Christie’s recently concluded the South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art and Arts of India sale in London, this May. Arts of India offered collectors fine works of art from the Indian subcontinent dating from the late 16th to the early 20th centuries. From jewelled and enamelled pieces, including a late 19th century diamond-set gold bowl unusually decorated with astronomical figures to fine textiles and Indo-Portuguese furniture. Presenting from, Christie’s Daily, Romain Pingannaud, ‘How to Read an Indian Love Story’ where he reveals the stories behind some paintings from it’s Arts of India sale.
In order to reach her lover Krishna, Radha flees her palace home under the cover of darkness. Here, she is shown with a concerned attendant (left), who warns her of the dangers that lie ahead. Subsequent paintings depict the lovelorn Radha on her journey — a lone woman crossing a dark forest, filled with snakes and monsters.
A life punctuated by music
This painting represents a raga — a traditional composition of Indian classical music to be played at different times of the day or year. There are ragas for dusk, or the middle of the night, and others for the monsoon. Candles in the foreground indicate that this represents ‘Dipak’, or ‘Lamp or Light’, raga. According to legend, this raga was last played by Tansen, the famous court musician of the Emperor Akbar, who set a palace alight with the mastery of his performance. Fearing a similar disaster, musicians have since refrained from playing the raga — a concern not shared by painters of the period, who were happy to represent Dipak in pictorial form.
At the centre of the painting, a princess sits in the company of two attendants. One draws her fingers to her lips — a gesture signifying that a significant piece of news has been shared.
Enjoying wine under a moonlit sky
Krishna and Radha. Kishangarh, north India, circa 1760. The painting 6 1/2 x 4 3/4 in. (16.5 x 12.2 cm.); page 13 3/8 x 10 in. (34 x 25.5 cm.).
Krishna and Radha appear again in this painting from Rajasthan’s Kishangarh school — drinking together on a terrace, before a pavilion, as an attendant listens in. In his left hand Krishna holds a small green bottle with which he serves Radha wine. From the mid-18th century Kishangarh artists began to paint figures with elegantly elongated features. Here, both Krishna — depicted with his traditional blue skin — and Radha have dramatically lined eyes, beautifully long necks and tiny waists. Around their heads green halos denote the holy couple’s status as divine beings.
Love in a cold climate
In this beautiful scene a prince shrouds himself in blankets in a palace at the foothills of the Himalayas — at such a high altitude the cold can often be severe. His female companion, probably a favourite wife, attends to him. Images of a Raja and his wife wrapped up in a blanket during the winter are frequently found in the art of the region as an illustration of love and tenderness. Here, however, the Raja and his wife are depicted separately — the Raja’s wife replacing the tobacco in a huqqa he smokes. Floral textiles show clear European influences, right down to the small stretch of decorative fabric that emerges from beneath the Raja’s green shroud. In the background, Indian decorative columns rising from lotus bases encompass what might almost be a Victorian fireplace. The chaise longue and the chandelier also show European influences — European glass was imported to India throughout the 18th and 19thcenturies often being reworked by local craftsmen.
Comfort in the wilderness
This painting depicts an 8th-century sultan who has fled to the wilderness, abandoning a wealthy existence in Afghanistan to devote his life to meditation, isolation and asceticism. Similar themes were popular during the Mughal period, adapted from Persian literature — a renowned poem focuses on the doomed love story of Layla and Majnun, who flees to the desert after discovering that Layla has been promised to another. Here, a host of angels brings food to the former sultan, their dress reflecting the strong European influences in cities such as Lucknow, where this is thought to have been painted.