Visions of Mughal India

Art Art & Lit

Opening this week in the Ashmolean is the exhibition of Howard Hodgkin’s extensive collection of
Indian art. An artist himself, Hodgkin has had a keen interest of Indian art since his youth and has
collected art since the 1940s. As students we tend to lead our lives safely confined within the walls
of our colleges and rarely venture out to see what the city truly has to offer, but this is truly an
opportunity to see something quite extraordinary.

Knowing next to nothing about Indian art, and with an understanding of Indian history derived
mostly from the picture books I read as a child and the Bollywood movie Jodha Akbar, I ventured
into the Ashmolean anticipating making a complete fool of myself in front of the curator who had so
kindly offered to show me around the exhibition. By the end of the visit I was not only rather better
informed, but had also gained a completely new interest in Indian culture.

The walls of the exhibition have been painted specifically for the occasion and the Indian-inspired
yellow colour effectively brings out the shades and colours in the paintings. The collection is
comprised of 115 paintings, a significant increase since the last time Hodgkin’s exhibited his
collection at the Ashmolean in 1992 when the number amounted to 42. It has developed new
aspects, notes the curator Dr Andrew Topsfield, but although it has become deeper and richer
the character has remained the same. Rather than changing, the tendencies and themes already
discernible in the earlier exhibits have become more pronounced. Dr Topsfield, who is personally
acquainted with Hodgkin and has been acquainted with the collection for more than thirty years
admires and considers Hodgkin’s ‘acute’ eye for art as a key component in the creation of the
collection. Hodgkin’s relationship to the art is indeed striking, and he makes it abundantly clear that
he is not so much interested in the mythical themes and folklore behind the stories as the effect they
bring in terms of creation. It is a purely aesthetic relationship to art in which the artistic eye gains
centre stage.

What is extraordinary about the collection is not only the size and extraordinary quality of the
exhibits, but also the sheer diversity. The exhibition is divided into four parts – Mughal, Deccani,
Pahari and Rajasthani – where the latter Hindu items tend to be rather more colourful, bold
and ‘inventive’ than the more ‘sophisticated’ naturalism which is apparent in the paintings of the
Muslim Mughal court. Although influencing each other the artistic traditions mainly kept their
distinctive forms, but what becomes clear in the exhibit is the fascinating interaction between
styles and peoples and the eventual European influences towards the end of the 16th century as
is showcased in the bird paintings displaying influences of European botanical and natural history
studies.

The colourful frames each seem to tell their own story, and they do so with a vivacity which provokes
associations to extraordinary fairy-tales and childhood stories. The painting of Mihrdukht preparing
to shoot her arrow through the golden ring of an impossibly high tower is exquisite in its colours and
detail. The astonishment of the court upon seeing the princess perform the seemingly impossible
task and the suitor who sneaks away looking almost sick at the sight of his defeat is pictured vividly
and beautifully. The work, which was commissioned by Akbar to aid him in his story-telling, is one of
the around 180 surviving of the original work which was comprised of fourteen-hundred illustrations.
Three of these can be found in Hodgkin’s collection. Very different is the unfinished study of the sad
and disillusioned emperor Bahadur Shah. Deposed by the British and eventually exiled in Burma, the

elderly man and poet looks upon the viewer with a realism that is not often associated with Indian
art. The dynamic studies of elephants – a personal favourite of Hodgkin himself – shifts between
realism and fantasy as the majestic animals are studied in their different forms and activities.

All in all, this blast of colour from the Orient is a perfect antidote to gloomy weather and impeding 5th
week blues. It is definitely an experience worth visiting, if only for the drawing of Balwant Singh and
his enigmatic goose; one of Dr Topsfield’s own professed favourites.