Epic Tales from India: Paintings from the San Diego Museum of Art

The San Diego Museum of Art’s world-renowned Edwin Binney 3rd Collection of South Asian Painting has, over the years, provided material for a number of exhibitions that have examined the subject of Indian painting from different angles, as only a collection of this breadth and depth can do. The latest exhibition, traveling to the Princeton University Art Museum this fall, aims to approach the topic by considering the paintings alongside the classics of literature that they illustrate. Indian paintings are usually admired as individual works of art, framed and hung on gallery walls, but, in fact, most come from books and were intended to accompany a text.

Makara, 16th-century Mughal painter, Lava and Kusha Battle Lakshmana and Rama’s Army, folio from a Razmnama (Book of Wars), Northern India, 1598–99. Opaque watercolor on paper, 23.1 x 13.4 cm. San Diego Museum of Art, Edwin Binney 3rd CollectionThe stories explored in depth, including the Bhagavata Purana, Ramayana, and Ragamala, are among the literary treasures of the Indian subcontinent and deal with universal themes of interest to any audience—the exploits of the gods, the deeds of kings, and the travails of lovers. By introducing the stories behind the paintings, and by explaining the techniques artists employed to convey narrative, the exhibition will help visitors understand the images as well as appreciate the intricacies of Indian painting.

Epic Tales starts with the Bhagavata Purana (Ancient Tales of the Lord Vishnu), the source of many stories associated with the Hindu god Vishnu, who incarnates himself time and again in order to restore cosmic balance. While the Bhagavata relates the adventures of all of Vishnu’s ten avatars, it has an extended section on his eighth incarnation as Krishna, whose birth as the son of Devaki and Vasudeva is shown here. Since he is no ordinary infant, Krishna displays divine characteristics: he sits on a lotus throne, holding Vishnu’s conch shell, mace, discus, and lotus. Devaki and Vasudeva offer obeisance to their son, while outside their prison home, the two guards protecting it have fallen fast asleep; they will not hinder Vasudeva and Krishna’s midnight escape to Gokula, where Krishna will be raised in the home of Yashoda and Nanda. This illustration is from the Isarda Bhagavata, a mid-sixteenth-century manuscript with extraordinarily vivid illustrations.

The Birth of Krishna, Amber, before 1560. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper, 19.1 x 26.5 cm. San Diego Museum of Art, Edwin Binney 3rd CollectionThe next section focuses on the Ramayana, another traditional text with a long history. The poem was written by the sage Valmiki and was popularized and illustrated for hundreds of years in India. Its subject is Rama, an exiled prince who must rescue his wife from the demon who has captured and imprisoned her. The exhibition then shifts to focus on a different type of text, one that does not narrate a lengthy tale. The Ragamala deals with music and the descriptions of different musical modes. The images accompanying it try to capture the emotional content of musical forms rather than conveying action and adventure.

The exhibition concludes with a survey of Persian-language stories from India, including important Sanskrit texts that were translated into Persian for the Mughal emperor Akbar (r. 1556–1605). In 1582 his translation bureau started work on the monumental task of translating the Mahabharata; the result was an abridged, but still lengthy, version of the text known in Persian as the Razmnama (Book of Wars). The painting shown here comes from a copy of the Razmnama completed in 1598–99, probably for a member of Akbar’s family or court. This painting could represent a battle scene from just about any Mughal manuscript save for the two bare-chested figures in the middle ground; they are Lava and Kusha, the sons of Rama, who fight the army of Lakshmana.

These selections from the Binney collection illustrate the great range of styles and narrative subjects found in miniature painting from South Asia. In presenting the paintings not merely as individual images—as many of them have been viewed for perhaps a century or longer—but as parts of illustrated texts, the rich visual and narrative wealth found in the book arts of India can be seen.

Marika Sardar

Associate Curator for Southern Asian and Islamic Art

The San Diego Museum of Art


Epic Tales from India: Paintings from the San Diego Museum of Art has been organized by the San Diego Museum of Art. The exhibition at Princeton has been made possible by generous support from the National Endowment for the Arts; the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation; Susan and John Diekman, Class of 1965; Padmaja Kumari and Kush M. Parmar, Class of 2002; and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, with additional support from the Allen R. Adler, Class of 1967, Exhibitions Fund; Amy and Robert Poster, Class of 1962; the Chopra Family Youth and Community Program Fund; and the Friends of the Princeton University Art Museum. Further support has been provided by the Program in South Asian Studies, the Center for the Study of Religion, the Department of Comparative Literature, and the Office of Religious Life, Princeton University.