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    Art from the East
by Fred Stern
An Ascetic by a Lake
from the Ragmala
18th century Rajasthan
$5,175 at Sotheby's New York, Sept. 16, 1999
Two Camels Fighting
late 17th century
Lord Dancing in Forest Glade
from the Ragmala
ca. 1630
bought in
Radha and Krishna in a Palace Window
A Prince Climbing A Lady's Chamber
ca. 1760
A Holy Man on Mount Gormanta
Princess on Her Way to a Tryst
ca. 1760
bought in
At a recent auction of Indian and Southeast Asian Art, I found a friend pouring over pages devoted to Indian miniature paintings. He was absorbed by his new hobby, one shared by a growing number of collectors.

For centuries "miniatures" have been treasured possessions of India's upper class. Miniatures are painted in gouache, an opaque watercolor that requires less preparation than oil but that is at once both exciting and pleasant to view.

Small and compact, intricate and colorful, Indian miniatures find increasing favor with collectors. Good examples can be bought for under $10,000 and sometimes for as little as $2,000 to $3,000. Their small size -- many are only eight inches by five inches -- permit a rich display even with limited wall space.

Perhaps most astonishing about Indian miniatures is the intimate detail that illuminates every scene. My friend's choice of paintings was a fine example: a miniature of a holy man sitting by a lake filled with ducks, while a mass of white birds covered the sky. The lushness of the landscape was typical, too. In good miniatures you'll see the delicate handling of men's facial features, the brilliance of women's eyes and the poetry of erotic scenes.

The history of Indian miniatures begins in Persia, where manuscript illustrators enlivened and decorated the Koran and other Muslim holy books. In 1526, under Emperor Babur, the Muslim Persians began their conquest of Hindu India. Soon after, the victorious Muslims moved their workshops of painters, weavers and architects to the ancient city of Agra on the Ganges plain. They had conquered a barren landscape lashed by winds, a haven for little more than dust storms.

But Babur, the first Mughal emperor, was not one to be intimidated by geography. He undertook the enormous task of creating a land of gardens, pleasure palaces and artificial lakes. To document his achievements, Babur called on his miniaturists to set aside their work on the Koran and other Muslim texts, and instead to capture his likeness in as many settings as possible.

Future generations of Mughal kings followed suit. In these minatures, often collected in albums, the maharajahs are depicted in all types of heroic settings: fighting elephants, hunting lions, enjoying the moonlit nights with their favorite wives and concubines, defeating their enemies, falconing, playing polo.

The Mughal reign lasted some 200 years. By the second part of the 18th century, the imperial state had disappeared, a victim of fratricidal wars of succession, wasteful expenditures and the hostile Hindu population, which far outnumbered the Muslims.

Bereft of their patrons, the Mughal miniaturists offered their services to the Rajput maharajahs, who became independent after the fall of the Mughals. The Rajput were happy to have these highly skilled artists replace their own run-of-the-mill artisans. So a painting renaissance of sort came to the hilly kingdoms of Northern India. The painters of the city states of Italy -- Parma, Florence, Venice, Verona, Siena -- had nothing on the newly resplendent art of Mewar, Marwar, Kotah, Bundi, Kishangarh, Amber and Bikaner.

How could there be such a renaissance? Weren't the self-centered maharajahs focused on immortalizing themselves? To be sure. But they wanted more -- the retelling of ancient tales and reinterpretations of religious heroes and gods. The love of Krishna, the eighth incarnation of Vishnu, for Radha, the incarnation of the soul, quickly became favorite themes of the upper and middle classes. Krishna, always pictured in blue, personified air and sky. The brown Radha was usually portrayed as a cowgirl (gopi) surrounded by her bevy of friends and companions, luxuriating in the glorious Rajput landscapes, which were filled with enormous trees, festive lakes and the feudal palaces of wealthy rulers. The themes were taken from the Hindu epics Bhagavata Purana, the Ramayama and the Mahabharata, all providing rich, inexhaustible themes.

Other topics developed from the Ragamala, the translation of poetic and musical themes ("Ragas") into paintings. The resulting visual images had often startling originality and charm.

Paintings from the various city states typically differ in size and color application, and even by representation of facial features. For example, Kishangarh miniatures are relatively large (14 by 19 inches) and the figures appear oversized. The characteristically long, straight noses of Kishangarh figures are a clue to the paintings' origin.

There is general agreement that miniatures from Kangra and Guler win the highest accolade, for elegance of presentation and coloristic achievement.

1947 brought nationhood to India and the loss of British stipends to the maharajahs, whose loyalty to the crown had been subsidized. In order to survive, the rulers turned their palaces into luxury hotels, sold their horses, their elephants and their furnishings. Eventually they also sold their miniatures, flooding the market. Today, it is against the law to export Indian miniatures, which are considered "treasures of the nation."

Quite a few dealers in the New York City area specialize in Indian miniatures. The three best-known are Art of the Past (1242 Madison Avenue), Doris Wiener (1001 Fifth Avenue) and Terence McInerney (244 Madison Avenue).

Both Christie's and Sotheby's include Indian miniatures in their regular sales of Asian art. The works illustrating this article were all offered on Sept. 16, 1999, at Sotheby's New York sale of Indian and Southeast Asian art. Prices given include the auction-house premium.

FRED STERN is Artnet Magazine's Asian art columnist.