Postcard from India

Dear Artvehicle,

India is a country of scale.  Impossible, incomprehensible scale.  Certainly, without visiting the sub-continent, it is hard to perceive of it as anything other than massive - not just the landmass itself, but its cities and its population.  However, explore the art of India, and you unearth the opposite end of the scale -  minute, exquisite detail.

Perhaps what's most striking is how much art permeates the everyday in India.  Every taxi, tuk-tuk and bus you see has been customised with the utmost care and thoroughness.  Flowers painted onto bonnets, patterns stitched onto mudguards - public vehicles are moving works of art.  Within the pink surrounds of the historic part of Jaipur, each street lamp on the main road has been decorated with a watchful sun.  Of course, huge pieces of art are prominently on display - each temple, each mandir is a wonderfully ornate testimony to the skills of Indian craftsmen.  And yet, it feels like the greatest reward comes from spotting the tiny touches which can be missed with the blink of an eye.

It appears as if Indian art is paying homage to this eye for detail through the enduring popularity of miniature art, which has been prevalent in the country since at least the 6th century AD.  An art gallery in Jaipur brought me face to face with some staggering examples of this genre - every piece that is laid out for your inspection is accompanied by a magnifying glass, all the better to marvel with.  Such is the enormity and richness of Indian history and mythology that it feels as if artists have resorted to this technique simply to try and squeeze as much of it onto canvas as possible.  The end result is almost Tardis-like - small at first glance, but the more you look, the more is revealed, and the larger, in a sense, the painting becomes.  Even Salman Rushdie has wryly commented on this apparent logical fallacy in his book, Midnight's Children, describing a painter ‘whose paintings had grown larger and larger as he tried to get the whole of life into his art.  “Look at me,” he said...”I wanted to be a miniaturist and I've got elephantiasis instead!” ‘

My attention to detail was further tested as I walked around the cenotaphs of the Maharajas in Jaipur, accompanied by my tuk-tuk driver.  He sat me down opposite one carved pillar, which appeared to depict a mother and her two children.  He asked me how many children she had; I answered ‘Two’, to which he replied: ‘Really?  Look again…’  After studying the image further, I eventually noticed the swelling of the woman’s stomach.

Islamic art and architecture has, of course, a significant presence in India.  While there are marked differences from indigenous Indian art, such as the absence of images of humans and animals (banned by the Hadith), there are similar aesthetic principles to be found.  Intricacy is a recurring theme, as is the amassing of minute detail on a huge scale.  The Hawa Mahal in Jaipur (Hindu in origin, but heavily influenced by Mughal architecture) is a perfect example of this: the front facade is made up almost entirely of tiny windows, designed to be used by Hindu and Muslim women whilst observing purdah.  The overall effect is incredibly striking, and its immaculate condition ensures that it stands out amongst Jaipur’s dilapidated bazaars.  The architecture is also laudable for its fulfillment of its function without sacrificing its artistic heritage. 

India is, undoubtedly, a land of bewitching contrast and dizzying extremes.  Its cultural and religious diversity has made it an endless source of fascination and inspiration for those who travel there, and has likewise provided a rich resource for the country's artists to tap into.  The social tapestry of India has been expertly mapped out through every conceivable art-form, and coupled with the more rudimentary output of ordinary citizens, has drenched this vast landscape with sublime visions.

Natasha Rowland

Hawa Mahal Photograph Natasha Rowland

Hawa Mahal
Photograph Natasha Rowland

Miniature artPhotograph Natasha Rowland

Miniature art
Photograph Natasha Rowland