22 Jun, 2009

Pleasure palace

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

Under the influence of the Naths, a sect of wandering yogis, Rajasthani painting was liberated from the formality of Mughal art. William Dalrymple is seduced by a rare exhibition of the royal art of Jodhpur

As you head from Jodhpur, the old capital of the kingdom of Marwar, towards the desert fortress of Jalore, a hundred miles to the south-west, fertile fields of yellow winter mustard slowly give way to sandy melon beds and fields of drooping sunflowers. The colour drains gradually from the landscape, transforming it into a white, sun-bleached plain of spiky acacia bushes and wind-blown camel thorn. The emptiness is broken only by the odd cowherd in a yellow turban, patiently leading his beasts through the dust. The settlements grow poorer, and the road is overrun with drifting sand. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, the great bastions of the fortress of Jalore rise like a mirage from the first rocky outcrops in the Aravalli hills.

In the hot summer of 1803, this was the route taken by a besieging army commanded by a usurper of the throne of Marwar, Bhim Singh. Inside Jalore was the last obstacle to Bhim’s plan to overthrow the ruling line of Jodhpur, Prince Man Singh, the young, orphaned heir to the throne, and the usurper’s own nephew. Bhim was suspected of involvement in the murder of the prince’s mother, the beautiful singer Gulab Rai, who had caught the attention of the previous maharajah of Jodhpur while she was performing Krishna bhajans. Since then, on the maharajah’s death, Bhim had managed to seize power and hunt down all the other potential claimants to the throne. Now his army surrounded Jalore; and by October, with food and water running out, the young prince began to contemplate his surrender. As he later wrote,

No senses can apprehend the furious war which raged on and on. All materials and money were gone. Hope of keeping the fort faded. In those great times, worries pressed on my heart from morning until night.

In the midst of this siege, Man Singh found solace in the teachings of an esoteric yogi who lived within the fort, Dev Nath. The Naths were a sect of wandering monks and ash-smeared mystics who had invented the techniques of hatha yoga 700 years previously. Their exercises and breathing techniques were believed to give them great supernatural powers: to heal the sick, to fly, to see into the future and to hear and see over vast distances. Indeed, if followed to the end, their techniques were said to turn devotees into immortal beings, or mahasiddhas, who had powers greater than the gods. In 1803, the Naths were nearing the height of their influence, and were greatly feared and respected.

Just as Prince Man Singh was about to surrender himself into the hands of his uncle, Dev Nath approached him with what he said was a divine message: if the prince could hold out until the autumn festival of lights, Diwali, he would not only keep the fortress of Jalore, but regain the whole of his father’s kingdom. On hearing this, Man Singh seems to have undergone some sort of conversion:

With his heart and breath, he worshipped Nathji at the incomparable Nath temple in the fort. He cared neither for himself, nor for worldly affairs, as the greatness of Nathji enveloped his heart.

A few days later, the usurping uncle suddenly died, and his principal general promptly declared his support for Man Singh as the rightful heir. Together prince and general marched on Jodhpur, where Man Singh’s coronation was celebrated in January 1804. Shortly afterwards, the new maharajah was formally initiated into the Nath order, and the Naths very soon became the effective rulers of the desert kingdom, advising the maharajah on policy and taking over from hereditary nobles almost every senior administrative post.

It didn’t take long for the Naths to begin abusing their new power: they kidnapped women and men to induct forcibly into their order, and seized property and land for themselves. A folk song expresses the groundswell of disgust felt against them: “Nathji,” it begins, “your glance is poison.” For this reason, the 30 years of Nath supremacy in Jodhpur are not remembered as a happy interlude in the history of the kingdom of Marwar. But it did represent a golden age in the history of Rajasthani painting.

The painting of Rajasthan has sometimes been looked upon as a naive and provincial reflection of the masterpieces produced by the Mughals in Delhi. The British Museum exhibition Garden and Cosmos demonstrates that was never the case. Instead, it shows how the art of Jodhpur liberated itself from the formal strictures of Mughal painting, and over a century flowered into something unique and surprising – until, that is, Jodhpur came under the influence of the British in the mid-19th century, and this creative period of independence ground to a close.

The exhibition also shows how the patronage of each different ruler altered the Marwar court style. Under Man Singh’s father, Vijay Singh, and his grandfather, Bakhat Singh, the miniature ateliers of Jodhpur took the still and stately portrait style of Mughals and in different ways supercharged it with narrative vigour, energy, sensuality and colour. Then, during the rule of Man Singh, under the guidance of the Nath gurus, Marwari painting reached heights of Rothko-like abstraction and mystical strangeness that pre-empt many of the cubist, abstract expressionist and neo-plasticist experiments of 20th-century European and American art. Amid Mondrian or Howard Hodgkin-like fields of colour, esoteric ideas take wing in sublime forms of fabulous, dreamlike intensity.

The show – which draws on 10 years of research by the art historian Debra Diamond, who rediscovered and realised the significance of the remarkable Man Singh Nath paintings – begins two generations earlier, in 1725, during the reign of Bakhat Singh (1725-52). Bakhat came to the throne just as the Mughal empire was beginning to collapse, and the kingdom of Marwar was beginning to reclaim Jodhpur’s independence from Delhi. But far from depicting himself as some Shivaji-like freedom fighter – the way some patriotic Rajasthani textbooks still like to commemorate him – Bakhat Singh chose to represent himself as a sensual hedonist. Indeed, the paintings from his reign deal much less with his relationship with his former Mughal overlords than with his intimate relationship with his sizeable zenana (the secluded apartments for the women of his household). Amid the scented gardens of the great pleasure palace of Nagore, Bakhat appears to have pursued the pleasures of the harem with impressive single-mindedness. The lovely wall paintings he commissioned – currently being restored by a team from the Courtauld Institute of Art in a project financed by the Helen Hamlyn Trust – are designed to inspire an atmosphere of mild sexual arousal: one of the restorers has estimated that the murals contain images of 400 beautiful women – alongside only three images of men, and five of babies.

Sexuality in India has always been regarded as a subject of legitimate and sophisticated inquiry, srngararasa – the erotic rasa, or flavour – being one of the nine rasas comprising the Hindu aesthetic system. If the Judeo-Christian tradition begins its myth of origin with the creation of light, one of Hinduism’s ancient sacred texts, the Rig Veda, begins its myth with the creation of kama – sexual desire: in the beginning was desire, and desire was with God, and desire was God. In the traditional Hindu scheme of things, kama remains one of the three fundamental goals of human existence, along with dharma, duty, and artha, the creation of wealth.

The paintings Bakhat Singh commissioned show a sensuousness almost unknown in Mughal or earlier Rajput painting. The opening rooms of the exhibition are almost entirely filled with images of the maharajah surrounded by his women: they not only fill his pools and bedrooms, fan him with peacock feathers and entertain him with their sweet singing and dancing and sarangi playing; they also guard his walled gardens, attend to the administration and even appear armed with maces, as if ready for war. Men seem to have been banished from the pleasure palace. Some of the images show bacchanalian Holi parties – where the maharajah suggestively squirts his harem women with syringes of colour – degenerating to full-scale orgies, with the nearly-naked Bakhat Singh splashing in a pool filled with his concubines, while to the left and right two scented bedrooms are prepared for the athletics of the night to come.

In contrast, Vijay Singh (1752-93), Bakhat’s son, depicted himself as a pious monarch. The large-scale story-pictures he commissioned leave the world of the harem far behind; one image, which seems to summarise his attitude, has the sage Markandeya showing a ruler that the world is really all samsara – a great wall of illusion that humans must penetrate if they are to understand the truth, and live awakened lives. Many of the images commissioned by Vijay Singh were designed to illustrate the great Vaishnavite epics, especially the Ramayana and the Krishna Lila. The huge poster-sized leaves of these manuscripts were probably brought out and pointed to by bards as they told the great Hindu epics to rapt audiences in the court, and can be seen as precursors of the televised Hindu epics that held India rapt during the 1980s.

These images are recognisably from the same artistic world as the slightly earlier Mewar Ramayana pictures that were shown at the British Library last summer. The tale of Lord Ram’s exile, struggle and redemption is told through a series of images whose verve and teeming narrative energy seem somehow to tap into the vivid, larger-than-life power of the epics: groups of meditating sages with their hair woven into beehive topknots and dreadlocks sit in wooden huts with thatched roofs, performing their austerities, while Krishna’s gopis search for their lost clothes and the palace ladies lounge amid the fountains of their zenanas. Out on the bare hillsides and deep in the jungles, peacocks and white herons flit between mango orchards and banana plantations; deer nuzzle each other and boar forage for nuts, while exultant elephants cavort in the monsoon rain beneath mountains of lightning-emblazoned purple cumulus.

It is the images commissioned by Vijay’s son, Man Singh (1803-43), that represent the most profound visual break with what went before; indeed, they are without precedent in Indian art. They illustrate a quite different philosophical world from the heroic outlook of the great epics, taking us far above the jungles and palaces of the Ramayana to the higher spheres of mystical yogic speculation: cosmic oceans lap against figures incarnating divine principles such as Purusha – Consciousness – and Prakriti – Matter. Plains of unbroken gold represent the essence of nothingness or the formless absolute that preceded the beginning of the universe. Golden lotuses rise strangely from the navel of Narayana, a form of Vishnu, into which male and female principles have merged to begin the process of creation. These are images that do not tell religious stories so much as attempt to reflect on eternity, and to address the great mysteries of human existence: what are we doing here? How did we come? Who created us? Where are we going?

There is a strong Jain influence in the fabulous sequence of cosmological scenes that illustrate the sacred Nath text of philosophical speculations, the Nath Charit. The Naths, like the Jains, conceived the universe as shaped like a gigantic cosmic body. Above the body is a canopy containing the liberated and perfected souls – mahasiddhas – who have escaped the cycle of rebirths. At the top of the body, level with the chest, is the celestial upper world, the blissful home of the gods. At waist level is the middle world, where human beings live in a series of seven concentric rings of land and ocean. At its very centre, the axis mundi, lies the divine sanctuary of Mount Meru, with its two suns and two moons, its parks and woods, and its groves of wish-granting trees. To the south lies the continent of India, where can be found the great princely capitals, surrounded by ornamental lakes blooming with lotus flowers. Below this lies the hell world where souls who have committed great sins live in a state of terrible heat and pain, under the watch of a flight of the malignant asuras

The Jains illustrated this conception by showing the universe held within the giant body of a cosmic man. The Naths developed this idea, but took it one stage further. For them, it wasn’t just that the universe was shaped like a huge body; the self and the universe were one. So heaven and hell, the cosmos, the physical world – all these were perceived as existing inside the transmuted and perfected yogic body. The Equivalence of Self and Universe, included in the exhibition, illustrates this idea. Naked but for an orange lungi, a great lifesize yogi stands with his palms extended in the yogic posture of tadasana, with the cities and forests of the world spaced out over his face, feet, arms and torso. As the inscription puts it: “Within the body exists Mount Meru, the seven continents, lakes, oceans, mountains, plains . . . All beings embodied in the three worlds . . . exist in the body together with all their activities. He who knows this is a yogin. There is no doubt about this.”

The Naths’ philosophical ideas effortlessly crossed sectarian boundaries: almost all of India’s great mystical traditions share the idea of god lying within, and the essential unity of all things. This included the Muslim Sufis, who also searched within for fana – total immersion in the absolute. At the other side of the deserts of Rajasthan, in Sindh, the Sufi poet Shah Abdul Latif went travelling with a group of Nath yogis at much the same time as these images were being painted, and recognised that their philosophy was closely akin to his own:

Yogis are many, but I love these wandering Naths.
Smeared with dust, they eat little
Never saving a grain in their begging bowls.
No food in their packs, they carry only hunger.

These ascetics have conquered their desires.
In their wilderness they found the destination
For which they searched so long.
On the path of truth,
They found it lay within.

Mystics of the different faiths may have warmed to the speculations of the Naths, but the displaced nobles of Marwar did not share their enthusiasm, and the story of the growing pride and arrogance of the Nath order is told in their paintings. In the early paintings, Nath yogis are shown closeted in their monastic institutions, performing their austerities. Later, they emerge to take over the kingdom. In one image, the immortal ascetic Jallandharnath is depicted blessing a prostrate Man Singh. In another, Man Singh’s guru Dev Nath is shown in durbar wearing the king’s own costume, an unmistakable declaration that he is the co-ruler of Marwar, not just adviser, but spiritual preceptor and lord of the domain. Finally, in a last act of folie de grandeur, the Naths are shown displacing the gods themselves: the gods and the Nath mahasiddhas dwell at the power points of a great cosmic body; Nathji sits at the highest chakra, the third eye, above Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma. When the Naths depict the descent of the Ganges from heaven, they have it fall not into the locks of Lord Shiva, but from the feet of Nathji; Shiva’s role is reduced to that of an admiring spectator.

Such over-confidence and self-aggrandisement had fatal consequences. Dev Nath was assassinated in 1815. By the late 1830s, the nobles were petitioning the British, who were beginning to extend their influence into Rajasthan, to suppress the order. The denouement took place in 1840. When Man Singh found he was unable to protect the Naths from their enemies, now backed by the East India Company, he chose instead to step down from the throne and to live in self-imposed penance as a naked Nath ascetic until his death. The British, as was their practice, placed a puppet ruler from the royal line on the throne, who acted as their proxy.

In the late 19th century, with the triumph of the high raj, India’s subjugated princes quickly fell under the aesthetic as well as the political influence of the British. Miniature ateliers atrophied; patronage was directed instead towards the new British import of photography. When the artist Val Prinsep arrived in 1877, to paint the maharajah for a picture of Queen Victoria as the empress of India surrounded by her princes, he received a visit from a group of miniature painters. These, he discovered, now worked entirely “from photographs, and never by any chance from nature”. “It is,” he wrote, “a pity that such wonderful dexterity should be thrown away.”

Perhaps it is only now, with this rare exhibition of the royal paintings of Jodhpur, that it is possible to assess the scale of the loss that took place when the import of colonial aesthetics all but destroyed the miniature and painterly traditions of Rajasthan.

• William Dalrymple’s new book, Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, will be published by Bloomsbury in October. Garden and Cosmos: The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur is at the British Museum, London WC1, until 23 August 2009.

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