Sultan Muhammad ‘Adil Shah and Ikhlas Khan Riding an Elephant, 1645. By Haidar ‘Ali and Ibrahim Khan. Image courtesy of The Met.

A unique exhibition is finally on view at one of the most visited museums in the world. Indian Skies: The Howard Hodgkin Collection of Indian Court Painting, on view at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, presents a different scope of South Asian art that will captivate and intrigue visitors.

The more than 120 paintings on display are part of a large, extensive collection by Howard Hodgkin, a noted British artist who spent his creative period living in India and producing paintings and prints in the company of India’s leading scholars and artists and in the process, amassing a fine array of 16th thru 19th century court paintings, with an emphasis on elephants.

The exhibit is presented in three galleries, each representing the different time periods in which these uniquely intricate paintings were produced.

In the first gallery, Mughal and Deccan Court Painting, each work comes across as sharply colorful and finely detailed, especially in pieces like Sultan Muhammad ‘Adil Shah and Ikhlas Khan Riding an Elephant (c. 1645) by Hadar ‘Ali and Ibrahim Khan, an elaborate painting done in ink, opaque watercolor and gold on paper. In this work, one sees the Sultan (saint-like due to the depiction of a halo surrounding his head) sitting on a beautifully costumed elephant, and accompanied by an ever-important prime minister. But what I find most fascinating is the precise color, design and lines which the painting emulates, all done in a strict yet painterly fashion, demonstrating how important court painting was during that period of time.

A second work, entitled Krishna Dances on the Head of Kaliya; Illustration to Harivamsa (Story of Hari) (ca. 1590-95), done in opaque color and gold on paper, presents a scene between good and evil, all taking place within a medieval village landscape. One can vividly see the dark blue Krishna on top of a huge, five-head serpent, while the villagers are wildly rejoicing in the spectacle. The work is done with all the details one might find in an Italian Renaissance painting: the village houses and farm animals in the background, an elaborate tree in the foreground, and fine depictions of waves, fishes and sea urchins throughout most of the painting – all created with the utmost of skill and effort.

Krishna Dances on the Head of Kaliya; Illustration to Harivamsa (Story of Hari) (ca. 1590-95). Image courtesy of The Met.

“Khwaja Umar Saved from Pursuers,” Folio from the Hamzanama (The Adventures of Hamza), (ca. 1602) attributed in part to Kesu Das, an Indian painter, is another work presented with great detail: the figures actively engage amongst one another in the manner of a Pieter Bruegel the Elder painting, while the powerful brushstrokes of clouds, wind and light are reminiscent of J.M.W. Turner’s impressionistic landscapes – examples of the European influences the artist adapted from prints and paintings he observed during his studies.

In the second gallery, Elephants in Indian Painting, an entertaining piece entitled An Elephant and Keeper (ca. 1650-60) and created in opaque color and gold on paper (see image), fully presents the importance and majesty of the imperial elephant. With its elegant, gold ornate fabric, gold jewels, bells and the like, the figure stands most powerful and commanding in the presence of its keeper, small and almost invisible in the foreground, while the vast sky and land appears equally invisible as well.

Another work I found impressive was a piece entitled Elephant Fight, (ca. 1655-60). Attributed to the The Kota Master and done in opaque watercolor, ink and gold on paper, this work is most direct in its visual detail and ferocity. The images of two elephants ramming against each other while being guided (or manipulated) by their riders, done with fine illustration, color and detailed shadows, is most eye striking and yet contemplative at the same time.

A Prince Riding an Elephant in Procession (ca. 1570). Image courtesy of The Met.

A third painting, A Prince Riding an Elephant in Procession (ca. 1570) is a figurative scene in which each person is shown as individualistic, not as part of an overall group. What I found interesting is how this dynamic shows most well within the overall activity of the procession – all participating in the gallantry of the pursuit yet the conscience of the outcome. It is even great to see the tiny baby elephant in the foreground most alive and happy to be a part of this important and royal occasion.

The third and last gallery Rajput and Pahari Court Painting, has a great display of works showcasing portraiture as a source for inner truth and pleasure. The work Maharaja Raj Singh in a Garden Arcade (ca. 1710-15) is a contemplative work of Raj Singh in his garden with his female attendants in what appears to be a state of inner peace, relaxation and pleasure. The viewer can easily see the gaze in this person’s eyes as one who is enjoying his space with the least amount of effort, while lightly holding a flower bud signifying his aesthetic nature and sense of worldly connoisseurship.

Maharaja Raj Singh in a Garden Arcade. Image courtesy of The Met.

Lastly, making my way over to the end of the exhibition and standing alone in a glass encasement, I was struck by a most unusual Royal Standard (ca. 1850-1900). Made of embroidered and embossed silk with glass beads and sequins and with a wooden staff covered in silver, these objects are usually displayed alongside Indian rulers as a sign of title, rank and respectability. It is a whimsical as well as important piece, with its intricate teardrop shape, fine décor insignias that circulate in what appears to be a sun-god face with dark eyebrows, piercing eyes and unassuming mustache – a most studied presentation of traditional Indian royalty.

Overall, Indian Skies: The Howard Hodgkin Collection of Indian Court Painting is surely one not to be missed – do plan to see it soon if you can.

The exhibition will be on view till June 9th; The Metropolitan Museum of Art is on 5th Avenue & 82nd Street in New York City.

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