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Among gods and kings.

An affectionate couple, carved out of ivory, is the first thing you see upon entering Asia Society's eclectic, idiosyncratic, and utterly absorbing exhibition "In the Realm of Gods and Kings: Arts of India: Selections from the Polsky Collections." (1) The pair is entwined in an uneasy embrace. The drilled pupils of their stylized protuberant eyes and the sleek arches of their eyebrows make them look startled. The woman stands behind the man, haunch nested into haunch, so that their torsos are united by parallel rhythms. But the figures also spiral, now inclining towards one another, now away. The woman reaches behind the man's head to touch his jeweled topknot; he swivels his upper body so that he can hold her chin--without taking his other hand off his sword. She strokes his arm. They turn to face one another, but their gazes fail to connect, so that the sculpture's slow, continuous upward movement ends with an outward swirl--animating the piece and dissipating some of its heat. As in all Indian sculptures, the voluptuous bodies seem to have been constructed from the outside in, all boneless, swelling flesh, softness, and suave surfaces. The man's belly bulges a little over his magnificent jeweled belt; carved folds of clothing emphasize the meatiness of hips and legs, both male and female. The vigorously carved patterns of opulent jewelry--earrings, necklaces, arm bands, anklets, and more--form a crisp counterpoint to the smooth convexities of robust limbs.

The formalized sexiness of the little sculpture immediately makes you assume that it depicts one of the heroically amorous couples of Hindu mythology--Sita and Rama, or Radha and Krishna. But we are told that the pair, whose origins in a seventeenth-century workshop in Madurai, south India, have been identified, are believed to be donor figures; these might be portraits. This small, powerful object is a perfect beginning to a show that celebrates the collaboration of a modern-day couple, Cynthia Hazen Polsky and Leon Polsky, in assembling a remarkable group of Indian paintings, sculpture, decorative arts, and photographs--over the course of a long, successful marriage. (That last phrase is not speculation: as teenagers, Cynthia Hazen and I were fellow students at the School of American Ballet, and I distinctly remember when I heard the thrilling news that she was getting married, to a glamorous older man, while the rest of us were coping with high school homework between variations and pointe classes.) Tellingly, Cynthia Polsky describes the ivory, labeled "A Loving Couple," as "one of our favorite pieces."

In addition to forming their personal collection, the Polskys have also been deeply involved in important acquisitions and donations of works to the Metropolitan Museum's Departments of Islamic and Indian Art, some of which are included in "In the Realm of Gods and Kings." The full ambition and scope of the Polskys' various collections can be judged from the superbly illustrated exhibition catalogue, which documents everything on view plus many additional works, with entries by a range of scholars in the field, and essays by the show's curator, Vishakha Desai, and Cynthia Polsky.

Even though the installation at Asia Society is, of necessity, less comprehensive than the handsome, informative book, there's a lot to savor. The show is a feast of notably diverse works in many media, mainly from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, with excursions earlier and later. The selection is wide ranging: from a third to fourth century A.D. Gandhara stucco relief of donor figures, in which exotic nomad dress and the echoes of Greek classicism coexist in perfect harmony, to an acutely observed chromogenic color print of sari-clad women sitting by the Ganges in the rain, made in 1967 by a contemporary Indian photographer. There's a great deal in between. To make this broad, engagingly quirky assembly coherent, the curator has divided the installation into sections with such titles as "the hunt" and "courtly life" in "the realm of kings" or "Rama" and "nature" in "the realm of gods." The borders between categories are, as they say, permeable, but putting even tenuously related images in close proximity helps to emphasize both the persistence of conventions and the innovations of individual artists.

The collection includes some first-rate sculptures, not only the ivory from Madurai that opens the exhibition and the stucco Gandhara figures, but also charming pieces such as an ivory bracket with crouching monkeys and an explosion of lush, stylized leaves. Made in south India, in the seventeenth century, it is thought to have been part of a miniature shrine or a lavishly decorated sacred chariot used in religious festivals. A high point among the sculptures is a chubby, seductive dancing Ganesha, the elephant-headed son of Shiva, god of auspicious beginnings. This wonderful sandstone object, carved a thousand years ago in north-central India, fuses rigorous geometry and sensuous form, bulbous physicality, and restrained surface embellishment. Ganesha's beefy limbs, thick trunk, and big belly collaborate to form a sinuous curve. This dominant rhythm is both reinforced and countered by low-relief patterns of jewelry and costume (including a fetching head-piece) that function like drawing across the surface of the stone.

The real strength of the collection, however, is painting. At Asia Society, the selections range from economical, stylized scenes from Hindu mythology, translated into clear-edged shapes of saffron, cinnabar, malachite, and a host of fragile pastels, to complex images of the courts of Muslim rulers--all jewel-like colors and astonishing patterns. The selection not only points up the differences between Muslim and Hindu art in India, but also raises questions about stylistic overlaps and possible cross-fertilization. What unites all the paintings, no matter what their origins--and connects them to the collection's sculpture, as well--is a pervasive sense of fluid movement, explicitly or implicitly expressed. This, Cynthia Polsky believes, is fundamental to Indian culture. She speaks of how struck she has been, on her many visits to India, with the suppleness and elegance of movement of virtually everyone. She believes, too, that her ballet training helped sharpen her perceptions of Indian art by making her aware of how bodies can move through space in a disciplined way.

Discipline and movement, along with ravishing color and eloquent drawing, are to be seen in abundance, especially, perhaps, in the prime courtly paintings that could serve as textbook demonstrations of how the world should be depicted according to the dictates of Islamic art. A mid-seventeenth-century Mughal miniature of a blackbuck with long, twisted horns may refer to a particular pet--the handsome creature sports necklaces and tassels--but it is first a model of a perfect animal, as conceived by Allah, rather than an imperfect individual beast. At the top of the image of the blackbuck, a band of windblown sunset clouds, evocative of Chinese sources, signals the rich heritage of the Mughal style. Another Mughal painting of a young prince and his playmates, from about 1605, treads a tightrope between anecdote and convention. Each of the running boys, like the princeling seated in the cart they pull, is charmingly individualized but not so much as to challenge the tradition of ideal, Allah-created archetypes. The crisp detail of even the most distant flowering tree and the town beyond the courtyard wall, like the high, tipped viewpoint and flattened space, are testimony, too, of the necessity of presenting images not as they are imperfectly observed by mere mortals, but as they are viewed by an omniscient deity.

A spectacular 1777 painting of a tiger hunt, by Hansraj Joshi, from Kotah, bears witness to what happened to such imported Persian painting traditions when, as in Rajasthan, they were combined with bold local styles after Muslim rule was imposed. Kotah, especially in the eighteenth century, was the ur-source of wonderful pictures in which terrible things happen to animals. The best are so good, though, that their joyous colors, superb drawing, and brilliantly syncopated compositions can reconcile even the most dedicated animal lovers to gory subject matter. In the Polskys' tiger hunt, both the rhythmic power of rows of trees with pink and blue trunks and a delectable marzipan palette persuade you to overlook the picture's implications of slaughter--the impending doom of the two tigers trapped in nets, or the malevolent intentions of the royal hunting party lurking among the trees.

Other paintings reveal evidence of the combination of other traditions. Sultan Ibrahim Ibn Adham of Balkh Visited by Angels, attributed to the Lucknow or Faizabad artist Hunhar (1760-70), clearly demonstrates the powerful effect of European imagery on Indian artists. The subject--the legend of an eighth-century sultan who renounced his kingdom for a life of asceticism--was apparently popular in eighteenth-century Mughal painting, but this version is set in what seems to be a stylized English landscape, rendered in fairly convincing perspective. The figures, who largely resist the diminution of scale required by full-blown Western illusionism, nonetheless seem to demonstrate the influence of far earlier, Northern Italian religious paintings (albeit with Mughal overtones). (Scholars have identified the connections between the figures in the Polskys' picture and the illustrations in a late sixteenth-century Poor Man's Bible, which arrived at the Mughal court in 1595.) A slender, lacquered papier-mache penbox from Deccan or Kashmir, from the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century, reminds us of the complex sources and multiple overtones of Indian painting: it's "the Rococo does India," with Persian overtones. Instead of the shepherds and shepherdesses we would expect in eighteenth-century Europe, we are presented with a pair of lovers in Indian dress. An elegant young woman in Persian dress holds a branch over her head in what we are told is "a fertility pose ... familiar from ancient Indian art," while a "European gallant," squeezed into the bottom, plays a flute to some distinctly non-European deer.

Some of the wackiest and most charming examples of this kind of thing are to be found in the collection's late paintings. Here powerful, long-entrenched Indian traditions collide with the values, both pictorial and cultural, of nineteenth-century Europe. A portrait of an official of the East India Company (from Delhi, painted about 1830-1840) shows a proper British gent in immaculate white, seated at his desk with his dog beneath his European-style chair. There's a suggestion of perspective, but the profile pose is as rigid as any Mughal depiction of a rajah. Pure Mughal, too, is the high viewpoint and explosively patterned floral carpet. The official himself is similarly multicultural: he wears a Scottish bonnet--no capitulation to a tropical climate here--and smokes a hookah. A marvelously detailed view of the Maharana Bhupal Singh of Mewar and his courtiers at a swimming party (painted in Udaipur, Rajasthan, about 1930-1935), presents the royal party in an elegant pavilion, set among lush, meticulously depicted trees dotted with birds. All of this is pushed to the top of the sheet, so that the cascading steps and platforms leading to a deep reservoir may be rendered in all their impressive splendor. In the water, courtiers, fish, and turtles disport themselves; two waterwheels raise chains of buckets. The picture keeps flipping between the particular and the highly conceptualized, so much so that it is not surprising to learn that scholars suspect that a photograph may have served as a model.

The sections of the show devoted to "the realm of kings" include portraits, hunting scenes, and images of courtly pleasures that are compelling for both their formal excellences and their vision of an exotic, opulent way of life. A couple of mid-nineteenth-century paintings from Udaipur, Rajasthan, of events at the court of the Maharana Sarup Singh, for example, are irresistible for their elegant balance of the geometric and the curvilinear, and their ravishing color--in one, flickers of pink against red, white, and green, sparked with gold; in the other, a patchwork of cool greens against gray and white, with telling notes of red, blue, and yellow. Their subjects are also fascinating. In one, the pink-clad Maharana on his pink divan, surrounded by his pink-clad court, inspects a superb red horse in a snappy red and white herringbone blanket. In the other, the Maharana and his courtiers, some of them mounted on white elephants and horses, all fully clothed with turbans in place, bathe in the ornamental pool of a gleaming white palace surrounded by palms and flowering shrubs. We soar above the scene to peer down into the palace, as though into an opened box, but the strict half-length profiles of the bathers shift our viewpoint, along with the scale. The geometry of the schematic architecture is transformed and enriched by the smaller scale, more irregular patterns created by figures, plants, and details of decoration.

The sections of the show devoted to "the realm of the gods" are even more wide-ranging than "the realm of kings" and because the images often deal with similar themes--scenes from Hindu mythology, such as the Ramayana or the legends of Krishna, for example--the differences between them become even more apparent. Two images of the lovers Krishna and Radha--both illustrations of episodes of the Gita Govinda, and both produced in Kangra, Punjab Hills, in the later part of the eighteenth century--underscore how an artist's individuality could manifest itself despite the pictorial conventions of place and period. (Not that this would have necessarily been seen as a good thing; in Muslim workshops, for example, signs of personality could be interpreted as deviations from time-honored ideals and seen as flaws.) In one small painting, the tight-pressed nude bodies of the blue-skinned god, in a fetching yellow turban, and his pale consort are locked together on a bed of leaves in "the grove" specified by the story. They are turned into a near-luminous centralized shape, framed by a couple of trees almost invisible in the darkness. In a later episode of the story--the morning after--a crowned, bejeweled Krishna in a brilliant yellow "kilt" appears next to Radha, in a salmon pink sari spangled with gold. They sit almost as close together as the rapturous pair in the erotic night scene, but the mood of the picture is very different. Rather than being subservient to the image of the lovers, as in the night scene, the light-filled, verdant landscape seems to participate in their gratification. The tautly curved, flat saffron and salmon shapes of Krishna and Radha's interlocked knees and thighs dominate the center of the painting--framed and echoed by the yellow-green shapes of the hills around them. A swirling gray river seems to press the pair more tightly together, while the branches of a delicately drawn tree behind Radha and a feathery willow behind Krishna reach across the crouching lovers to touch, restating the narrative content of the painting and softening the contrast between figures and ground.

The small gallery of vintage photographs toward the end of "In the Realm of Gods and Kings" serves as an illuminating footnote to the rest of the exhibition. The moody nineteenth-century prints are beautiful, with their rich, subtle tonal range and their wealth of details. At the same time, the evidence of how the camera sees makes the conventions of Indian painting, whether Hindu or Muslim, even more evident. The inclusion of color photographs by one of India's most gifted contemporary, artists, Raghubir Singh, who died in 1999, is one of the exhibition's happy surprises. Cynthia Polsky believes that Singh's sensibility--his eye for pattern and color, for eloquent silhouettes, revealing details, and telling gestures--made him a modern-day heir to the best of the miniature tradition, which is why his photographs are installed with Mughal courtly art and illustrations of Hindu mythology. Given the evidence of her long and thoughtful consideration of historical Indian art at Asia Society, I'm willing to believe her. But the thesis can be tested. A retrospective of Singh's work, jointly organized by Sepia International and the Alkazi Collection of Photography will be on view in Chelsea until the end of the year. The comparisons afforded by this correspondence, whether it is by design or coincidence, enhance both exhibitions.

(1) "In the Realm of Gods and Kings: Arts of India: Selections from the Poise' Collections and the Metropolitan Museum of Art" opened at the New York Asia Society and Museum on September 14 and remains on view through January 2, 2005. A catalogue of the exhibition, edited by Andrew Topsfield, is available from the Asia Society (380 pages, $45).
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Author:Wilkin, Karen
Publication:New Criterion
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Nov 1, 2004
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