Environmentalists all over the world are talking about the vital role of trees in the world's ecosystems. But there's another aspect to it: their beauty and cultural value. A sale of Indian miniatures at Christie's in London echoes the power and primary import of trees in the lives of Indians who lived in centuries past. It also celebrates the love of collecting Indian miniatures, with some paintings dating back nearly 300 years, amongst European families.
It is known that trees and foliage in Indian miniatures were often added not as mere decoration but to enhance the mood and to evoke the idea of paradisal gardens in order to complement the painting's narrative. No matter the style or "school" of the painting -- whether Rajasthani or Pahari or Deccan or even the sacred Pichwais -- trees had a role that balanced the cosmic composition.
Imagine a princess who stands under a blossoming tree (Lot 3), wearing a bejewelled turban, a yellow diaphanous robe and gold trousers, smoking a hookah. It is her surroundings that catch the eye -- the birds along a stream in the foreground, against a green background with a blue skyline, the tree bursting with perfect blossoms. The ancient Indian motif of a beautiful woman embracing a tree even has a term for it: salabhanjika.
Two fascinating studies are the Deccan works from the Ragamala series (Lots 10 and 11) .Vasant Raga is named after the season of renewal, spring. One scene (Lot 10) vibrantly depicts the festival of Holi, showing a crowned blue-skinned Krishna dancing and young female courtiers elegantly moving in unison, splashing coloured water from elaborate gilt lotas. It suggests the esoteric dance of elated beings, the raas leela, leading to a transcendental state resulting in unlimited love for the deity and the triumph of good over evil. The luscious moss-green trees in the background complete the scene.
The second work has a lone lady worshipping a shivalinga -- the devotee is seated on a terrace with a Nandi sitting behind her. Exuding the calm ambience of worship at a deserted shrine on a river bank, this painting captures the essence of the Bhairav Raga, which relates to the earlier, serene times of the day. We see a verdant tree as a fragment of rich dense green in clouded branches on the side.
Lot 22 depicts women picking flowers to make garlands. It celebrates the ritual of the evening puja as much as the flowering bushes that play such an important role in spiritual practice. There is a choreography of quaint reverie here - other than the ladies collecting flowers, three women feed a parakeet perched on a tree, a marble pavilion to their right; another woman sits and leans against a bolster placed on a raised platform, a fountain behind. A sunset skyline adds to the mood but it is the bushes and their flowers that take centrestage.
A Rajasthani miniature (Lot 39) depicts the swing festival of Radha and Krishna, replete with resonant images of trees and beautiful women. Wearing bright yellow robes and a turban, the maharaja is seated on a dais under an awning. He holds a rose in his left hand, while with the right he pulls a cord attached to a swing on which are placed idols of Radha and Krishna. Completing the scene are courtiers seated behind him, musicians playing music before him, a luxuriant garden full of foliage and banana trees behind, peacocks frolicking by a silver pond in the foreground.
Among the Pichwais (Lot 80), an intriguing ensemble is the celebration of the autumn festival Sharad Purnima. A ring of gopinis and a multitude of Krishnas encircles two other gopinis and a single Krishna. In the foreground is a peacock flanked by musicians, the scene set in a glade of mango trees inhabited by monkeys and peacocks. The tableau takes place under a starry, full-moon sky with deities flying by in vehicles.
Belonging to the collection of an English gentleman is the historic Pahari painting (Lot 64) known as "Abduction of Rukmini" or Rukmini-Harana. As Princess Rukmini of Vidarbha is unwilling to marry Prince Sisupala, the man most people expect her to, she goes to pray at a temple with the high-born women of her city. Krishna, her lover, comes to abduct her. He is shown in the chariot, helping Rukmini into it - a deed that sends the kings who oppose him into a fury (depicted on the left). The grey sandstone temple nestled by trees in the background is the focus while all the people in the narrative form the tableau.
The piece de resistance is a rare image of Yamuna Vraj Yatra (Lot 82) . The present piece is a rare cartographic view of the pilgrimage landscape of Vraj, in the region of Mathura. It features the Yamuna River and the sacred sites associated with episodes of the life of Krishna. It is filled with small depictions of Krishna's feats (lilas). Devotees can undertake a visual pilgrimage through this painting -- the route is undertaken in a clockwise manner, passing through 12 forests and 12 groves as well as Mount Govardhan (the bluish rocky formation in the centre of the painting). Mathura is the city which lies in the bend of the river. Just looking at the work brings to our eyes a verdant yet soothing mapping of the Yamuna that now struggles to breathe against an onslaught of urban filth and waste.
All images have been provided by Christie's, London.
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