A Season of Indian Miniature Paintings

The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford is hosting ‘Visions of Mughal India, The collection of Howard Hodgkin’ until 22 April, 2012.

The museum is presenting, for the first time, the entire collection of Indian miniatures of one of the country’s most well-known contemporary artists, Howard Hodgkin. The artist has been collecting Indian art since an early age, and his collection of miniature paintings is one the best in the world.

The choice of paintings in the collection is very personal, and includes more than 115 miniatures from different schools dating to the Mughal period (c. 1550-1850). Fine naturalistic works of the imperial Mughal court, poetic paintings characterized by soft colors of the Deccani Sultanates, and miniatures painted using the vibrant colours and bold style of the Rajput Kingdoms of Rajasthan and the Punjab Hills feature in Hodgkin’s collection. The themes of the paintings are quite wide ranging, and include royal portraits, epic heroes, court gatherings, hunting scenes, flowers and animals especially elephants, one of Hodgkin’s favorite subjects.

Hodgkin notes, “My collection has been seen before in an incomplete form but it’s since grown considerably. Now I’m struck all over again by its quality...I never bought paintings or drawings on the tempting but distracting basis of their topography, their school of art, their theme, period or style. I just wanted great art.”

In Hodgkin’s collection, the early miniatures of the Mughal court style, which is a combination of Persian, Indian and European styles, start with an illustration from the Hamzanama series. Later, portraits of royals and courtiers became the dominant subject. Along with those, representations of elephants and studies of birds and flowers feature in the collection.

Afterwards a more refined style of painting developed in Deccan. The Deccani artists although influenced by the Mughal ateliers, developed their own style, more poetic and creative, using a wider and lighter palette of colours, especially gold. Royal portraits, illumination in the form of a vase and elephants’ representations are some of the Deccani masterpieces in the collection.

The style of the Rajput kingdoms both in Rajasthan and the Punjab Hills is quite bold, vivid and intense. Paintings representing Hindu deities, rulers and Ragamala genre miniatures from the Punjab Hills feature in the collection. The miniatures from Rajasthan are the largest section of the collection. These are quite large in size and follow conventional themes of royal portraiture and scenes of courtly life. However a large section on elephant drawings from these schools is also included.

Alongside this exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, the Dulwich Picture Gallery is hosting ‘Ragamala Paintings from India: Poetry, Passion, Song’ which will run until the end of May 2012.

Ragamala paintings are pages from a garland (mala) of visual representation of notes and melodies (ragas). On each page different musical modes, or ragas, are illustrated. Every painting includes the text of a short poem or a caption that describes the mood that the particular raga it represents is supposed to evoke in the listener.

Ragamala miniatures flourished between the 15th and 19th centuries. This tradition seems to have begun when medieval musicians started associating each raga and mood with a deity and gave it a name to perhaps remember its melody. Afterwards, poets and artists personified and transcribed these ragas in verbal and visual form.

The Ragamala miniatures exhibited at the Dulwich Picture Gallery are from the collection of Claudio Moscatelli, who found similarities between ancient Sienese paintings and Indian miniature paintings. He was also extremely intrigued by the main theme of the Ragamala miniatures which is the relationship between the lover and the beloved, and also extends to the relationship between humans and the divine.

This is the first British exhibition displaying only Ragamala paintings.

view all articles