Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
Enchanted gardens : June 04, 2000
Eternal beauty of the painted gardens
Writer and art critic based inDelhi.
Writing of the new country that he had conquered, Babur complained of its lack of beauty, of its absence of fruit trees. In the same breath he recalled the flowering blossoms in the gardens of his beloved Farghana. When he defeated Rana Sangha in battle Babur celebrated the victory by establishing a garden, a charbagh, on the east side of the Yamuna. As his grandson Jehangir was to record in his autobiography. "He gave it the name of Gul-afshan, and erected in it a small building of cut red stone, and having completed a mosque on one side of it he intended to make a lofty building, but time failed him and his design was never carried into execution." (Tuzuk-I-Jahangiri trans. Rodgers and Beveridge).
As a victory memorial, or as a welcome oasis of beauty in the hot dry plains of the north, the garden aroused the imagination of poet and king alike. In purely visual terms, it reached its apotheosis in miniature painting.
For the painter of the Mughal or Pahari miniature, the garden presented irresistible possibilities. In both traditions the garden becomes a metaphor for life. It personifies the seasons, the emotions, love in separation and fulfilment. As a life force it enhances the poetic and formal potential of the painting. It is the place which tempts the gods with its beauty, which invites their trysts and dalliance. For the Mughal rulers as patrons, the garden was the symbol of a settled empire, of their presence in India with a distinct sense of aesthetics and culture. In the Hindu kingdoms of the hills and Rajasthan, the garden enabled the enactment of myths, the celebration of festivities, it provided the backdrop for the appearance of the nayika, whose beauty is enhanced by the birds, the profusion of flowers and plants.
The presence of the garden in Mughal painting had much to do with the personality of the successive emperors. Akbar's interest lay in realistic portraits of noblemen and court grandees. In the era of Jehangir, who frequently sought the company of religious men, paintings of the King meeting with a religious man in a forest amidst trees and flowers is common to the Jehangir era. Jehangir, the aesthete had a predilection for a beautiful environment, for the exquisite and the unusual flora and fauna of India. The fact that he assiduously nurtured an aesthetic environment, is seen in his court painter Aqa Riza's portrait of Salim's Gardener (c.1600). Jehangir's court painter Farrukh Beg used the garden to create rich vegetation so typical of Deccan painting that appears as fanciful as it is colourful. The emperor's taste for flora and fauna is also seen in works like Squirrels in a Plane Tree (c.1610) painted by Abul Hasan and Mansur, from the India Office Library collection. In the Tuzuk-I-Jehangiri there are numerous instances of Jehangir admiring the symmetry of gardens laid out by his noblemen, of Noor Jahan hosting Shahjahan's victory in the Deccan in lavishly appointed gardens in which even the bushes and leaves are emblazoned with gold and silver. This preoccupation with aesthetics translated directly into representation in painting.
The Mughals had an almost scientific curiosity in rare flora and fauna and pressed the artists of their atelier to copy such rarities. When Muqarrab Khan, the Mughal governor of Surat, found a rare turkey cock in Goa, Jehangir instructed his favourite artist Mansoor to draw a likeness of the bird, now preserved in the Victoria and Albert museum. Shajahan as patron who had a more formal concept of aesthetics commissioned the Gulistan or garden of Sadi, which Milo Beach describes as the "greatest of the poetical manuscripts." One of the works in the manuscript, Sadi in the Rose Garden, demonstrates the philosophical symbol of the garden itself. In the work one friend admonishes another for gathering in his skirt roses which have such a short life span. "Then what is to be done?" I replied: "I may compose for the amusement of those who look and for instruction of those who are present, a book of a Rose Garden, a Gulistan whose leaves cannot be touched by the tyranny of autumnal blasts, and the delight of whose spring the vicissitudes of time will be unable to change into the inconstancy of autumn . . . ." The permanence of the painted garden then, as demonstrated by this painting by Govardhan, symbolised a lasting, eternal beauty, far beyond the temporality of human experience.
In the painting of Rajasthan and the Pahari schools, the illustration of Krishna myths, of Vaishnava poetry were to have a profound influence. The beauty of the natural surroundings in the hills found a natural mirror in paintings of the bara masa, or the change of the seasons. The presentation of the nayika in attitudes of waiting for, or in union with, her beloved, often within the confines of her royal residence allowed for endless representations. Krishna, dancing the rasalila with the gopis, often in the phosphorescent light of the full moon is a subject that is endlessly repeated in the idyllic gardens of Pahari painting. Krishna's name as Madhava (drinker of honey) and Vanamalin (wearer of a garland of forest flowers) emphasises that the context for Radha-Krishna love is often spring and the associative beauty of landscape.
Hindu and Islamic myths alike make glorious and imaginative use of the garden in painting. The Ashoka vatika of Sita's incarceration in Lanka, the swan's meeting with Nala in his royal garden, the first meeting between Shirin and Farhad, the endless trysts of Radha and Krishna all find their natural apotheosis in the layout of the garden. Kings and their consorts assumed many of the same poetic and visual metaphors. Describing the beauty of Padmavati, the parrot says to the King Ratnasena: "rays were emanating from her red lips which looked like newly grown rose leaves. Her face was fragrant like a blossoming lotus, and when she breathed it seemed as if flames of perfume emanated from her . . . Her shut eyes appeared like two black bees lying quietly within two closed blue lotuses" (Jaisi's Padmavati).
The garden, with its distinct uses of palette and modes of representation became one of the principle means of recognising a school of painting. In the paintings of Bundi, the water birds, lotuses and plantations are depicted with a refined beauty, in contrast to, say, the prominent colours and the sharp stylisation of the Jodhpur school. In some painting folios, such as the Gita-Govinda of Mewar (17th Century), the Radha-Krishna narrative unfolds through their meetings in flower-decked bowers in an extended garden. In this series, each of the bowers in the garden serves as a frame, for the lovers to meet. Several such "frames" in each painting allow for the unfoldment of a narrative.
Vaishnava poetry of the medieval period particularly highlighted the beauty of the garden as a meeting point for lovers. The creeping vines, the red bimba fruit, the noisy black bee, the fresh green shoots, the soft pink of the emergent lotus, the dark of the night, all become metaphors to describe beauty in the hands of poets like Jayadeva, Bihari and Keshavadas. The banks of the Yamuna as described by Jayadeva, or the Betwa of Keshavadas' Rasikapriya are the natural meeting ground for the divine lovers. In the hill schools, the strong colours of Rajasthan are transmitted to the lyrical pastels of the Kangra school, or else the brilliant primary colours of Basohli and Mankot. The gentle floral blossoms of Guler painting, Radha and Krishna flying kites, feeding pigeons or listening to quawwalis on moonlit nights, or royal lovers watching a fireworks display in a moonlit garden are some of the common themes.
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