The thing about Indian miniature art is, it's small only in scale.
There's a lot going on there: daily life, social strata, religion, mythology, color. And the works of art span hundreds of years.
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Miniature Worlds: Art From India isat the University of Kentucky Art Museum. There are two main types of art in the exhibit, which is paired with an exhibition of more recent Indian folk art: Rajput, a flat yet vividly colored painting style, with subjects mainly derived from religion and history, and Mughal, which was influenced by Persians and their attention to the natural world.
Mughal art made greater use of depth, shading and perspective, all of which would be would be recognizable to museum visitors more exposed to traditional European art. It's an Italian influence filtered through Persia and hopscotched over to India.
”So in fact, the Italians influenced Indian art,“ said Deborah Borrowdale-Cox, the museum's curator of education.
Look at the Mughal pieces, and you see shading and broader themes. The Rajput material is more domestic, intimate: flatter, brighter, more stylized.
Indian art might seem tough to decipher for those schooled in Western art — for example, the Dancing Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu deity, might seem initially jarring. And the flat vivid coloring of the Rajput style might seem primitive at first — but these are not pieces meant to be seen through a critical lens at the distance of hundreds of years. They were meant to be lived with and to convey images with which Indians of the time would be familiar: religious symbolism, daily rituals, how households spent their days.
Much of it was not art for art's sake. It was not meant to travel on exhibition in a distant future to those unfamiliar with its symbolism.
Pieces often were commissioned for private homes, with little thought given to longevity or how the work would reflect the culture hundreds of years after its painting. This was hundreds of years before the development of photography, and many people couldn't read or write. A culture was passed along visually.
”The people who made them would be stunned to think they were in a museum,“ Borrowdale-Cox said. ”It's people trying to make some sense of their world in a visual sense.“