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Intricate and ornate South Asian art exhibition invites Louisville to look closely

Ganesh Puja. Himachal Pradesh, Mandi, ca. 1835. Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper; 8 29/32 x 11 11/16 in. (22.6 x 29.7 cm). The San Diego Museum of Art, Edwin Binney 3rd Collection, 1990.1141.
Speed Art Museum
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San Diego Museum of Art
Ganesh Puja. Himachal Pradesh, Mandi, ca. 1835. Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper.

An exhibition now live at the Speed Art Museum showcases work from modern-day Pakistan and India. It features small, detailed watercolors as part of a touring show out of San Diego.

The San Diego Museum of Art’s curator of South Asian and Islamic art Ladan Akbarnia put together the traveling exhibition of paintings dating from the 15th to 19th century.

“India: South Asian Paintings from the San Diego Museum of Art” is on display at the Speed Art Museum through May 12.

Akbarnia spoke to LPM arts and culture reporter Breya Jones about the exhibition.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Breya Jones: Tell me a bit about “India: South Asian Paintings from the San Diego Museum of Art.”

Ladan Akbarnia: This particular exhibition has two, sort of, mini-exhibitions that are under this umbrella of the larger title. One is called “The Throne, the Chase and the Heart” and this was really an effort to show the courtly side of Indian painting. The second exhibition that we'll go through is called “Elephant in the Room,” and at that point, you hopefully have an understanding of the courtly painting, the way the artists in the workshop worked. We take out this one theme, which is elephants, because they're such a big part of South Asian oral tradition.

BJ: “The Throne, the Chase and the Heart” section is divided up into even more sub-sections. Can you explain those to me?

LA: The Throne really focuses on the role of the ruler, the way the ruler presented himself, people at court, princely activities, courtly activities, but what are the ways that that was done? What are the ways that the ruler showed his power? The last few paintings, look into the love area. So we've looked at processions with activities of course also involved with hunting, falconry. So sometimes even though with these last few you'll see a woman on horseback with her attendants. You know she's a royal woman because she has all these attendants. [The Chase] continues one of these courtly activities, which is the hunt. In the hunt, you can either have that equestrian portrait, which tells you that relationship to the hunt. Other times elephants were hunted, which we'll see more of in the next section of the exhibition.

Purkhu, To Catch a glimpse of him, even from a distance. Himachal Pradesh, Kangra, ca. 1790. Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper; 11 5/32 x 13 3/8 in. (28.3 x 34 cm). The San Diego Museum of Art, Edwin Binney 3rd Collection, 1990.1335.
Speed Art Museum
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San Diego Museum of Art
Purkhu, To Catch a glimpse of him, even from a distance. Himachal Pradesh, Kangra, ca. 1790. Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper.

BJ: You’re referring to “Elephant in the Room.” You said that one examines the role elephants have played and continue to play in South Asian culture.

LA: The elephant in Indian culture and South Asian culture has a really important role and is revered and stands as this figure of power. Elephants are thought to sort of enhance the senses, you know, of human beings. And they're really noble creatures as well. This mini-exhibition is an effort to bring out that importance, that significance of the elephant.

An elephant combat. Nim qalam drawing mounted on a detached album folio. Uttar Pradesh, Agra, ca. 1610. Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper; 5 21/32 x 9 13/16 in. (14.4 x 24.9 cm). The San Diego Museum of Art, Edwin Binney 3rd Collection, 1990.346.
Speed Art Museum
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San Diego Museum of Art
An elephant combatNim qalam drawing mounted on a detached album folio. Uttar Pradesh, Agra, ca. 1610. Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper.

BJ: Something I noticed that carries through to both sections is how detailed all the paintings are. The Speed is handing out magnifying cards to help visitors get a chance to see them.

LA: When you look at them, you see how fine the drawings are, you realize that it pays to also have the magnifying glass to look at them. You'll see throughout the exhibition, there's this range of more idealized images and more natural lights ones.

One thing that I like to remind people of is that there were workshops. And there's usually the head of a workshop and that person might be chosen by the head of the court. You would hire someone, and then they would grab people from different areas and make a manuscript together. So you'd have the illuminator, you'd have the person who did the drawings of somebody who was a specialist in faces, somebody was a specialist in landscape, somebody was a specialist in animals, somebody was a specialist in architecture, and all of these people would contribute to the entire manuscript, and create, what you end up seeing.

Scenes from the courtly hunt (Layli visits Majnun in the wilderness). Deccan, Telangana, Hyderabad, ca. 1770. Ink and opaque watercolor on paper; 13 5/8 x 9 1/2 in. (34.6 x 24.1 cm). The San Diego Museum of Art, Edwin Binney 3rd Collection, 1990.551.
Speed Art Museum
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San Diego Museum of Art
Scenes from the courtly hunt (Layli visits Majnun in the wilderness). Deccan, Telangana, Hyderabad, ca. 1770. Ink and opaque watercolor on paper.

BJ: With these paintings being smaller in size, watercolor and intricately detailed, I know they are very sensitive to light damage. How does that impact how you chose to curate the exhibitions?

LA: The issue with light-sensitive pieces is that you have to constantly rotate them. And then you have a collection like this, which in the last 10 to 20 years has been toured around more. So each time we try to do a different set of paintings, because, after this show, these will have to rest for several years. For every six months, you probably need about five years of rest.

Jones: I have to ask, given how delicate this collection is, why share it with other institutions?

Akbarnia:  Because I feel like my job, the definition of a curator, is a care for a collection, they’re the keeper of a collection. And I feel that my job is not just to have these out there for me, but for several generations of people. But you have to find a sweet spot where they are limited in terms of how much they're exposed. The way we've done it here is we've shown a number of pieces that previously had not gone on tour. And there are others that had before and there are others that had rested enough and they could, and then next time, it would be something else.

A thakur of Jhilai on horseback. Rajasthan, Jhilai, ca. 1760-70. Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper; 23 5/16 x 15 5/16 in. (59.2 x 38.9 cm). The San Diego Museum of Art, Edwin Binney 3rd Collection, 1990.884.
Speed Art Museum
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San Diego Museum of Art
A thakur of Jhilai on horseback. Rajasthan, Jhilai, ca. 1760-70. Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper.

BJ: Why do you think it’s important for exhibitions to display art that is not from the Western world or experience?

LA: It's part of our global history. And I think the more that we make these part of the norm, and the more they're woven into the bigger picture, we can perhaps move that idea of where the center is. Just like looking at a map, thinking of visual culture and general global visual culture as kind of a series of moving plates. At different times they’re with different areas, and nowhere is fixed. And nowhere does something come from a vacuum. So I think it's important to bring those out, because everyone will look at an image of a Madonna and Child and know immediately what is happening. And so, you know, I think, the more we make it normal, then hopefully, the world will get there.

Breya Jones is the Arts & Culture Reporter for LPM. Email Breya at bjones@lpm.org.