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on architecture & urbanism

 ‘The Garden and the Cosmos’

Paintings of the Mehrangarh Museum Trust Collection:

A Review of the Exhibition

Apoorva Iyengar I Assistant Professor 

A joyous celebration of miniature paintings, saturated with colours and intricate detailing received a temporary home in our city at the ‘Garden and the Cosmos’ exhibition displayed at the CSMVS Museum, Fort – Mumbai. The paintings, which are a part of the Mehrangarh Museum Trust Collection, were divided into three sections, containing miniature paintings commissioned by three Maharajas of the Marwar-Jodhpur during the 18th and 19th century. 

The first section displayed paintings with luscious gardens and leisure pavilions of the Nagaur Palace, depicted in a bright colour palette, conveying Maharaja Bakhat Singh’s pride and the opulent way of living. Bakhat Singh also often commissioned larger than life paintings to record important events in his life.  

The Maharaja and a young lady, sitting below the full moon, are surrounded by women bedecked in fine clothing and jewellery who play music and offer food in a terrace flooded with moon light. The whiteness of the floor merges with the white moonlit background, suggesting that the figures are part of the clouds, painting an almost heavenly setting. Everywhere there is pleasure, sensuality, and playfulness. The Maharaja is seen playing holi with young women in an open terrace, with translucent splashes of yellow, orange and pink splattered over the painting, consuming the air and turning water into colour dust.  Light traces of lines over white surfaces suggest the ornate carvings on marble, soft lines on decorative fabric show the folds and layers of clothing on the women’s bodies. 

Multiple perspectives collapse into one plane, typical of the flatness seen in Indian miniature paintings, allowing the artists to play with scale and directing the eye to cut across space and time seamlessly. This form allows for multiple stories to outplay in larger landscapes by using constantly shifting horizon lines, thus adding to the sense of scale. The background occupies lesser space, often in tonal washes of blue and white, indicating the time of the day. All action is contained in the mid-ground and foreground that is broken into fragments by clusters of foliage or architectural forms that liberate the drawing of strictness in scale.  In an antithesis to the graphic novel format that uses rectangular planes almost like windows into a narrative, these unique miniatures often employ natural forms and architectural perspectives, displaying numerous smaller stories within the same undulating landscape. 

This manipulation of scale is cleverly captured in a painting of Raja Mansingh and Dev Nath, where the painstakingly drawn walls of the haveli divide the painting into half. The other side of the haveli shows the palace complex and the town, and through orthogonal twists and turns of houses, the painting jumps across various scales. 

The lush foliage of Bakhat Singh’s paintings evaporate into millions of curvy lines in the next section, all harmoniously drawn and repeated as part of the background, suggesting Maharaja Man Singh’s curiosity of the formless, metaphysical world. Rarely seen in Indian miniature painting form, this attempt of showing the undefined form, the ‘other world’ is a revelation to the eyes.   Man Singh, a follower of the Nath Sect, commissioned paintings that showed his spiritual concerns through the depiction of the ‘Absolute’ – the essence from which the universe emerges. Abstracted landscapes with light simmering colours, repetitive patterns in flat monochrome tones add to the mysterious, hypnotic nature of the paintings. 

A series of squares progressively show the emergence of the cosmos – A Mahasiddha, the first manifestation of the cosmos, is shown seated against a field of gold, and subsequently exudes a silvery light that spills over to half the panel. 

In Hindu philosophy, ‘Prakriti’ is the basic matter that constitutes the universe, contained within time and space. ‘Purusha’ is the soul or eternal spirit.  The next three panels show the emergence of Prakriti and Purusha, depicted as a feminine and masculine figure against a luminous field of gold. In the next four panels, a lotus emerges from the stomach of a sleeping Vishnu, lying in a silvery, tantalising field of cosmic waters. In another one, a streak of silver shows the Ganges flowing from the footprints of the Nath, and the next frame is bathed in silver waters with several, repeated forms of the Nath mahasiddhas. 

The paintings here depict the different worlds, celestial beings and the spatial relationship of the cosmos drawn within the human body. Flat, undefined backgrounds in stark colours are used to expand the sense of scale and create a sense of inquisitiveness. 

In the third section, Maharaja Vijay Singh’s long horizontal folios depict his attachment to the stories of Krishna and the Ramayana. These narratives play out in lush, dense forests, with each and every tree detailed out in such intensity that one is immersed into the landscapes. Animals and birds populate the flora, giving a sense of fullness to the natural landscape, displaying the riches of the fertile land.  The trees and foliage seem to burst with life, showing the power that lies within nature. The divine, human and nature are intertwined in these sacred landscapes. 

A feature of the Marwar School of painting are the stylized swirling clouds that add to the sense of movement and drama to these paintings. These clouds, latent with the heaviness of rain are seen over a horizontally unfurling forest where the journey of Ram and Lakshman plays out in different forms. 

The last painting in the exhibition brings together the garden and the cosmos – dividing the painting into two panels by a hard line, on one side is a sage and a king amidst a dense and busy forest, and the next panel reveals an expanse of dark wave-like repeated patterns of the vast ocean, on which the deity Vishnu sleeps calmly. 

I visited this exhibition numerous times in the span of two months. Each time, the paintings made me introspect on the nature and power of drawings that we create and the liberating exploration of narratives that these drawing forms allow for.  The playfulness of collapsing visual planes, expanding scales and the pleasure of graphic detailing become visual manipulators for brilliant storytelling. 

Note: All photographs are from the exhibition Garden and the Cosmos, at CSMVS Museum and part of the Mehrangarh Museum Trust Collection