Epic Tales in Princeton
Michael enjoys a meaty show of Indian miniatures at the Princeton Art Museum. Wrathful gods, cosmic drama, epic battles, and beautiful painting. – Artblog Editor

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Princeton University comes with a village attached. I live there. When the university is not is session, it dies. Oh, in the summer an Obama girl or two attends camp and Secret Service guys and gals with hidden gats park black SUVs any damn place. It passes for entertainment.

The university’s architecture and grounds are beautiful and unchanging. Frank Gehry, for instance, designed the science library and Richard Serra its entrance; this is the only library in the university open to all. The campus is itself a sculpture garden. Ai Wei Wei’s twelve giant sculptures form a Zodiac guarding the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

Outside the museum is a David Smith. A George Segal plaster acrobat dangles the entranceway. The art museum within is most wonderful. There are always a half dozen changing exhibits. New acquisitions are celebrated; two recent Pat Steir acquisitions were worth a talk and much free alcohol. But I like the think shows.

Krishna defeats the serpent Kaliya (Kaliya Damana), Malwa, India, ca. 1645. Opaque watercolor on paper. The San Diego Museum of Art; Edwin Binney 3rd Collection, 1990.952.
Krishna defeats the serpent Kaliya (Kaliya Damana), Malwa, India, ca. 1645. Opaque watercolor on paper. The San Diego Museum of Art; Edwin Binney 3rd Collection, 1990.952.

Epic Tales from Ancient India is the thinkiest show I’ve seen here in years. It is no less than an introduction to the literature and history of India. The literature and history in the subcontinent’s various languages is concealed on the back of miniatures but this forced on me my second most favorite activity, viz., research.

Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana approach a grove of sages, Kangra, India, ca. 1830. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper. The San Diego Museum of Art; Edwin Binney 3rd Collection, 1990.1304.
Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana approach a grove of sages, Kangra, India, ca. 1830. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper. The San Diego Museum of Art; Edwin Binney 3rd Collection, 1990.1304.

I like Daljit Nagra’s contemporary frothy enlightening version of the 2300-year-old Ramayana. It’s Shakespearean. The king’s new wife demands he disinherit Rama and so Rama, his brother Lakshamina and his wife Sita head for exile in an Indian Arden. But then Ravana a demon kidnaps Sita. Lovable bears and monkeys help Rama search for Sita. The jungle is a theme you don’t exactly find in Shakesepeare. The gods differ. The Ramayana is epic and picaresque. Rama’s ally Hanuman, a monkey god (and namesake of an excellent New York press), finally tracks Sita down.

See it all in great miniatures!

Makra; Lava and Kishu engage Lakshmana in battle; 1598; Opaque watercolor; 9 3/32 in. x 5 9/32 in. (23.1 cm x 13.4 cm)
Makra, Lava, and Kishu engage Lakshmana in battle, 1598. Opaque watercolor. The San Diego Museum of Art; Edwin Binney 3rd Collection, 1990.306.

I wrote about Persian miniatures thirty years ago for ART News. Princeton owns a great Persian epic the Shahnama exhibited two years ago. When the Moghuls, AKA the Persians, took over India they didn’t just build the Taj Mahal; they transformed the art of the miniature. There are pages of a different Shahnama here. A couple centuries later the British revolutionized the miniature in turn. You cannot, however, name the period by the weapons. The Moghuls not the Brits first brought guns.

This particular show originated at the San Diego Museum of Art. The catalogue is excellent. If I had known the museum even existed I’d have gone there and skipped PETCO Field and the Zoo. The damn pandas refused to come out that day. You can always count on Rama’s bears. They’re there forever in the imagination.

Epic Tales from India: Paintings from The San Diego Museum of Art runs through Sunday, February 5 at the Princeton University Art Museum, on the campus of Princeton University. Open Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, 10:00 am to 5:00 pm, Thursday, 10:00 am to 10:00 pm, and Sunday 1:00 to 5:00 pm.

 

Tags

Mughal art, Persian miniatures, princeton art museum, Ramayana, san diego art museum

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