The Pick - Visions of Mughal India: The Collection of Howard Hodgkin

February 2, 2012

Credit: The Collection of Howard Hodgkin

Visions of Mughal India: The Collection of Howard Hodgkin

Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, until 22 April

A group of dervishes, stoned or asleep, have assembled in a garden round a tree. Noblemen smoke hookahs on their lavishly carpeted terraces. A mid-17th-century marriage procession passes through a bazaar, where the shops are stocked with vases, sword-hilts, betel leaves and sweets. In the paintings of the Punjab hills, unusual scenes - the Moon god Chandra riding a blackbuck, a passing prince meeting a beautiful village girl at a well, a lady offering milk to a snake - illustrate the different ragas or musical modes.

And then there are the elephants. Other courts have produced albums of royal mistresses; the Mughal emperors seemed to have loved pictures of their prized pachyderms, who did a lot of the heavy lifting and served as battle tanks while also playing prominent roles in state ceremonies. Equally remarkable are the affectionate rapid sketches of the elephants, presumably drawn from life, and the dramatic portrayals of them locked together in staged fights.

These are just a few of the 115 extraordinary images now on display at the Ashmolean. They make up virtually the whole collection of Indian paintings put together over a lifetime by the painter Howard Hodgkin, who will be 80 this year. Covering a period from c.1560 to 1870, they hail from the Deccani sultanates, independent until the 1680s, the Pahari and Rajasthani regions as well as the Mughal court. Though many incorporate Hindu mythology and the customs, costumes and decor of their era - one maharaja is shown sitting on an ivory chair in front of a Victorian lamp bracket - they were selected not for their often fascinating subject matter but purely for their haunting beauty.

Some are simply exquisite, notably the trio of bird paintings depicting orioles, mynahs and pigeons. More mysterious are the work of an artist known as Nainsukh (or "Delight of the Eye"). One shows his noble master Raja Balwant Singh proving his prowess as, accompanied by dogs and mounted companions wielding spears, he hunts down an oversized tiger. Rather less glorious is another drawing, virtually monochrome except for his pink slippers, where Singh confronts a lone goose in a walled courtyard.

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