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A new exhibition looks at Mewar’s royal paintings in a new light

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art undertakes a major survey of 18th-century courtly paintings from Mewar to kickstart its centennial celebrations

Detail from 'Maharana Fateh Singh crossing a river during the monsoon', Shivalal, ca. 1893. Courtesy: The City Palace Museum-Udaipur, Maharana of Mewar Charitable Foundation (MMCF), Udaipur

By Avantika Bhuyan

LAST PUBLISHED 24.11.2022  |  09:30 AM IST

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At the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art, an intricately-detailed painting from Mewar is currently on display. The work done in Udaipur, between 1715-18, shows Maharana Sangram Singh II at the Gangaur boat procession. The artist has created a bird’s eye view of the scene, showing not just the riverscape but also the festivities in the city, the temples and fort lining the ghats, the smoke emerging from some of the houses—it’s master storytelling within a single frame.

63 works such as this, done on paper, cotton and scrolls, form a part of the exhibition, ‘A Splendid Land: Paintings from Royal Udaipur', which has been organised by the National Museum of Asian Art, Washington DC, in collaboration with The City Palace Museum in Udaipur and The Maharana of Mewar Charitable Foundation. This is a major survey of works from Mewar, Rajasthan, and the first in a series of exhibitions that celebrate the National Museum of Asian Art’s centennial in 2023. The show, which opened on 19 November at the museum’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, is expected to go on till 14 May, 2023. The idea is to explore newer ways of looking at Indian paintings, which reveal how artists conveyed emotions and ecologies in groundbreaking ways.

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Many of the paintings have never been publicly exhibited or published. ‘A Splendid Land’ has been curated by Debra Diamond, who is the Elizabeth Moynihan Curator for South Asian and Southeast Asian Art at the National Museum of Asian Art, and Dipti Khera, associate professor at New York University. “In 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," states the curatorial note. “They sought to convey the bhava, 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."

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'Prince Amar Singh II walking in the rain', attributed to the Stipple Master, ca. 1690. Credit: Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.: Purchase and partial gift made in 2012 from the Catherine and Ralph Benkaim Collection — Charles Lang Freer Endowment

Diamond, in an email interview, states that this exhibition was a perfect fit with the museum’s centennial celebrations as it expressed their goal for reflecting on the past while taking steps towards realising a transformative vision for the museum. “It launches the museum’s next century of education, understanding and inspiration through art," she adds. “With cutting-edge scholarship, new translations of texts, unpublished artworks as well as canonical masterpieces, it addresses broad questions about art, culture and the contemporary world."

‘A Splendid Land’ takes the viewer back to the royal courts in Rajasthan in the 18th century. The 1700s have been described as a period of radical artistic creativity. For a century before that, the Udaipur court painters created two-dimensional artworks with idealised forms and saturated primary colours. The themes were typically sacred narratives, poetic treatises and small portraits. Diamond attributes the shift to large-scale, immersive works to the political and cultural shifts that swept India in the 18th century, when the Mughals restructured the political coalitions in northern India. “Within this political landscape, regional kingdoms paid fealty to the empire and, at the same time, individual rulers strengthened their own realms. By the late 17th century, however, as the imperial political authority lessened, the grounds for allegiances shifted," she elaborates. 

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As north Indian courts and Mughal successor states began flexing their own muscles, each re-emerging polity reimagined its realm in distinctive ways. “Building up cities and mobilising the arts were among the key strategies in building new alliances and securing the loyalty of noblemen," adds Diamond. It was not just politics but also pleasure that played an active role in building these loyalties. The new hierarchies, and images of the court enjoying pleasures in captivating settings, emerged as an entwined phenomena. Diamond calls this genre ‘paintings of place’, which became the major focus of the royal atelier for the next 200 years.

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While curating ‘A Splendid Land’, both Diamond and Khera envisioned an environment within the gallery where visitors could immerse themselves in another world and time—where they could enter the mood of the paintings. The galleries have been organised geographically and temporally. “We underscored that each room is a new destination and a new mood," explains Diamond. The gallery sequence constitutes a journey, which begins with the lake and palaces at the centre of Udaipur, continues outward to the City Palace and the city’s streets, moves on to the mountains and valleys surrounding the capital, and finally, more metaphorically, arrives at sacred sites and the cosmos.

“Side excursions draw the visitor into the monsoon season and springtime festivals. To further establish distinctive moods, the extraordinary filmmaker Amit Dutta composed a distinctive soundscape for each gallery, drawn from motifs within the paintings, such as crashing thunder and pouring rain in the “Monsoon" gallery," she says. The sounds invite visitors not only to lose themselves in a mood but also to look more closely for aural motifs within the paintings, “a useful key toward unlocking what are often large and densely packed works". According to Diamond, whether triggering a memory or forming a new one, each sonic collage poetically interweaves ambient sound elements with silences, and all are woven together into a cumulative experience.

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It is not just the artistic style that the exhibition is exploring but also the elite attitude towards the land—through construction of forts, irrigation systems and hunting grounds on estate lands. The museum is reiterating its interest in relevance and ‘climate’ through both ‘A Splendid Land’ and its sister exhibition, ‘Unstill Waters: Contemporary Photography from India’, which will be on view from 10 December 2022 to 11 June 2023. “Both touch on cultural attitudes towards water and natural resource management in South Asia. They provide the springboard for a series of programs that express the National Museum of Asian Art’s commitment to serving as a platform for important conversations, as well as the Smithsonian’s determination to address global imperatives regarding climate change," says Diamond.