College art museums serve many functions, from showcasing student art to serving as renowned exhibition spaces in their own right. Most often, however, these museums shine the brightest when they enhance the work of students and professors, especially relating to art that is unfortunately underserved elsewhere.
Luckily for Vassar, the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center’s extensive collection allows it to do just this, and a current exhibition, “India in Miniature: Works from the Permanent Collection” (through April 23) is a prime example.
Assistant Professor of History Julie E. Hughes, who studies India, expressed interest in the Indian art in the College’s collection, which she learned about from the Loeb staff upon arriving to Vassar.
“I love going to [the Loeb] and I have always found it a painful disappointment that there is only one item from India on permanent exhibit,” Hughes expressed. The piece is a Gandharan Buddha sculpture, the kind viewed by the British as the only good art to come from India, mostly because it looked Greek enough for their European taste.
Stemming from this underrepresentation in the permanent on-view objects, Hughes worked with the Loeb’s Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Academic Programs Elizabeth Nogrady to devise a show that would exhibit the various Indian paintings—known as miniatures for the scale of their figures—held in the museum’s permanent collection and in Special Collections.
“When I met with Julie Hughes to plan a class session at the Art Center for her course ‘Indo-Islamic Kingdoms and Cultures,’ she was incredibly knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the Indian works of art in the collection,” said Nogrady. “I knew that these works did not go on view in the galleries very often, and felt that through an exhibition we could capture that valuable experience…talking with Julie, and provide it to our visitors.”
The miniatures on view date from between the late 16th and late 19th centuries, and many were painted by non-court artists, often for foreigners to buy as souvenirs. Many of the paintings in the show were donated by Vassar alumna Ruth Lamb Atkinson ’18. Atkinson must have traveled throughout the so-called Golden Triangle in northern India—Delhi, Jaipur and Agra—the area which most British and American collectors primarily visited. Among her donations to Vassar were artists’ preparatory sketches, also featured in the gallery.
The pieces on display—generally the best preserved and least light-damaged—were chosen to showcase a diversity of subject matter and size. The paintings range from religious to royal, all in vibrant colors like topaz blues, creamy pinks, earthy forest greens and brilliant reds.
One painting in particular posed a challenge, namely that no one knew exactly what it was. Hughes had been puzzled since she saw the piece in 2009, and even visiting lecturers on Indian art were stumped. The complex battle scene featured angels overlooking soldiers fighting on horses and elephants and animals and decapitated heads floating in an ill-defined space. Further investigation (including a helpful Google search) solved the mystery: Hughes was finally able to identify it as a Ragamala painting, one depicting not a narrative but rather a complex musical mode called a Raga.
Hughes’s research assistant last semester, Lars Odland ’17, aided with this identification: “I spent some time researching the characteristics and rules that determine how Ragamala paintings were named, and then double-checking that the names… matched up with those criteria,” he explained.
Nogrady appreciated Hughes’s contribution in solving this mystery, as well as her translations of inscriptions on some of the paintings. “It is particularly gratifying when a professor can provide new information…” she commented. “When visiting the exhibition, I think viewers will appreciate this intellectual richness, a direct result of the Art Center’s position as a museum on a college campus.”
Despite their size, full narratives and worlds of their own exist within all the pieces in the exhibition, presenting not only a heterogeneous view of Indian art, but of art as a whole.
“It’s reifying that we only really think of religion when we think of India. That’s just the way Americans have been taught, that’s the way India has been in our consciousness,” Hughes explained. “It’s a place where religion is how you engage with it, it’s not through politics or history or innovation or, God forbid, an alternate style of aesthetics…”
Essentially, Hughes described, many Indian artists of these eras were playing with newfound forms and modes of depiction from an influx of British and European paintings. Patrons favored these foreign styles, Hughes explained: “Access to those paintings is a sign of being elite, so…you’re going to bring a little bit of the exotic Occidental into your paintings…The point is to show familiarity with it, and play with it, and include it amongst this worldview that is enclosed in the painting that somehow is associated with the patron or the king’s sovereignty or power.”
Experiences and knowledge like those evident in “India in Miniature” are, Hughes believes, a necessary corrective to the unbalanced Western focus of our own Loeb Art Center and Art History Department. Since it is her last semester on campus, Hughes fears that India—an entire subcontinent and the second most populated country with an immense array of history and cultures—along with all of South and Southeast Asia will slowly cease to be taught at Vassar, whereas courses and programs about East Asia continue to thrive and grow.
“Part of the reason I wanted to bring these paintings out was [because] I would really like to see Vassar fix this problem,” she said. “We need people working on India here.” For now, at least, we have the opportunity to enjoy the quiet resplendence of “India in Miniature,” a testament to the power of collaboration between museum and scholar.