’Art & Soul
Secret gardens of the mind

Danielle Porret’s recently published catalogue of her collection A Secret Garden gives much inspiration and joy

B.N.GoswamyVictor Hugo, the great French novelist and thinker, once wrote about the joys of "a little garden in which to walk about, and an immensity in which to recall and to dream." Something akin to this must have been in the mind of Geneva-based Danielle Porret, by profession an interpreter but at heart an avid collector of Indian paintings, for she titled the recently published catalogue of her collection as "A Secret Garden". Clearly, as has been remarked, her collection must have meant for her ‘a man-made place to linger and dwell in, (something) to give inspiration and joy".

There is much in her collection that will indeed give ‘inspiration and joy’ to aficionados: paintings from the Mughal and Deccan courts, from Rajasthan and the Polari region, even from Malawi and the colonial times. Here princes stand in noble solitude, kings on elephant-back move in grand processions, Krishna descends from the heavens to play upon his flute for sages who crowd around him, animas lie lost in thoughts on marble terraces, Surdas the blind poet plays on his cymbals, a young crane stands casting a knowing look on his surroundings. But, again and again, one also sees gardens: now secret ones in which lovers can be seen in tight embraces, now secluded ones in which animas or ravines sit in quiet anticipation, now wild ones in which forlorn maidens keep searching for Krishna. Whether this profusion of gardens is there by design or accident one cannot say, but they are there: fragrant, in bloom, dense with foliage.

1) Ragini Kamod in a garden setting. Rajasthan, early 18th century. The Porret Collection, Geneva
2) The Bower of Quiet Passion by Nihal Chand. Kishangarh; mid-18th century. The Binney Collection. San Diego Museum of Art
3) A sakhi peeping from behind the foliage. Detail from The Bower of Quiet Passion
4) The gopis look for Krishna. Central India; mid-17th century. The Porret Collection, Geneva
5) The Bower of Quiet Passion. Kishangarh; drawing. Mid-18th century. The Porret Collection, Geneva

Among them is a relatively simple-looking drawing from the Rajasthan state of Kishangarh: a page filled with lush foliage, a corner of some wild forest, surrounded by which two lovers are seen lying on a bed of lotus blooms in one secluded corner. One might even have ignored this drawing, except for the fact that it is directly related to a painting of the same theme and setting, also from Kishangarh, which belonged once to the collection of Ed Binney and is now housed in the San Diego Museum of Art, keeping company with other masterly works from India. I had an occasion to publish that painting some 10 years ago, and it gives me special pleasure now to reunite, in a sense, the drawing in the Porret collection with the painting I am speaking of. The painting I wrote about, titling it as "The Bower of Quiet Passion". And it demands being looked at again.

The work has a text in verse inscribed at the back. The lovers, it says, spent the night in quiet delight, apparently unaware of the passage of time, lost to the world. "Thus the night passed, lying in pleasure and comfort./When dawn came, knowing it was Hari’s time, the sakhis came together/ The sweet and skillful Lalita took the vina and played on it/ The wondrous raga vibhasa, its sounds spreading all around the grove/ The birds chirping in this blissful moment/ The cool breeze, blowing over the pollen of lotuses and over water, came to them." Nothing more than this is stated in the elegantly worded verse: the lovers are not named, the bower remains unidentified, the companions’ reason for hastening to the spot when they find that the twosome are not back in their homes is not explained. But then, the poet is certain, nothing more than this needs to be stated. For everyone should know that the lovers are Radha and Krishna; they have sneaked away from their village homes to spend the night by themselves in the forest; the companions are concerned because this ‘secret’ love should not become known to the village. All that is needed, therefore, is to provide the barest of hints, and everything shall fall into place. Suggestion is everything.

With singular elegance, the painter — almost certainly Nihal Chand, the most celebrated of Kishangarh painters — fills us in, however. It is the quiet passion of the divine lovers that he leads us to celebrate in this delicate, becalming picture. Everything is brought in with great, subtle care: the twosome, still peacefully asleep on that cooling bed made up of lotus blossoms, eyed closed but arms lazily draped around each other; the companion sakhis crowding each other in the rich, dense forest; the lotus lake, astir with blossoms now that the day has dawned, and towards which one sakhi bends down to pick a flower; the sheer, luxurious expanse of foliage rendered in the most exquisite shades of green. It is a romantic but imagined moment, and the painter is as aware of it as is the poet — very likely Nagaridas, the nom de plume by which the Kishangarh ruler, Sawant Singh, the painter’s chief patron , was known — whose words are penned at the back.

To look at the drawing in the Porret collection and juxtapose it with the Binney painting can be exciting, even instructive. For this freely drawn work, lets us see the process, enables us almost to hear the initial thoughts of the painter. Here, there is no bevy of sakhis playing music, only Lalita who sets herself up, close by, vina in lap. No one bends down here to pluck lotus flowers; no one is crowding close to the lovers’ lotus couch. The artist, however, is clear that the figure of the lover must be recognisable as Krishna, and as no ordinary lover; carefully, therefore, he has clad him — almost the only colour one sees in this drawing, is his yellow garment, the pitavastra that almost identifies Krishna. The bare outline of the trees, or of how lotuses in the lake are suggested, tells us as much of the manner in which the mind of the painter worked as of the process of painting: the correcting patches in white stand out boldly wherever the painter had paused to re-think or re-plan. How one wishes there had been other pairs — a finished painting and a preliminary drawing — from which one could learn. But then these ‘instructive’ details can be of strictly limited interest for most people, I realise. The better thing to do might be to peer at the painting, like one sakhi does here, and take it all in, with avid eyes.