Visitors to London's British Museum this summer may feel they've stepped into some sort of parallel world. Mango and banyan trees are growing in front of the building's imposing gray columns, while lotus flowers bob in a pond under drizzling London rain. The foreign flora provided by the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew makes up the "India Landscape," part of the British Museum's "Indian Summer," a five-month celebration of Indian culture. The exhibition's centerpiece is "Garden and Cosmos," a collection of 54 bold 17th and 19th century paintings from the courts of Jodhpur, in the modern-day state of Rajasthan. Never before seen in Europe, the pictures draw on Rajasthani artists' varied approaches to color and form as well as the miniature techniques of the Mughals. While some subjects are classic scenes from the Ramayana, or maharajahs daintily sniffing roses in marble palaces the most spectacular pieces attempt to capture the metaphysical concepts of Being and the Divine.
The show's depictions of courtly pleasures delight: gods and maharajahs gambol with busty dancing girls, rendered in golds, greens and russets by delicate, squirrel-tail brushes. But the standouts are the paintings of otherworldly subjects, works unlike any others produced in India at the time. Three Aspects of the Absolute, from 1823, is a startlingly modern triptych, with a plain gold panel to evoke the Absolute, followed by two others on which a holy man is depicted merging with the divine essence through yoga. Created by a Rajasthani artist named Bulaki, it jives uncannily with a contemporary aesthetic. The paint real gold hums with a depth and intensity that curator Richard Blurton compares to the work of 20th century abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko: "People today understand that a single panel of wonderful color can be thrilling."
Thrilling, too, is the marvelously weird Creation of the Cosmic Ocean and the Elements series, in which dreadlocked and bejeweled holy men ride atop fish and snakes. Pulsating with rhythmic semicircular waves the Cosmic Oceans of their title the paintings have a near-hypnotic effect. "People of a certain age," says Blurton, smiling, "have described them as 'trippy.'" Those eager to trance out amid the swirls of gold, gray and pink can sit and do so, as the curators have created a small, triangular, chapel-like space with the paintings, a knowing nod to the Rothko Chapel, the contemplation space-cum-museum in Houston created in 1971 with 14 of the artist's paintings.
But not everyone sees the Rothko comparison as a compliment. A Hindustan Times column sniffed that it is a patronizing "reflex of lost Empire" to praise ancient Indian painters through the works of modern Western ones. "The British Museum is a robber's cave and testimonial to the 'engulf and devour' Western worldview that Asia and Africa know intimately to their considerable cost," the column continued. True, the British Museum and Kew Gardens were founded in the 1750s, when Britain bestrode the world. But in a year when a Bollywood-style movie triumphed at the Oscars, when pundits have taken to warning of the West's demise, and the British government has been caught in a cycle of shame over expenses at just the time India's elections were reminding the world of its vibrant democracy carping about British cultural imperialism seems a hangover from an earlier era.
Planting mango trees and banyans at the British Museum is just a cultural truth made literal: the roots of India grow deep in Britain's soil. The "Garden and Cosmos" exhibition, museum director Neil MacGregor promised when he announced it last year, would shed light on an "emerging superpower." They may not have known it at the time, but the Jodhpuri painters who depicted the worldly and otherworldly powers in both classical and radically innovative ways, foreshadowed India's role as a burgeoning global cultural heavyweight. Like modern Bollywood filmmakers and Indian writers and musicians, they recognized tradition, but took risks to grow beyond it.