Images for the cognoscenti

Indian Art and Connoisseurship
September 12, 1997

The essays in this finely produced and well-illustrated volume have a certain poignancy. The scholar to whom they are dedicated, Douglas Barrett, died in the course of publication, followed subsequently by four of the contributors, Klaus Fischer, Basil Gray, John Irwin and Karl Khandalavala. These deaths signify the end of a generation of Indian art historians who were active in the mid century, and who appear here together with younger scholars, both Indian and western. The essays assembled in this work make no attempt at a comprehensive coverage of Indian art traditions; rather, they represent the specialised interests of individual contributors, some 24 in all. The articles are arranged according to subject and region: sculpture from north and south India, Indian painting and Indian Islamic art. With the exception of an article on a wooden lintel from the Swat valley in the northern extremity of Pakistan, architecture is ignored.

The essays cover almost 2,000 years of art traditions, from first-century sandstone carvings from Mathura in central India to 19th-century murals and sketchbooks from Orissa in eastern India. A large proportion of the subcontinent is covered, from Gujarat and Rajasthan in the west of the country to Bengal in the east and Tamil Nadu in the extreme south, and even beyond as far as Sri Lanka and Burma. This generous chronological and regional range would have delighted Barrett, who took a spirited interest in all aspects of Indian art, and who himself was responsible for learned commentaries on a variety of topics.

A summary of his career is given by Gray, together with a bibliography covering the 40 years or so that Barrett spent in the department of oriental antiquities at the British Museum. Perhaps the most lasting contribution of his career was the acquisition of splendid stone, bronze and ivory sculptures, many on permanent display.

While it is not possible to describe in detail the articles published in this volume, it is worth giving some idea of the topics covered. The first contribution is by Herbert Hartel, who focuses on a sandstone seated Buddha from Mathura, of interest for an enigmatic inscription dated to the eighth year of Kanishka, the first-century Kushana ruler. J. C. Harle takes a close-up look at two moulded terracotta vessels, possibly from the Gandhara region of northern Pakistan, which he assigns to the fifth century.

The complex iconography of a 14th-century relief of Vishnu in his cosmic aspect as Vishvarupa, found at Mandi in Himachal Pradesh, is discussed by T. S. Maxwell. Irwin adopts a cosmogonic view in his interpretation of a ninth-century shale carving of Vishnu as Varaha, from central India. Bronzes from Kashmir and Tamil Nadu form the subjects of contributions by Pratapaditya Pal and R. Nagaswamy, respectively. Both scholars are concerned with dating and provenance, and their arguments present valuable new data. The unusual and detailed photographs accompanying Nagaswamy's text are particularly informative.

Other bronzes from south India are described by Khandalavala and Vidya Dehejia, the latter concentrating on the iconographic similarities between the god Krishna and three of the Shaiva saints. L. Prematilleke considers the archaeological evidence for Mahayana Buddhism at various sites and in different works of art from Sri Lanka dating from the eighth to 13th centuries, while Guy focuses on a late 13-century bronze statuette of seated Buddha from Pagan in Burma.

The section on painting opens with a study of 17th-century manuscripts from Gujarat by Haridas Swali, who singles out depictions of the Jain goddess Vasudhara for special attention. Andrew Topsfield and Asok Kumar Das draw on their intense knowledge of painting in Rajasthan to describe the activities of ateliers at Udaipur and Jaipur, respectively. Their essays reveal the important roles of Rajput rulers in the collection and classification of works of art in the 18th and 19th centuries. Shridhar Andhare takes a detailed look at paintings produced at about the same time at Badnore, a lesser Rajput centre. T. K. Biswas discusses an 18th-century illustrated manuscript from the late Mughal era illustrating the romantic narratives of Padmavati. An unusual 19th-century Orissan painting on a long sheet of paper showing a local ruler receiving an embassy is illustrated by Joanna William.

The third section of the volume brings together articles on the arts of the Islamic courts. Ralph Pinder-Wilson sets the scene by considering stone pieces from Buddhist temples reused in the mosques of Gaur in Bengal. The photographs record slabs with 11th-century images carved on one side and 15th-century Islamic patterns in relief on the other.

This theme of earlier iconographic traditions surviving within an Islamic context is followed up by Fischer who explores the connections between royal columns in ancient India and ceremonial Muslim victory towers. Robert Skelton extends the scope of the volume by pursuing the relations between Mughal and central Asian painting in the seventeenth century. His essay touches on the significant political and artistic contacts between north India and Samarqand and Bukhara. J. P. Losty shifts the attention to the Deccan, offering a useful account of the evolution of painting at Golconda in the 16th and 17th centuries. Among several important works discussed here is a set of paintings depicting courtly receptions and entertainments, now in the British Museum. Stuart Cary Welch is the only scholar to focus on a single artist, in this case Payag, a gifted Hindu painter working at the Mughal court. Payag was responsible for many of the formal compositions showing Jahangir and Shah Jahan in the spectacular Padshahnama in the collection of Her Majesty the Queen, exhibited at the Queen's Gallery in London earlier this year. The articles on painting are brought to an end by Simon Digby who examines some little-known illustrated books of Muslim omens painted in a mixed Mughal-Rajput style.

As is obvious from this brief listing, the volume covers the widest possible range of topics, demonstrating the scope of recent scholarship in Indian art history. Most authors focus on particular works in order to consider attributions, dates and provenances. That so many important topics in Indian art still require detailed discussions of this type reflects the profusion of materials needing serious inquiry.

The essays clearly constitute a major body of research that will be invaluable to concerned scholars, and the editor must be congratulated on attracting so many first-rate specialists. However, general readers may be discouraged by the narrow range of the discussions, as well as the lack of a glossary and index.

George Michell is an architectural historian specialising in India.

Indian Art and Connoisseurship: Essays in Honour of Douglas Barrett

Editor - John Guy
ISBN - 81 85822 14 X
Publisher - Mapin
Price - £35.00
Pages - 360

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