National Museum New Delhi

National Museum in New Delhi: Krshna and Radha consumate their love

This is the single most famous painting at the Delhi National Museum, and the world’s most reproduced Indian miniature:  Delhi’s Gioconda.

Better prints of it are probably to be found in the literature (if not online), and therefore this post has no right to exist.  Except, of course, for the pleasure its posting affords me.

Here’s Krshna, the Black God, once perhaps  a Bhil deity (which is to say, a god worshiped in India by proto-Dravidyans before the arrival of the Aryas); possibly the Heracles of Megasthenes; and the principal deity of the Mahabharata — who seems in it to lead with a light heart all of humanity — except for a single foetus! — into the conflagration of Kurukshetra, while telling everyone, including his friend Arjuna, not to worry — “it’s not your business to worry, just let things take their course”); and his lover Radha, the woman who symbolizes all of the god’s faithful (Krshna worship is the ultimate bhakti — a religious practice centered on intellectually unambitious but heartfelt love and longing for god, expressed in song, poetry, dance, and ritual, in which the god is evoked as a lover (see Song of Songs for a similar idea). The painting is Pahari (“hills”) – almost certainly Kangra; it is part of a series (The Smithsonian owns a piece from the series, here); the setting is a garden at night; Krshna is led by her friends to the bower of love where Krshna awaits her; she hesitates; he awaits her eagerly — the painting shows him twice — now waiting patiently in the bower, now looking out eagerly through the trees to see if his beloved is coming.

Back in 2005 I was given the opportunity to view what is probably another painting in the series — painted around 1750 — in a private home in India, about which I may say no more.

National Museum in New Delhi: two works from Shah Jahan’s studio

Two miniatures from the Shah Jahan studio:  Wedding of the Prince Imperial (“M1”, with Shah Jahan on the parti-colored destrier); and Rich Widow Buys Yusuf (“M2”), from the Biblical story of Joseph.  Shah Jahan was the Mughal Qianlong:  a mighty prince with a country at peace, a strong interest in art, and an impeccable taste.

National Museum in New Delhi, continued: Sohrab dies at the hands of Rustam

This story, from the Shahnama, figures in Pamuk’s Snow.  There, Blue, an Islamist terrorist/fugitive, argues:  “This story was once read by every boy from Belgrade to New Delhi, but today not one bookstore in Istanbul stocks it. Question: is it beautiful enough to die for? Beautiful enough to kill for?” His (or, rather, Pamuk’s) argument is, in other words, that modernization/westernization has deprived Turks of their past, estranged them from it, deprived them of one source of just pride (i.e. culture), impoverished them, made them rootless.

The argument is intuitively appealing (certainly at individual level, memory loss feels like a kind of emasculation); and does underscore an important fact: modern Turks are completely unaware of some very basic aspects of Ottoman history and identity.

But the theory also reveals the inherent weakness of the very concept of national identity:  modern Turks are no more deprived of their identity than, say, Poles — (which Pamuk simply wouldn’t know — when it comes to theory-making, there is no substitute for breadth of knowledge).  Modern Poles don’t know their history, either; and what they do do know of their literature is not much worth knowing:  it is just what and how schools elect to teach it. Like Turks, we are a new nation, too: living within new borders, missing much of our genetic stock (Christian or otherwise), the economic class which had once exclusively born the right to be called Poles — “the nation” — i.e. the armed gentry — has been physically eradicated and what of it hasn’t been eradicated, has been scattered across seven continents:  with the result that today’s Poles by and large aren’t genetically related to the old Poles. The name survives, but when a name means something it has never meant before, can one truly say that it has survived?

Or consider Portugal, so very proud of her great discoveries. Yet, modern Portuguese aren’t the descendants of the discoverers — they live today in places like Goa, Macau and Brazil; but of those who did not venture on the high seas:  the left-behinds.

This miniature is also from Shah Alam’s studio.

National Museum New Delhi continued: court ladies

National Museum New Delhi continued: Krshna spying on bathing gopis