Fertile ground for gods at play

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Two frisky elephants, one puce and the other saffron, pour water straight down on the goddess. She is Gajalakshmi, generously equipped with four arms as she presides over fertility and good fortune. So the elephants’ willingness to irrigate her must testify to the goddess’s power, as she commands them to unleash the life-giving rainclouds of the monsoon.

Our response is immediate. Looking at this small and exquisite 18th-century painting, the product of a small kingdom deep in the Himalayan hills, we cannot help feeling refreshed. The British Museum’s timely show is intended to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Indian independence. Yet it also revels in the extraordinary richness of the museum’s collection of Indian paintings.

Most of them were executed on paper and intended only to be held in the hand. Hence their excellent state of preservation: most of the time they were stored away from damaging sunlight. But the largest exhibit here was certainly displayed on a prominent wall. It is a so-called Company painting, commissioned in the mid-1780s by Sir John Dalling, the governor of Madras. He reclines pompously in a palanquin, looking like a grand Indian monarch. And he is carried in a procession filled with his own senior officers and household attendants, not to mention a squadron of the Madras Native Cavalry.

Company paintings, made by Indian artists for European patrons, form only a part of this beguiling show. Its contents are often intensely emotional, unafraid of even the most horrific subjects. Take Paithan painting from the southern Deccan, carried out with dazzling colours and a vigorous command of line. One late 19th-century example shows the sage Vishvamitra ordering a nightmarish boar into the local king’s millet fields. A dismembered man already lies crumpled in the foreground, unable to prevent a tiger from ripping apart a grazing cow and some helpless gazelles. Although it is a gruesome scene, its vitality gives this picture a compelling power. Paithan paintings were used by country storytellers to accentuate the narrative drive of their performances, and we can easily imagine how enthralled a rural audience might feel when confronted by such an audiovisual onslaught.

Not all the exhibits deal with such harrowing themes. Amorous scenes are favoured in Ragamala paintings, where music played such an important role that they were known as “a garland of melodies”. What kind of music, I wonder, was deemed appropriate in 1772 for the most erotic Ragamala picture, where a gorgeously attired couple close on each other and kiss with fervent, intertwined passion?

At first glance, some of the paintings on show here might seem simple enough. Take the elegant little image of a girl playing with her yo-yo. It looks delightful, and yet we gradually realise that she stands alone against an ominous expanse of darkness. The girl’s game might also be symbolic: perhaps she plays with her lovers in a similarly restless, up-and-down way, and this capricious behaviour has left her isolated.

A painting of women seated on a terrace playing chess might be even more deceptive. Executed around 1800 in Jaipur, this graceful scene appears to sum up the peaceful pleasures of a game. After a while, though, we notice just how fiercely focused these women really are. Chess probably began in India, along with snakes-and-ladders and even ludo. Moreover, its origins are connected with military imperatives: chess is based on battles between the armies of ancient kings. These women could well be caught up in an aggressive fantasy, re-enacting the kind of hostilities played out in real life by their fathers, husbands and sons.

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