As I wandered through the idiosyncratic dream-scape of the Udaipur royal palace I was moved by the miniature paintings lining its labyrinthine walls. These pictures were well worth the many hours I spent jostling with Punjabi tour guides and squinting in the often abysmal light. I was, in particular, struck by the comic-book style narrative and surreal architectural renderings in these rich formal pictures. Something about the contrast between the realistic and the fantastical-- the photographic and the conceptual heightened their strange raw beauty. This was true of both space and time in the eyes of the Mewar artist.
Royal hunts were among the most popular subjects of the Udaipur collection, and at first I was taken by the seemingly redundant fecundity of the wildlife on offer. At the instant when the king fired the lethal gunshot into the leopard there were eight more to be spied just a few trees over in the jungle. The following pictures were the same -- the hills full of tigers and the plains thick with boars. And then it dawned on me, there was just a single leopard, a lone lion, a solo boar. The series of beasts I was seeing was an episodic representation of the hunt, revealing to the viewer both the initial moment of the animal's spotting as well as the climactic instant of its death. Indeed, some pictures even contained multiple representations of the king at the moment when his heroic shot was fired!
The issue of physical space was approached with an equally disorienting generosity of spirit to Italian Renaissance-trained eyes. In numerous pictures, for instance, the Udaipur palace would be depicted with painstaking accuracy down to the littlest window and narrowest turret, and then turned on its side as if floating in space. There was something uncanny about the extreme attention to detail on the surface of utterly fantastical architectural representation. How was it possible that the artist was so careful to observe details at the expense of the spacial integrity of the scene at large?
What was just as striking was that this lack of perspective was not total. At times a vanishing point asserted itself. Indeed, there was even instances where a single painting would contain both floating architectural elements of the aforementioned variety, as well as relative perspectival realism. One can easily surmise that certain views were the result of the influx of photography and the relative availability of tourist postcard photographs, though perspectival realism had been incorporated into Mughal miniature tradition long before the arrival of film. But from whence this style of realism came was of less interest to me than why it was so seemingly incidental in its application. Once mastered, why weren't artists eager to experiment with this approach holistically?
And then it dawned on me: I've seen these devices before. Cubism! What else was I looking at if not an extensive gallery of pictures that quite fetchingly and accurately portrayed multiple perspectives on a two-dimensions plane hundreds of years before Picasso was born?
-- Sophia Powers
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