Wit from India

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You’ve got to love a culture that knows how to laugh at itself and do so with beauty. That’s what I got out of the tiny jewel of an exhibit of 20 Indian miniatures culled from the Alvin O. Bellak Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (image, “The Poet Bihari Offers Homage to Radha and Krishna,” c. 1760-65, artist/maker unknown, opaque watercolor, gold, and silver-colored paint on paper 9 7/8″ x 13″).

I had seen all of these pieces when the collection first came to the museum and received a full, celebratory exhibit. But these pieces in “Masterpieces of Indian Painting from the Alvin O. Bellak Collection, A Tribute” are amongst the most memorable ones from the larger collection, the creme de la creme.

A series of three pieces, including a pair–“Baba Bharath Singh, Dressed and Undressed”–plus the excellent explanatory notes put you in the center of court intrigue. The three pieces provide human foibles, smashing drawing, satiric social observations, vignettes of court life, and swell colors. What else is there?

Another favorite on display was of Krishna lifting a highly decorative mountain to protect him and his buddies and their flocks from a downpour. Once again, the humor was terrific, with a picture of a blue god with superpowers as one of the boys and nature as a pre-Raj umbrella.

One of the pieces, with its myriad naked sufis, I think may have been the inspiration for a piece by Shahzia Sikander that Roberta and I saw on one of our New York trolls. Vis a vis the borrowings from Indian miniature paintings that we’ve also been seeing around Philadelphia, from artists as diverse as Max Lawrence, Samantha Simpson, Ben Woodward and Sabeen Raja, I think this show is particularly pertinent. It’s up until mid-April.

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