Thursday, November 13, 2014

Observations from India: Part I

I recently had the extraordinary opportunity to visit my in-laws, who live in the province of Gujarat, India. (My mother-in-law chronicles her very interesting day-to-day adventures on her own blogspot, Horn OK Please.) I didn't know much about the visual culture of India, so I did some research before I went. This book on Indian art, recommended to me by illustrator Marcia Hartsock, was a pretty helpful survey of 5,000+ years of art history. There was a lot to take in, obviously. I'll be posting a few entries on my observations and experiences.


Colors hold a deep spiritual and cultural significance in India, far beyond their decorative purposes. They are important in worship and as a part of day-to-day life as a way to signify the attributes of a god, channel a certain state of mind, or enhance the meaning of a ritual. The use of color in Indian art is partially what influenced my installation on bird window kills from earlier this year. I made small "mandalas" from my drawings of birds, divided by color:

Birds with red and orange plumage

Birds with yellow and green plumage (and yes, there is red in there too)

So, I had been anticipating seeing a lot of color. In India, people dress colorfully, and what would be considered a vivid or loud ensemble in the US is normal. Patterns abound, and solid colors are often embellished with metallic embroidery or tiny mirrors. More than one of our guides hypothesized that bright clothing is a kind of response to the dry, monochromatic, dusty browns of most of the Indian countryside. (The exception to that is the lush, colorful rainforests of Southern India - and of course there, it was much more common to see people in white or drab solid colors.) I loved how colorful everyone's clothes were.

Women transporting crops on their heads near Agra 

Women at the Amber Fort, Japiur

Me at the Taj Mahal, in brightly colored scarf and kurta (tunic) made in India. When in Rome...!

It isn't just clothes. Everything is decorated, even vehicles, often by hand.

City Palace, Jaipur

Meenakshi Amman Temple, Madurai - colored lights and walls

Thirumalai Nayakar Palace, Madurai

Painted trucks in Northern India

Painted trucks in Northern India

India as a crossroads

Somehow I had pictured India as existing somewhat separately from the influence of China or the Middle East, but the truth is that every place is on the road to somewhere, and the Indian subcontinent has been a trading route for Greeks, Jews, Persians, and others for millennia, all leaving their stamp on India's painting and architecture. This was really apparent at Fatehpur Sikri, a capital city built in the 1500s by the Mughal emperor Akbar the Great. His reign was characterized by cultural and religious pluralism: Akbar abolished taxes on non-Muslims, translated ancient Sanskrit texts into Arabic, and promoted cross-cultural relationships. His favorite wife and many of his ministers were Hindu. Religious leaders and scholars from around the world gathered at Fatehpur Sikri to mingle and debate peacefully. Akbar even attempted to promote his own pan-religion, Din-e Ilahi.

The complex of Fatehpur Sikri sits on a high, lonely desert plateau. The capital was abandoned soon after it was built, and it still retains an eerie air of ghostliness.

Entering Fatehpur Sikri

The buildings are a hodgepodge of architectural influences from Persia, Afghanistan, India, and Turkey, characteristic of early 16th century Mughal style. The ornamented, curved shapes in these architectural details are typical of Jain art, seen in Western India:

The throne room

The Astrologer's Seat

Some details reminded me of Western architecture, especially the coffered ceilings and rosettes so common in Roman and Italian Renaissance buildings:

The Italian Renaissance Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence, Italy, from Wikipedia.

Some buildings had Persian-style domes, and also the sloping, slightly flared eaves seen elsewhere in eastern Asia:

That was all in the lower courtyard of the monument. The upper portion contained a shrine to a Sufi saint and a still-active mosque. The painted floral designs, inlaid stones, and shapes of the domes were all reminiscent of Persian architecture.

Painted floral decorations entered India via Persian and other Mediterranean cultures.

Shrine to a Sufi saint. The pillars holding up the eaves are almost Gaudi-esque.

I couldn't help but feel a little déjà vu when we reached that upper courtyard. It reminded me somehow of Piazza San Marco, in Venice, also the onetime crossroads of the East and West. Perhaps it was all the spires and domes.... or maybe just all the pigeons.

Piazza San Marco in Venice, Italy

I'll be writing another post on some of the traditional arts of India we were able to get a close look at: miniature painting, stone inlay, and more. In the meantime, all of my photos are up on my Flickr page. Please have a look!

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