‘Indian Skies: The Howard Hodgkin Collection of Indian Court Painting’, a show on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until June 9, brings together the British stalwart’s medieval Indian paintings

An exhibition currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met) in New York has a curious India connect. Titled ‘Indian Skies: The Howard Hodgkin Collection of Indian Court Painting’, it is an epitome of the lifelong passion of stalwart British artist Howard Hodgkin (1932-2017) of collecting medieval Indian paintings.

This collection was born out of the artist’s long-standing love affair with India, and he put it together over a period of sixty years, pursuing a passion he had developed when first introduced to Indian art in school. It comprises works from the Mughal, Deccani, Rajput, and Pahari courts, dating from the 16th to the 19th centuries. This makes it different from some collections of colonial origins, where the colonial masters simply picked up treasures of India that they fancied and transported them to various museums and private collections yonder, merely by the power of might and right over a subjugated people.

An Artist’s Eye on Historical Paintings

The Met exhibition presents over 120 paintings and drawings from Hodgkin’s collection, about 80 of which were acquired by the museum in 2022; it also features some works on loan from The Howard Hodgkin Indian Collection Trust.

According to Max Hollein, The Met’s Marina Kellen French Director and CEO, “The collection was interwoven with the artist’s life — and his experiences in India and his relationships with scholars and artists of Indian art — and often inspired his own creative output. This exhibition celebrates the brilliance and power of these tremendous paintings and offers a glimpse into the artist’s unique vision and passion for one of the world’s great pictorial traditions.”

The exhibition, which concludes on June 9, is accompanied by an issue of The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, on the cover of which appears a magnificent Mughal painting, An Elephant and Keeper, attributed to Ilyas Khan Bahadur, made in opaque watercolour and gold on paper, circa 1650-60. It shows a robust elephant bedecked with a red velvet seating mat on its back decorated with gold embroidery; there is gold also on its tusks and on a bell hanging by its neck chain. It stands tied to a stump of wood while its keeper —mahout — sits nearby with his back to the viewer.

The placement of this elephant painting on the cover of the bulletin is important as Hodgkin had a predilection for elephants rendered as portraits and in action. In fact, at the chronological display at the museum, the third section is devoted to the celebration of elephant paintings, from different periods and schools; the first section features earliest works of the 16th-century Mughal era and related Deccani works, and the next features the later Rajput and Pahari schools.

A cursory look through a cross-section of works on display at the Met creates a smorgasbord of images from pre-European rule of India, bringing alive the luxuriant stories of royals who ruled different parts of the subcontinent, when relative prosperity ensured rich patronage to the arts and culture, including paintings. The works feature portraits, palace scenes, royal hunts, illustrations as well as religious epics, devotional subjects, and nature studies.

A Lady Singing, Attributed to Bhavanidas, India, Rajasthan, Kishangarh, 1740-45, Opaque watercolor and gold on paper, 37 × 25.5 cm, Courtesy: Howard Hodgkin Collection

While there are individual portraits such as Maharaja Kirpal Pal of Basohli Smoking (circa 1690, top), Maharaj Bakhat Singh (circa 1735), Portrait of Iltifat Khan (circa 1640), some others show royals in action, such as Maharaja Dhiraj Singh Riding (circa 1700), Maharao Ram Singh’s Marriage Procession at Udaipur (circa 1851), Maharao Madho Singh Hunting Wild Boar (circa 1720), Sultan Muhammad ’Adil Shah and Ikhlas Khan Riding an Elephant (circa 1645), etc. There are some generic paintings such as Attendants at an Imperial Durbar (circa 1645), Two Pigeons (circa 1650) and A Lady Singing (1740-45). Still others are on religious themes such as Krishna Dances on the Head of Kaliya; Illustration to the Story of Harivamsa (Story of Hari) (circa 1590-95) and Bhadrakali, Destroyer of the Universe; from a Tantric Devi series (circa 1660-70), among others.

It would be interesting to quote the artist from a talk that he gave on collecting Indian paintings at The Ashmolean, a museum in Oxford, England, in early 1990s: “When I first saw Indian painting I thought of it as the most extraordinary phenomenon, because it was a system of representation, a microcosmic world, which was completely different, yet not completely different from our own… I’ve never forgotten the first time I went to India and saw a pool surrounded by lilies, in a very unimportant, junky little yard somewhere; it wasn’t the yard of a palace or anything. There were birds flying about and there were bright green trees. They were absolutely similar to the kind of pool, lilies, birds and trees that you would see in an eighteenth century Deccani painting…”

Among the paintings on display is Hodgkin’s own oil on wood work titled Small Indian Sky (1990), which was gifted to the Met by his partner, British music writer Antony Peattie, in his memory in 2022. Even without the title, the abstract painting evokes lush and saturated colours of an Indian landscape in summer with its flaming saffron and deep greens. The lush colours of his palette even in paintings without an India connection are widely believed to be inspired by his emotions for India.

Sultan ’Ali ‘Adil Shah Slays a Tiger, Attributed to the Bombay Painter (probably ‘Abdul Hamid Naqqash), India, Deccan, Bijapur, ca.1660, Ink, opaque watercolor, gold, and probably lapis-lazuli, pigment on paper. Courtesy: Howard Hodgkin Collection

Howard Hodgkin’s India Connect

Hodgkin, perhaps the best-known abstractionist of Britain and a well-known figure in the Indian art circles, worked on the building of the British Council at New Delhi’s K. G. Marg, with architect Charles Correa in 1992. Hodgkin used black Kadappa stone on white Makrana marble to create a banyan tree across the façade of the building. Talking about the spreading out branches of the tree that seem to move toward the institution’s library, he had shared in a BBC documentary: “I thought of people sitting under banyan trees reading… I thought it was appropriate for a library.”

But his Indian fascination went back to Eton, where he went to school. In 2016, he recounted: “I fell in love with Indian art when I was at school, thanks to the enterprising art master, Wilfrid Blunt. I longed to visit India, but only managed to do so in my early thirties. It proved a revelation. It changed my way of thinking and, probably, the way I paint.” Hodgkin was thus quoted during his seminal show at The Hepworth Wakefield museum in West Yorkshire, England, from July 1 to October 8, 2017, titled ‘Howard Hodgkin: Painting India’; the show was planned with his active participation, before he passed away on March 9, 2017. This was the first exhibition to present an expansive view of Hodgkin’s India travels and impressions.

Hodgkin first visited India in 1964 when he was 32, with Robert Skelton, keeper of the Indian collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. He returned to the country almost every year after that. During the later years, he would stay for three months in Mumbai from where he would explore a new place in India on every trip. As was expected, he visited several Mughal forts and palaces on his numerous India trips, and the restored Humayun’s Tomb in New Delhi remained one of his favourite monuments in the country. Hodgkin also maintained journals of his trips to India, which make a fascinating read; these were part of the exhibition display at The Hepworth Wakefield seven years ago.

Maharao Ram Singh's Marriage Procession at Udaipur, Rajasthan, Kota, ca. 1851, Opaque watercolor and gold on cotton cloth, 92.6 × 69.5 cm, Courtesy: Howard Hodgkin Collection

The first painting by the artist which was inspired by India was Indian Subject (Blue), 1965-69, which was also the first time he painted on wood instead of canvas. While Hodgkin’s India connect was a well-known fact among followers of his art, the most important exhibition of his works in India held during his lifetime was ‘Howard Hodgkin: Paintings 1984-2015: A Tribute’, held from February 20 to April 15, 2015, at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) in Mumbai. It also showcased some works from his Indian Waves series that Hodgkin had made in 1990-91 on handmade khadi paper that he had bought in India, but stored away as he considered them unfinished. These were rediscovered twenty years later and shown at Gagosian Gallery in London in 2014; some of those works were displayed at the CSMVS show as well.

His last visit to India was in December 2016, about which Peattie recalled in an interview while visiting India to deliver a lecture at the British Council in December 2018. “In December 2016, we came to Bombay, and he painted six paintings in five weeks. He never did so many. And then his hands shook, he couldn’t hold the brush and his legs couldn’t support him and he was downhill so rapidly. We got back to London a week later and he died.”

In an interview to a British newspaper on the occasion of his Gagosian show in London in 2014, Hodgkin had said that he would not have been able to produce the art he did if it were not for India, saying: “I couldn’t work without it.” Either through his own works or through his collection, Hodgkin lived the sentiment completely, of which the Met show is a befitting testament.

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