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by Fred Stern
"As far as the eye can see flowers are blooming and in their midst, streams enrich the landscape." So did the celebrated Mughal Emperor Jahangir describe the Kashmir Valley during his rule, sometime around 1625.

Kashmir is smaller than Connecticut, but for more than 1600 years it has been the source of exceptional sculpture, painting, calligraphy and decorative arts. That rich tradition is celebrated in "The Arts of Kashmir" at the Asia Society in New York, the first ever U.S. exhibition of its kind.

Located at a crossroads of Indian, Chinese and Persian culture, Kashmir blended these rich sources and then exported its own arts and designs, exerting an influence far greater than could ordinarily be expected from so small a place.

The Kashmir Valley rests on a 6,000-foot-tall plateau, surrounded by the majestic Himalayas. The tiny region is today divided, with portions under Indian, Pakistani and Chinese rule, but the greater parcel is still very much a part of India. Nearby are Tibet and Iran. Kashmir was a Buddhist region up until the 14th-century when Muslims came to predominate. Kashmiris today are Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist, and religious co-existence is said to be the norm in every part of the valley.

Chief curator of the exhibition, the eminent Dr. Pratapaditya Pal, is to be commended for his masterful work in assembling this show, reportedly a task that took a good six years. It’s well worth the wait.

The majority of works on view are sculptures representing Buddhist and Hindu deities, attractively displayed in handsome niches and glass partitions. The show also presents a wealth of Kashmiri paintings and decorative works, which may have more appeal to beginners.

Painting in Kashmir
The origin of painting in Kashmir is shrouded in mystery. Very little early work has survived, although we do see traces of polychrome on Hindu and Buddhist sculptures. Literary sources indicate that religious paintings were worshipped as early as the 5th century by both Hindus and Buddhists. The royal courts were also home to secular painting.

Even in those early years, Kashmir was exporting its art and artistic influence. For example, early Tibetan mandalas, the mystical diagrams of the cosmos that conveyed religious messages, were most likely of Kashmiri origin.

In an impressive feat of preservation, two colored fragments of an illuminated manuscript, representing the important Buddhist figure Prajnaparamita, retain their deep, brilliant coloration. The fragments are nearly intact, allowing the viewer to appreciate their exuberant design and impressive 3D effect. The manuscript is from the 12th century.

Handcolored manuscript pages and the covers that bound them are perhaps the earliest examples of portable painting. Books were constructed from the individual manuscript pages, which were typically bound to their covers with leather thongs. The earliest book cover in the exhibition, dating from the 8th century, is decorated with painted images of bodhisattvas, those compassionate Buddhists who passed up elevation into Nirvana in order to stick around on earth to give aid to ordinary people.

Kashmir under the Mughals
In 1535, the Mughal empire began its great incursion into Kashmir. Arriving from Persia only a few years before, the Mughals had already established themselves in central India, with their headquarters at Delhi. They brought fast horses and a large retinue of Baghdad artists. It was Shah Jahan, however, the third of the great Persian shahs, who was so taken with the beauty of the Kashmir Valley that he established a residence there. Others followed. The shahs were Muslim rulers, and so we see them in their Kashmiri portraits, replete with turbans, pictured in elaborate gardens and royal gatherings called "durbars," preparing to hunt deer, leopards -- what have you.

In an album page titled Prince Visits an Ascetic during a Hunt, the prince is kneeling on a stone path. The venerable-looking ascetic is shaded by a native plant, the chinar, but the composition leans heavily on Persian landscapes of the period, around 1650.

Even the Archangel Gabriel is here. He figures prominently in an 18th-century watercolor, done with gold on paper and originally from an unknown poetic chronicle. Flowering fields spread across the opaque landscape. The picture is a little odd, with the archangel sporting Persian boots and a turban that does not completely hide his hair, which descends in curlicue strands. Persian script adds a colorful authenticity.

Other examples of Mughal painting in the Kashmir Valley and its environs include a garden scene with luxurious carpets where nearby a pasha in a pleasure pavilion is surrounded by tastefully attired maidens. The most interesting of the album pages are two examples rendered in opaque watercolor and gold on paper, dating to 1680. In Review of Troops, soldiers mounted on horseback await in parade position. In an Outdoor Pleasure Party, neighbors holding the pasha’s falcons sit in canopied boats.

Mughal rule came to an end when the British sacked Delhi in 1858. The British set up a Hindu ruler for Kashmir, Maharajah Gulab Singh, which was an aberration in a basically Muslim state. To help secure his position, Singh paid a sizeable sum and continued to acknowledge British rule. He also pledged to the British 12 shawl goats and three pairs of Kashmir’s world famous shawls as an annual tribute. Singh established his own dynasty in the region, Dorga, which lasted more or less until independence came to India in 1948.

The exhibition includes a portrait of the rule, Maharajah Gulab Singh of Jammu and Kashmir, done in an opaque watercolor with gold on paper in 1846 before Singh’s ascent to the Kashmir throne. With his waterpipe and turban, seated on a shawl and other textiles with a distinctly Persian flavor, the maharajah could easily be mistaken for Mughal. It’s an illustration of just how intermingled the cultures of the three religions had become in Kashmir by that time.

Kashmir shawls
Kashmir has long been home to intricate weavings and exquisite textile designs. A manuscript watercolor with gold on paper, depicting a workshop with weavers busy at their looms, shows that Kashmiri weavers were held in high esteem.

Persian style weaves were the norm during the Mughal period.The preferred pattern was a pine cone shape that soon morphed into the now well-known paisley design. But the Chinese influence can be seen, as well. For instance, the Dragon Moon Shawl of the Dorga period (1860) with its five clawed dragons was probably Chinese-inspired. The dragon motif had been in continual use in China ever since the Han Dynasty (around 200 B.C.). Among the most appealing shawls is one embroidered with a map of Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir. Dating to the early 19th century, the shawl features birds in flight, other animals and the good people of Srinagar and their homes. In fact, it appears that every single Srinagar house is represented.

The shawls are generally woven from one of two kinds of wool. Pashmina, known also as cashmere, is the fleece of goats which are now domesticated. The second, more luxurious and comparatively rare wool is the fleece of wild antelopes from the Himalayan foothills. The West’s passion for pashmina textiles dates back to the 1871 London International Exhibition, which featured a display from Kashmir.

Decorative arts
The final series of exhibition rooms contain articles used in day-to-day life. These include a gilded brass Lotus Vase from the 8th century. The highly ornamented vase has a broad base of lotus petals, and pearls and beads cover its circumference. The patterns that lead upward are either peacock feathers or another motif. Designs based on peacock feathers, reflecting an Indian influence, were a favorite among Kashmiri artisans. So were poppy-based patterns, which decorate several objects on display. An example is a silver bowl covered with stylized poppies; the bowl rests on a bent stem suggesting that of a flower. The bowl is relatively recent, 1880.

Lotus leaf patterns were used throughout the Orient, and Kashmir was not an exception. A bronze censer is held up high by a celestial creature who rests against a lotus base. The lid of the censer eases the escape of vapor. We can guess that the facial features of the figure, its huge nose and protruding eyes, were the standard for good looks in the Kashmir of the 9th century, when this censer was made.

Ornamental jewelry was worn by men and women alike, and we see the lavish use of jewels by both sexes in paintings and sculptures on view. One star of the exhibition is the Diadem with Kinnaries, an exquisitely worked tiara studded with precious jewels. The piece is gold, with heavily worked representations of "kinnaries," mythical half-bird, half-man creatures. For good measure, the artist has a garnet inset in the diadem’s center.

Another example of expert Kashmir craftsmanship is a gilded copper and enamel Hindu portable domestic shrine with a curved roof and a platform designed to hold a sculptured deity. This was also used when its owner traveled.

Kingdom of the Gods
Buddha was the major inspiration for the sculptures of Kashmir. Skilled craftsmen learned their craft not in artists’ workshops as was customary in the West but rather with their fathers or other artisans. Their goal was to fashion the images of the Buddha in his various configurations, the bodhisattvas and the saints of the Buddhist religion. The work of these craftsmen was displayed in temples and stupas (depository mounts where Buddhist relics are housed) throughout the region.

From the earliest surviving Buddhist site, dating from around the 3rd to the 5th century in the Kashmiri town of Harwan, come two stamped terra-cotta tiles, each with a crouching ascetic. They differ from the figures of later tiles because their features are not typical Kashmiri, suggesting, again, the influence of outsiders. The flora, fauna, and figures at the top border are realistically rendered on these tiles.

Many of the sculptures from this period come from Gandhara, a historic area that formerly was part of Indian territory but that is now split between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was in Gandhara that Alexander the Great and his followers first set foot on the Indian subcontinent. During their sojourn, they greatly influenced the sculptural portrayal of Buddha. Almost all Gandharan sculptures have graceful Greco-Roman features. They are slimmer and taller than Indian sculptures of succeeding centuries. One of the most elegant examples in this style is a brass statue of Buddha Shakyamuni dating from the 10th century. His long, slender body strikes a graceful, slightly swayed stance (a dramatic contrast to the stereotypical chubby, seated Buddha).

One of the most elaborate brass and silver sculptures is a Buddha with bodhisattvas and royal attendants, from about 715 AD. As is often customary in Western sculpture, the donors are at the base of the statue and are rendered in diminutive size.

The technical skill of Kashmiri sculptors is demonstrated by an intricate 8th-century statue of the Buddhist deity Chakrasamvara. Made of brass inlaid with copper and silver, he dances about with his multiple heads and arms on a solid lotus base while two figures crouch by his side.

Kashmiri Hindus worshipped three deities from its vast Valhalla of gods: Shiva, the destructive god, Vishnu the preserver, and the principal Hindu goddess Devi. But Shiva was the ruling deity of the Kashmir Valley. Again, the earliest Hindu sculptures of these three reflect the Gandharan influence with their Greco-Roman features. These are clearly seen in the Head of Vishnu, a bronze 5th-century mask. A boar’s head appears on one side of the crowned head, and by tradition a lion’s head should appear on the other, but it has been lost through the ages.

A plaque with Vishnu’s emblems and feet was created in the 10th century. The feet of Vishnu were venerated by Hindus. Resting on sacred lotus plants are Vishnu’s club and conch shells. The symbols and arrangements are typical of Kashmiri custom and are not duplicated elsewhere on the Indian subcontinent.

Vishnu Sleeping on the Cosmic Serpent is an intricate, overpowering sculpture of the 9th century. The serpent symbolizes eternity. Vishnu is the god of ever-renewing creation, endlessly remaking the world. A female deity stands above Vishnu, while other figures -- perhaps the donors -- appear on the sides.

A bust of Kamadeva, the god of love and desire, is a fine example of 8th-century sculpture. A Kashmiri tiara crowns the god’s head, and he holds a mythical dragon fish representing the primal source of life. Indian mythology has it that the fish spits out five arrows of love; in this way Kamadeva is an apparent counterpart to the cupid represented in Western Renaissance art.

A yantra is a vase-like structure that serves as an aid to meditation, helping to achieve an altered state of awareness which allows the devout Hindu to reach deities like Shiva and Vishnu. The exhibition’s yantra is made of rock crystal. It was the sole representative of this genre, and very striking.

"The Arts of Kashmir," Oct. 3, 2007-Jan. 6, 2008, at the Asia Society and Museum, 725 Park Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10021

FRED STERN writes on art and antiques.