What is so interesting about this painting and what does it tell us about India?
This painting gives a fascinating insight into the effect of the cross-fertilisation between the Indian and the western cultures. That exchange, which is an early example of globalization, shows the Indian genius for absorbing, for ‘Indianizing’ other cultures, leaving the influencing cultural inpact essentially Indian.
“The first thing he (the emperor Akbar) did was to go into the Church …. On entering he was surprised and astonished and made a deep obeisance to the picture of Our Lady that was there, from the painting of St. Luke, done by (Jesuit) brother Manuel Godinho, as well as to another beautifully executed representation of Our Lady brought by Fr. Martin da Silva from Rome, which pleased him no end.” After stepping outside to briefly discuss these paintings with his attendants, the emperor came back with his “chief painter” and others, “and they were all wonderstruck and said that there could be no better paintings nor better artists than those who had painted the said pictures.”
The Indian master painters set about copying, adapting, altering, even transforming the images. We have to bear in mind that classical Indian painting had until quite shortly before this time, tended to depict faces almost always in profile. In this painting the Madonna, in repose, and whilst her Botticelli face and heavy-lidded downward-turned eyes is seen innovatively facing three-quarters to the front, she only superficially suggests something of the purity and divinity depicted by Renaissance masters. She is feeding the infant Christ. She reclines upon a bolster on a Persian carpet which is seen flat and without any perspective, as from above, which is typically Mughal. Behind her is a building in accurate perspective (typically Renaissance) but faced with two classical columns seen flatly, without perspective (typically Indian). Next to the solid classical building is a thatched structure whose perspective does not match the classical building’s. Scattered around the scene are a couple of animals and in the rear is a flatly depicted landscape (typically Mughal). The painting is framed in a typically Mughal way, with arabesque calligraphy and Mughal designs. We do not know to what extent this painting with its western influence went on to change the course of Indian painting in general. Certainly, whilst most of subsequent Indian paintings persisted with the traditional modes of depiction, such as the face in profile, there was an increasing amount of paintings which started showing faces full-on or three-quarter profile and attempts a true perspective. The extent to which the innovative departures from traditional modes of depiction could spread would have been diminished by the limitations of communicating and spreading the images across India at that time.
It is interesting to step back and consider the wider picture of the impact of other cultures on India and vice versa. Successive empires have come and gone, leaving their mark, and yet, even in our current times, India remains essentially Indian in every influence it has absorbed. And in the last fifty years, Indian culture and spirituality has spread its influence around the world and typically we now see westernised versions of yoga being practised everywhere, usually with the limited objectives of dealing with stress or increasing suppleness and fitness. Whilst the West has taken up a shallow version of a rich yogic heritage, India also has taken up the least attractive features of western materialism without its dynamism and innovation and democratic idealism.
By Vikas, an old Aurovilian now living in UK.