Maharajas’ Backyard


Garden and Cosmos’ Paints Divine Picture of Indian Royal Court

Many art historians have largely written off 19th-century Indian art as insignificant and lacking innovation. But with the latest exhibit at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, curator Debra Diamond is out to prove that this shortsighted thinking underestimates a resoundingly creative — almost cosmic — period in artistic expression.

“Garden and Cosmos: The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur” features newly discovered royal court paintings that were commissioned by three different maharajas in Marwar-Jodhpur (the modern Indian state of Rajasthan) between the 17th and 19th centuries.

The fact that virtually none of the 60 pieces on display have ever been viewed publicly before — or even seen by scholars for that matter — is one of the reasons that “Garden and Cosmos” is a much more significant project than meets the eye.

Just bringing the exhibit to Washington, D.C., was an effort that spanned several years and continents. In fact, Diamond said she first began the project 15 years ago. The key to finally securing the coveted paintings was enlisting the help of the Indian Embassy here and the Mehrangarh Museum Trust in Jodhpur. After “Garden and Cosmos” is shown in Washington, the exhibit will head to the Seattle Art Museum and British Museum before eventually returning to India, where it will be displayed at the country’s National Museum in New Delhi.

Julian Raby, director of the Sackler and Freer galleries, said he hopes the endeavor will be the start of a budding relationship between his institution and India’s museums, and that the works will challenge conventions about Indian art.

“We are delighted to be initiating what I think will be a new chapter in our understanding of Indian paintings,” he said days before the exhibit’s Oct. 11 opening.

The garden and cosmos in the exhibit’s title refer to the two major themes evoked in the artists’ canvasses — the worldly and otherworldly. But first an introductory section sets the back story for the region’s tumultuous political history.

Marwar was a desert kingdom in northwest India ruled by the Rathore dynasty from the 13th century until Indian independence in 1947. In that time, the kingdom transformed from a locally ruled territory to a much more cosmopolitan state with a growing land mass and sophisticated royal court that commandeered equally sophisticated works of art.

“There were extraordinary stylistic changes in terms of subject matter and styles that reflect the dramatic political and landscape changes in India,” Diamond noted.

The first maharaja that the exhibit showcases is Bakhat Singh, who turned the arid region of Nagaur into a garden oasis by re-building its palaces and putting in place an advanced water-harvesting system — creating, as the title of this section implies, “Gardens for Pleasure.”

The 11 paintings illustrating these gardens are “sensuous and delightful,” Diamond said, as the artists depict the maharaja with his harem enjoying the earthly pleasures. “It creates this cultivated, statuesque feel and accurately depicts the architecture of the time.”

The next ruler, Maharaja Vijai Singh, reigned for an astonishing 41 years at the end of the 18th century, during which time a host of armies tried to invade his territory. Like the allies whose help he enlisted, Vijai Singh shared a passionate devotion for the Hindu deities, which is reflected in the “monumental manuscript” genre his artists created that drew on sacred religious texts.

These large-scale canvasses, on display in the “Gardens for Divine Play” section, were in part so big because Singh expanded their presentation style from private to more public viewing, an important contribution he made to the region’s artistic development.

“His artists created something very different,” Diamond explained. “They showed why the gods came to Earth and how they behaved when on Earth. It’s effortless, spontaneous, divine, gracious play. The paintings are blown out to incredible sizes — large enough to immerse yourself in.”

Lastly in the collection is “Kingdom and Cosmos,” portraying the four decades in the early 19th century when Man Singh ruled the land. He almost didn’t make it to power though: His uncle snatched the throne from under him and killed off every challenger. Legend has it that Man Singh was about to give up for good when his uncle finally died, allowing him to rightfully take over. A practitioner of hatha yoga, Singh’s artists painted numerous works — more than 1,000 in fact — representing the es-sence of the yoga philosophies and other cosmic musings.

“Many of the concepts in the manuscripts are absolutely fundamental to Hindu traditions,” Diamond said. “One for example is the notion that the very core of the universe is light being as internal and infinite. It’s so central and yet it is hardly ever addressed.”

Although the works speak directly to India’s heritage and beliefs, Diamond said their importance and beauty will appeal to a wide array of audiences. For instance, the “Gardens for Divine Play” paintings were deliberately hung lower than normal for children.

“I know that the stories are of vital cultural importance for a huge number of north Indians, so they can come and bring their families,” she said. “But I think there are paintings in here that will also grip people that are not interested in Indian culture and Indian art as thoroughly.”

Garden and Cosmos: The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur through Jan. 4 Arthur M. Sackler Gallery 1050 Independence Ave., SW For more information, please call (202) 633-1000 or visit


About the Author

Dena Levitz is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.