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The delight is in the details

Rich watercolors, meticulously rendered by India's Rajput painters, make for an enchanting discovery.

April 19, 2004|David Pagel | Special to The Times

Long before TV and the Internet provided home entertainment for folks with free time and the right equipment, civilized people all over the world got together at the end of the day to tell stories, read poems and look at pictures. In what is now north-central India, the rulers, or Rajput, of large and small Hindu kingdoms commissioned full-time and freelance artists to make paintings. They depicted religious myths, illustrated ancient poems and recorded court life, often viewing its festivities and foibles through respectful and rosy lenses.

At the Norton Simon Museum of Art, "Painted Poems: Rajput Paintings From the Ramesh and Urmil Kapoor Collection" displays 80 of these richly tinted watercolors, along with 20 exquisitely decorated domestic objects, such as ornamental vases, boxes and rose-water sprinklers.

Forty-five of the enchanting paintings, nearly all on page-size sheets of paper, have just been given to the museum by the Kapoor family; 14 more are promised gifts.

The show is a treasure trove of delightful details, each more lovely than the last. The size of the images makes it difficult for more than one viewer to examine a single picture at a time. This makes you feel as if each meticulously rendered detail were made for you alone. But it also makes you want to share your discoveries with those around you, especially if you're with a companion or two.

This look-and-talk aspect of Rajput paintings is true to their original uses. In the 18th and 19th centuries, when most of the works in the exhibition were made, Hindu noblemen didn't hang them on palace walls. They passed them from hand to hand, allowing their guests to hold pictures and savor the fine lines, delicate shading and seemingly microscopic flourishes.

Holding the works also made it easier to appreciate the play of light and shadow across the surfaces. Tipping them at angles caught and reflected the ambient light, particularly for those with gold highlights. Even Indian manuscripts were not bound. Kept in loose bundles, their illustrated pages could be enjoyed with similar intimacy.

Mythological subjects and moral themes were favored by Rajput painters, who turned to classic poems to find stories. Most religious narratives, including such classic Sanskrit epics as the Ramayana of Valmiki and the Mahabharata of Vedavyasa, were in verse. So were texts known as purana (literally, old or ancient), encyclopedic collections of lore, mythology, history and religion. The most popular was the 9th century Bhagavatapurana, a Vaishnava text narrating the life and adventures of Krishna, the popular Hindu deity.

More than 30 paintings in the exhibition depict scenes from Krishna's life. As a newborn, he fights off a flock of crows, wringing the necks of two as he lies in his crib. The scene is set against a bright red backdrop, which contrasts dramatically with the deity's deep blue skin.

As an infant, Krishna slaughters an ogress so huge she makes the confrontation between David and Goliath look like an even match. Krishna also vanquishes a demon who took the form of a tornado.

As a muscular toddler, the mischievous god steals fistfuls of fresh butter as his weary mother stares into space and his timid stepbrother begs for a bite. As a child, Krishna dances triumphantly on a venomous, five-headed water snake as the serpent's consorts bow in unison, like synchronized swimmers.

The most fascinating painting from this series is a night scene that shows the 7-year-old Krishna using a mountain for an umbrella. Protecting the people and animals of Vraja from a violent rainstorm unleashed by the jealous deity Indra, Krishna balances the mountain on the tip of his left hand's little finger. He gives viewers a coy smile as beautiful women dressed in their finest look on adoringly. Monkeys, oxen and cowherds run for shelter from the storm, as Brahma, Shiva and a third deity watch from afar. Even Airavata, the elephant Indra rides through the sky to whip up the storm, abandons his defeated master to join Krishna's party.

As the boy-god became a man, he became irresistible to women. Three pictures tell the story of the abduction of Rukmini, a princess who ran off with Krishna and lived happily ever after, for the most part.

The three images are not a triptych or part of a unified series, even though they depict different moments in the narrative. They are separate pieces by three artists from different kingdoms, who worked at different times, each offering his interpretation of the popular tale. The stylistic similarities reveal the strength of the conventions of Rajput painting. Variations in style and setting signal each painter's imaginative translation of the basic story line.

The complications of love -- and the problems of meddling colleagues -- are the subjects of two pictures of Krishna struggling to placate his wives, Rukmini and Satyabhama, who compete for his attention.

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