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Originally published Friday, February 6, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Exhibit review

Bask in these lush scenes created for India's royalty

"Garden and Cosmos: The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur," at the Seattle Asian Art Museum, presents stunning paintings created for 17th-19th century maharajahs who ruled over part of the region we now know as Rajasthan in northwest India.

Special to The Seattle Times

Exhibition Review

"Garden and Cosmos: The Royal Paintingsof Jodhpur"

10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays, through April 26, Seattle Asian Art Museum, Volunteer Park, 1400 East Prospect St., Volunteer Park, Seattle; $5-$7 (206-654-3100 or www.seattleartmuseum.org).

Doesn't lounging in a luxurious garden or floating in a cosmic ocean seem appealing right about now? Imagine you were a prince or princess of India, with court artists at your disposal ... what kinds of paintings would you surround yourself with?

"Garden and Cosmos: The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur," at the Seattle Asian Art Museum, presents stunning paintings created for 17th- to 19th-century maharajahs who ruled over part of the region we now know as Rajasthan in northwest India.

The three maharajahs whose paintings are on display had distinct tastes and differing political or spiritual goals for their art, but all of the paintings were meant to provide a healthy measure of pleasure; they would have been brought out, pored over, enjoyed and contemplated.

To be sure, there are obscure regional stories and complex Hindu spiritual lessons that might impede your immediate immersion in the paintings, but don't let a lack of background information stop you. Dive right into the paintings; absorb the lavish detail, intricate compositions and delicious colors.

The exhibition is laid out to enhance engagement with the art: classical Indian music plays softly, the walls are richly painted and there are magnifying glasses that visitors can carry from gallery to gallery.

When I walked through with one of the exhibition's key organizers — Debra Diamond, associate curator of South and Southeast Asian art at the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery — we crouched way down to look up at the paintings and peered at the works from the sides to really see the reflective surfaces and subtle patterning.

Not only is the show visually soothing and stimulating, it's an important show for Indian art history. According to Diamond, most of the 55 paintings have been tucked away in a museum in a historic fort that overlooks the capital city of Jodhpur, and "have only been seen by a few select scholars since their creation."

The paintings created for the Maharajah Bakhat Singh are all about power and pleasure; the maharajah is shown over and over again, within his ornate palace or lush gardens, surrounded by food, musical instruments and beautiful, attentive women. Flowers are on the ground, on garments, in architectural details.

Bakhat Singh's great-grandson, the Maharajah Man Singh, had other things on his mind when he came to rule in the early 19th century. Man Singh was such a devotee of the Nath religious sect (which originated Hatha Yoga) that he commissioned more than 1,000 paintings to reveal metaphysical concepts and to establish the political legitimacy of this esoteric group. The new subject matter demanded new artistic approaches.

In "The Emergence of Spirit and Matter," two panels depict the creation of joy and light through figures and symbols, but the idea of "the absolute," the primordial condition of eternal formlessness, is conveyed in a purely abstract, shimmering gold panel.

The gold panel is devoid of any recognizable, figurative subject matter, but it is full of luminosity, subtly repeated swirls and incredible presence. Diamond states that this nonfigurative tactic "is absolutely unprecedented in Indian art."

In painting after painting, the artists of this era demonstrate incredible innovations in their attempts to visually represent Hindu concepts and texts.

The exhibition also tells other surprising stories about the art of this region. The works on view are less typical than the oft-studied and praised equestrian portraits and battle scenes. Scholars who favor those classic paintings have described (and occasionally dismissed) garden paintings as mere fantasy scenes, created with a lesser degree of realism and artistic skill.

But the paintings in the "garden" section of the exhibition reveal brilliant formal choices and actual architectural features of the maharajah's palace, firmly rooting them in their time and place.

These scholarly findings, however, should not overshadow the qualities of fantasy and transcendence that are abundant in these paintings. Stroll through the gardens and visions of cosmic order and allow the earthly pleasures and calming spiritual messages to wash over you.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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