From the very earliest times, a range of stylistic possibilities was open to Indian painters. Divine Visions, Earthly Pleasures: Five Hundred Years of Indian Painting highlights many appealing styles and trends found in this rich tradition. The exhibition showcases more than sixty works, most of them drawn from a group of more than three hundred paintings and drawings given by Jean and Francis Marshall to BAMPFA in 1998, forming the core of the museum’s Indian collection. Thematic groupings highlight religious painting, portraiture, expressions of romantic love, and paintings associated with music.
Indian artists constantly play with various, sometimes conflicting approaches—such as realism and abstraction—often within a single work. This layering of artistic conventions can be subtle and sophisticated. From the earliest paintings on paper executed in the fifteenth century up to modern times, line is consistently strong and expressive. The artists use multiple conventions to create space, often including a number of different points of view in a single work. The architecture can recede into depth in parts of a painting and appear two-dimensional in others.
Although the conventions of Indian portraiture are not always fully realistic, the painters often manage to convey a sense of their sitters, and Surajamala-ji, Son of Rao Nirandasa is a good example. The stylized figure of Surajamala convinces as a portrait of an actual person. In this painting, the artist has managed to instill the background with great animation while suggesting both a recession into space and a basic flatness. The handling of the rising sun topped by cloud forms is a tour de force. At first glance the play of color may suggest an abstract treatment, but on closer examination it reveals itself as fully representational.