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The Science Survey

Captivating Colors and Timeless Periods: A Review of the MET Museum’s ‘Indian Skies: The Howard Hodgkin Collection of Indian Court Painting’

The exhibition, on view through June 9th, 2024, focuses on court paintings from different Indian royal courts.
Rida Nuamah
‘Sultan Muhammad ‘Adil Shah and Ikhlas Khan Riding an Elephant ‘is a piece made in 1645. Khan, who was the prime minister at the time, rode behind the Sultan to show that he was the real power behind the throne.

In a meeting of artistic vision and culture, the Indian Skies: The Howard Hodgkin Collection of Indian Court Painting exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art unfolds mesmerizing artworks revolving around stories, history, and traditions that have shaped the vibrant tapestry of India’s artistic heritage.

Howard Hodgkin (1932-2017) was one of England’s most revered contemporary painters, who was celebrated for his profound understanding of the interplay between color and space in art. Knighted in 1992, he was honored with numerous prestigious awards during his life, including the Turner Prize and the Swarovski Whitechapel Gallery Art Icon award. Hodgkin’s legacy inspires generations of artists and art enthusiasts alike. His exploration of color, gesture, and emotion invites viewers to engage in a timeless dialogue with his work, where imagination plays a pivotal role.

Born in London 1932 and raised in Hammersmith Terrace, Hodgkin’s artistic journey was deeply influenced by his early experiences, including his evacuation during World War II to Long Island, New York.

After being immersed in the vibrant art scene of New York, Hodgkin encountered the works of influential artists like Henri Matisse, Édouard Vuillard, and Pierre Bonnard, igniting a lifelong fascination with color and form. Despite a brief period at prestigious institutions like Eton College and Bryanston School, Hodgkin’s spirit led him to believe that formal education would interrupt his artistic progress. Instead, he found inspiration at Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts and Bath Academy of Art, where he had more freedom of what he learned and also where he shaped his distinctive artistic vision.

Unlike many of his peers who gravitated towards specific artistic movements, Hodgkin remained fiercely independent throughout his career. He rejected any affiliation with any particular school or group, instead embarking on a deeply personal artistic journey marked by a series of portraits and explorations of his emotional landscape. His first solo exhibition in 1962 marked the beginning of a prolific career that would see him continually pushing the boundaries of artistic expression.

Hodgkin’s lifelong fascination with Indian art, which was sparked during his youth at Eton, became a central theme in his work. His extensive collection of Indian paintings and drawings, encompassing works from the Mughal, Deccani, Rajput, and Pahari courts, reflects his profound interest with the culture and aesthetics of India. His passion for Indian art not only influenced his own creative process but also inspired numerous exhibitions, including this one.

Located on the second floor of the MET in the Charles Z. Offin Gallery for special exhibitions, Indian Skies stands out as a captivating journey through the vibrant world of Indian court painting. Stepping into the gallery, visitors are immediately enveloped in a variety of colors and narratives, curated to showcase the exquisite works collected by Howard Hodgkin over six decades. Indian Skies focuses on court painting in particular. Court painting is art made for members of a royal family. Paintings made of great detail and beauty at the time were only made for royal courts, and Hodgkin collected many paintings from different royal courts.

The layout of the exhibition is thoughtfully organized, guiding visitors through different periods of Indian history and styles. It is divided into sections representing the Mughal, Deccani, Rajput, and Pahari courts, with each section offering a glimpse into the cultural tapestry of India, with pieces ranging from the 16th to the 19th centuries.

My personal favorite part of this exhibit is the Mughal fragment. The Mughal Empire, one of the most significant empires in Indian history, emerged in the early 16th century and lasted until the mid-18th century. Its origins can be traced back to Babur, a descendant of Timur on his father’s side and Genghis Khan on his mother’s side, who founded the empire in 1526 after the Battle of Panipat. Babur’s victory at Panipat marked the beginning of Mughal rule in the Indian subcontinent. Under his leadership, the empire expanded rapidly, encompassing large parts of present-day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan. However, it was Babur’s grandson, Akbar the Great, who is often credited with consolidating and strengthening the empire. 

Akbar’s reign, which lasted from 1556 to 1605, was considered the golden age of the Mughal Empire. During his rule he implemented policies of religious tolerance, abolished discriminatory taxes against non-Muslims, and fostered a rich cultural and artistic environment. Akbar’s court was a center of learning, attracting scholars, poets, and artists from across the empire and beyond. Akbar’s successors, particularly Jahangir and Shah Jahan, continued to patronize the arts and architecture, leaving behind a legacy of stunning monuments such as the Taj Mahal, Agra Fort, and Jama Masjid in Delhi. Mughal art and culture flourished during this period, characterized by intricate miniature paintings, exquisite textiles, and monumental architecture.

This exhibit features many artworks made during the Mughal period, including ‘Music Party on a Riverside Terrace,’ which is made with opaque color and gold on paper. This piece showcases the court culture in India with everything from visuals to musicals. The Mughal Court was known to attract skills from around the empire, which helped with the advancement of the arts in India at the time, which is shown in this work. 

Two pieces from the Mughal Empire that stood out to me were unnamed, one a painting consisting of ‘Two Panels with Flower Designs’ and one with ‘Nineteen Flower Studies’ using ink on paper. The ink drawing was made during the reign of the Emperor Shah Jahan. During this time, flowers were the hallmark design in the Mughal Empire. It was found everywhere from architecture to the arts. I enjoyed these pieces in particular because it reminded me of the traditional floral designs I’m used to seeing at home on bedsheets, clothes, and blankets. To me, these artworks serve as reminders of the enduring and universal appeal of floral patterns in South Asia as a whole, a trend that has transcended time and cultures.

Many of the pieces showcased in this exhibit are Hindu artworks. Art plays a significant role in Hinduism, as they serve as powerful expressions of spirituality, devotion, and cultural identity. Rooted in ancient traditions and beliefs, Hindu artworks encompass a diverse range of forms, including sculpture, painting, architecture, and ritual objects. ‘Pavilion with Krishna Paintings’ is a work made out of opaque watercolor on paper, a common painting medium at the time that it was made in 1800. The painting depicts a puja room (a room of prayer) that belongs to a Kangra ruler, featuring a small marble pavilion adorned with nine painted vignettes from the life of Vishnu and his avatar Krishna. The pavilion, which is set against a monochromatic blue background representing the sky, suggests an outdoor location within a palace courtyard or garden. The ruling household of Kangra were devotees of Vishnu, with Maharaja Sansar Chand renowned for his devotion to the Hindu Lord Krishna. 

Another section of the exhibition was ‘Elephants in Indian Painting.’ Elephants are a big part of Indian culture, symbolizing strength, wisdom, and royal power. In paintings, these majestic creatures are often depicted in various contexts, ranging from royal processions and battles to religious ceremonies. The different contexts of the paintings usually indicate different time periods. For example, Mughal elephants are usually depicted while standing in profile and being attended to by servants. In comparison, elephants from the Ranjput courts were almost always depicted in action. 

The genre of elephant paintings is mostly filled with staged elephant fights. This genre was founded in the Mughal time and became a specialty of artists from the cities of Kota and Bundi.

One of the marvelous artworks of this section is ‘Shri Brijanthji and Maharao Durjan Sal Hunting.’ The piece is made of opaque watercolor and gold on cotton cloth. 

The piece portrays a scene of action and royal power. Durjan Sal, who is likely the patron of this work, is shown entering rocky land, poised for the kill of a rhinoceros. Meanwhile, other hunting parties charge from the left along two heavily grassed ravines, separated by rocky outcrops. There are animals, awaiting their fate from the arrows of the hunters, as well as huntsmen, known as shikaris, who pound kettle drums and sound long trumpets to lure the prey into the trap. The hunters are on elephants, ready to slay animals. Inscriptions within the painting name the participants, including members of Durjan Sal’s family and ancestors. Leading the hunt is the family’s tutelary deity, Shri Brijnathji, highlighting the supremacy of Lord Krishna as the true ruler of the Kota kingdom. 

What sets this exhibit apart is its exploration of Indian court paintings, offering an insight to help understand their cultural, historical, and artistic significance. Unlike traditional showcases, this exhibit goes beyond displays, providing a journey through the evolution of Indian artistry from its first forms to when it flourished in different empires.  Through the different sections, visitors are invited to delve into various themes and periods, gaining insights into the diverse influences and techniques that shaped art in India. ‘Indian Skies’ not only celebrates the beauty of Indian art but also fosters a deeper appreciation for its role in shaping the cultural identity of the subcontinent.

Overall, this exhibit was a great visit, and made me learn more about the history of India and the role court paintings played in their times. Make sure to check this exhibit out before it closes on June 9th, 2024!

What sets this exhibit apart is its exploration of Indian court paintings, offering an insight to help understand their cultural, historical, and artistic significance. Unlike traditional showcases, this exhibit goes beyond displays, providing a journey through the evolution of Indian artistry from its first forms to when it flourished in different empires. 

About the Contributor
Rida Nuamah, Staff Reporter
Rida Nuamah is a Copy Chief for 'The Science Survey' and enjoys writing about arts and entertainment. She finds journalistic writing appealing because it gives her the freedom to write about many different topics. Rida enjoys reading, writing, and going to parks with her family and friends. She would like to study either medicine or meteorology in the future.