Accessing hidden treasures

Goddess Saraswati playing the veena. Deccani painting; late 16th century: From the collection of the Maharaja of Jaipur
Goddess Saraswati playing the veena. Deccani painting; late 16th century: From the collection of the Maharaja of Jaipur

Ask anyone connected with the arts of early India – collectors, art historians, museum persons, enforcers of law, dealers – about the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, and you will hear all manner of stories. Those about the marks of haste which the provisions of the Act bear, for example; the long and fatal delays in making the Act effective through notification; the inadequacy of staff; the often imperfect preparation of officers deputed to register antiquities; the limited success; the usual bureaucratic wrangles. The Act has been in force for some thirty years now, and over all that period stories have proliferated, acquired a sharper edge.

I received the other day a copy of a serious and well-considered publication that is a spin-off of this very Act. Brought out with the support of the government, and published by the Jawahar Kala Kendra of Jaipur, it is a volume of more than 300 pages, densely packed with entry after entry listing more than 5,000 antiquities and art treasures, that were registered in Rajasthan under the Act years ago. Here actually was a volume – The Art Treasures of Rajasthan is how it is titled – that not only refreshed one’s memory of that early flush of activity in respect of registration of antiquities, but truly shared information with the large community of scholars and collectors to whom these things really matter. The volume, edited with her usual competence by Chandramani Singh, has most of the critical apparatus of a research document: an historical introduction; numbered entries listing each antiquity individually, complete with brief caption, date, school, measurements; a list of the collectors whose objects, the vast majority of them paintings, figure in this volume; an index. In the nature of things, the entries are thumb-nail sized, and contain only the bare bones of information. The one area which leaves much to be desired is illustrations. Naturally, not everything could have been illustrated, but even those that are appear somewhat fuzzy and either over-or under-exposed. The explanation, which I did seek from the editor, is that this was the nature and the quality of the photographs supplied by the owners in the first instance, and nothing much could be done about it.

In any case, going through the list of registered objects, and the illustrations such as they are, lands one in a wonderfully variegated world crowded with objects that go back in history hundreds of years and cover, in respect of space, vast stretches of India. The ‘registered’ sculptures – the trade often uses the loaded term, ‘declared’ – from Abaneri and Sikar etc do not come as a great surprise: it is the paintings that do. For, works from the various states and thikanas of Rajasthan apart, there is an enormous number of paintings of the Mughal and Deccani kind that show up here. One meets here thus, in fine workmanship, the emperor Akbar passing on an aigrette to his son, Jahangir, Amir Timur holding court, Shah Jahan on horseback, princes sitting in tree houses carousing or reading from slim volumes of poetry. The real dazzle, and the surprise, is provided however by the number of very high quality paintings from the Deccan. Most of these come from the inherited collections of the former Maharaja of Jaipur himself.

I was completely ensnared by a Deccani work, now in the Jaipur collection, but originally produced for the greatest patron of the arts in the Deccan, Sultan Ibrahim Adil Shah of Bijapur (1579-1627). For that unusual man, so completely free of religious prejudice and so passionately fond of music and painting, his painter – almost certainly Farrukh Hussain – envisions in this work the goddess Saraswati, seated on a superbly crafted golden throne, holding in two of her hands a double-gourded veena, and in the other two a mala of beads and a sacred volume. Delicately limbed, body completely wrapped in one of those incredibly opulent Deccani ‘saris’, the goddess sits, shedding grace, lost in music, gaze turned inwards. All around there is magnificent decorative detail: porcelain vases with bouquets of flowers, peris whose wings spread in a sweeping upward curve to form an arch above the goddess’s head, gorgeous illumination featuring simurgh birds on the wall at the back, a peacock that struts about in front. And if there were any doubt as to the identity of the seated figure holding the veena, above the canopy topping her throne, is an inscription in fine Persian characters, integrated into a panel, that speaks of the Sultan Ibrahim’s reverence for Ganpati, and describing the goddess, in poetic terms, as "mata pavitar Sarsuti".

This feature was published on July 11, 2004