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Garden and Cosmos: The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur

At the British Museum, 28 May – 11 October 2009 / Room 35 / £8
Exhibition Overview

Maria & I visited this fantastic exhibition – 56 paintings from India, none of which have been displayed before in Europe recently, and I’d urge everyone who has an interest in precolonial India or Tantra to go if you get the chance. The show draws on 10 years of research by the art historian Debra Diamond.

The opening rooms are devoted to paintings commissioned by the Maharajah of Jodhpur, Bakhat Singh showing the sensuous luxury of court life; the Maharajah surrounded by his harem; frolicking in his pleasure gardens. The paintings commissioned by his son, Vijay Singh in contrast, show scenes from the great epics such as the Ramayana and the Krishna Lila – there’s a fantastic painting showing Krishna cavorting with his Gopis, for example.

Where things get really interesting however, is in regard to the third Maharajah – Vijay’s son, Man Singh (1803-43). In 1803, the desert fortress of Jalore was beseiged by the army of Bhim Singh (Man Singh’s uncle), who had usurped the throne of Marwar. During the seige, Prince Man Singh became a devotee of Dev Nath, a Nath yogi who lived within the fort. Man Singh was preparing to surrender when Dev Nath told him that if the Prince could hold out until Diwali (October 21), he would not only keep the fortress, but would also regain the whole of his father’s kingdom. A few days after this prophecy, the usurper died, and the commander of Bhim Singh’s armies declared his support for Man Singh as the rightful heir to the throne. Man Singh was crowned Maharaja in January 1804 and shortly after, was initiated into the Nath order.

The royal patronage granted by Man Singh to the Naths gave them considerable political power in the Kingdom. Naths advised the Maharaja on state policy and were given senior positions at court in preference to the hereditary nobility, as well as grants of property and land. The Natha doctrine became effectively, the state-sponsored religion for nearly thirty years.

Man Singh commissioned painters to show his devotion to the Nath way of life and doctrines (over 1,000 paintings in all) – and many of the paintings in the exhibition are depictions of concepts from key Nath texts such as the Siva Siddhanta, and the Nath Charitr (a text commissioned by Man Singh). There is for example, a series showing the progression of the Tattvas, and two stunning depictions of the homology of universe and the body. There are early paintings showing Naths performing austerities, and later ones which show the Nath deity Jallandharnath (possibly a god who chose to incarnate as a yogi) blessing a prostrate Man Singh, or Man Singh’s guru Dev Nath wearing the same costume as the king – a strong hint that Dev Nath is not merely Man Singh’s advisor but his co-ruler – Man Singh said that if Dev Nath’s prophecy came to pass, then the Prince would share his kingdom with him.

Some paintings even show the Naths usurping the gods themselves. A painting showing the descent of the Ganges from Heaven has the sacred river flowing from the feet of Nathji, rather than Shiva, who looks on admiringly. There are also paintings incorporating Yantras, and a depiction of a Nath Chakra schema which shows the Nath Siddhas residing in the higher chakras, “above” Shiva and Brahma.

The most enigmatic are a series of six paintings, the ‘meaning’ of which has yet to be established – they are tentatively described of as “Cosmic Oceans”, each having a group of three figures floating halfway across the panoramas of yellow, deep pink, grey, orange, white and white painted with spiral whorls that overlap like fish-scales. But the figures, and what they represent, is unknown, nor has their relation to any Nath text been established.

Although the Naths were initially greatly feared and respected, their influence in Jodhpur led to unrest as they increasingly abused their power. The exhibition quotes a folk song which expressed a rising tide of popular disaffection with the Naths: “Nathji, your glance is poison…” Dev Nath was assasinated in 1815, and by the end of the 1830s, the nobility were calling for the British – who were beginning to become influential in Rajasthan – to help supress the order. In 1840, Man Singh stepped down from his throne and became a naked Nath Ascetic until his death.

There is a large-format book of the exhibition available from the British Museum shop – it’s thirty quid, but well forth it for its reproductions of the paintings, and the essays therein.

This is a wonderful exhibition – not only in terms of the paintings themselves, which are simply glorious, but also the glimpses it provides into the relationship between tantric ascetics and royal power.