alone. But it also makes you want to share your discoveries with those around you, especially if you’re with a companion or two.
This look-and-talk aspect of Rajput paintings is true to their original uses. In the 18th and 19th centuries, when most of the works in the exhibition were made, Hindu noblemen didn’t hang them on palace walls. They passed them from hand to hand, allowing their guests to hold pictures and savor the fine lines, delicate shading and seemingly microscopic flourishes.
Holding the works also made it easier to appreciate the play of light and shadow across the surfaces. Tipping them at angles caught and reflected the ambient light, particularly for those with gold highlights. Even Indian manuscripts were not bound. Kept in loose bundles, their illustrated pages could be enjoyed with similar intimacy.
Mythological subjects and moral themes were favored by Rajput painters, who turned to classic poems to find stories. Most religious narratives, including such classic Sanskrit epics as the Ramayana of Valmiki and the Mahabharata of Vedavyasa, were in verse. So were texts known as purana (literally, old or ancient), encyclopedic collections of lore, mythology, history and religion. The most popular was the 9th century Bhagavatapurana, a Vaishnava text narrating the life and adventures of Krishna, the popular Hindu deity.
More than 30 paintings in the exhibition depict scenes from Krishna’s life. As a newborn, he fights off a flock of crows, wringing the necks of two as he lies in his crib. The scene is set against a bright red backdrop, which contrasts dramatically with the deity’s deep blue skin.
As an infant, Krishna slaughters an ogress so huge she makes the confrontation between David and Goliath look like an even match. Krishna also vanquishes a demon who took the form of a tornado.
As a muscular toddler, the mischievous god steals fistfuls of fresh butter as his weary mother stares into space and his timid stepbrother begs for a bite. As a child, Krishna dances triumphantly on a venomous, five-headed water snake as the serpent’s consorts bow in unison, like synchronized swimmers.
The most fascinating painting from this series is a night scene that shows the 7-year-old Krishna using a mountain for an umbrella. Protecting the people and animals of Vraja from a violent rainstorm unleashed by the jealous deity Indra, Krishna balances the mountain on the tip of his left hand’s little finger. He gives viewers a coy smile as beautiful women dressed in their finest look on adoringly. Monkeys, oxen and cowherds run for shelter from the storm, as Brahma, Shiva and a third deity watch from afar. Even Airavata, the elephant Indra rides through the sky to whip up the storm, abandons his defeated master to join Krishna’s party.
As the boy-god became a man, he became irresistible to women. Three pictures tell the story of the abduction of Rukmini, a princess who ran off with Krishna and lived happily ever after, for the most part.
The three images are not a triptych or part of a unified series, even though they depict different moments in the narrative. They are separate pieces by three artists from different kingdoms, who worked at different times, each offering his interpretation of the popular tale. The stylistic similarities reveal the strength of the conventions of Rajput painting. Variations in style and setting signal each painter’s imaginative translation of the basic story line.
The complications of love — and the problems of meddling colleagues — are the subjects of two pictures of Krishna struggling to placate his wives, Rukmini and Satyabhama, who compete for his attention.
In one of the show’s most serene images, Krishna enraptures 10 gorgeous women with his flute playing. In other paintings, he embraces the ravishing Radha under a mango tree, locks eyes with a doe-eyed messenger, and entices other lovers to wait patiently in doorways or causes them to forget to fully dress as they leave his chamber.
Only four paintings have been signed. In one of the most luxurious, artist Prag Chand shows Krishna lost in reverie as the fair-skinned Radha reaches for a tree blossom to flirt so gracefully and with such dignity that she could be the heroine of a classic Hollywood romance.
The second-largest group of paintings depicts 14 scenes from court life. These include the portrait of a warrior with his falcon; a nobleman smoking a water pipe; a Sikh prince on horseback; and many groups of statesmen taking meetings. The hosts do their utmost to impress guests with lavish displays of fine carpets, splendid fabrics, plump pillows, glistening jewels, bountiful flowers and attentive servants.
Rajput painters learned a lot from the workshops of their Mughal overlords. The semi-independent Hindu kingdoms were vassals to the more powerful Mughals, who entered India from present-day Afghanistan and ruled for centuries.
Four Mughal paintings reveal the extraordinary refinement of their techniques as well as their interest in naturalistic detail, psychological nuance and fidelity to historical facts and the mundane aspects of daily life.
In contrast, Rajput painters favored bolder, more vivid colors and less complex compositions. In many works, they did not use a uniform style but rendered the main characters one way, the foreground another, the architecture a third and the background a fourth — often loosely and sometimes abstractly.
Rajput patrons had a taste for mythological themes and fantastic subjects. This allowed artists to use their imaginations freely.
One of the most captivating paintings is a bird’s-eye view of a monarch watching a battle between two elephants and their riders. Each appears 13 times, creating an animated picture that looks like a stop-action film condensed into a single image.
Another stunner shows five lithe ladies and a little girl enjoying a cockfight on their splendidly appointed balcony. A violently expressive image depicts a court elephant that’s gone berserk, crushing and impaling a hapless camel.
The most eccentric picture shows 13 holy men stoned out of their minds. Although it was common for wandering ascetics to smoke opium or hemp, it’s rare for artists to depict such subjects, or for monarchs to commission them.
One the whole, Rajput painters put their faith in the power of suggestion. Although nearly every picture provides some type of moral instruction, that’s not its main point.
When you look closely at these profoundly entertaining paintings, it’s clear that they were made by and for people who love a good story.