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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, May 22, 2005

Dazzling color from land of the Rajputs

By David C. Farmer
Special to The Advertiser

Welcome to the northwest of India and the medieval grandeur of Bikaner, basking in sweet serenity, a land of unrivaled wonders and history of incredible depth: the mesmerizing pre-Islamic architectural facades and the chivalry of the Rajputs.

"Ragini," by Raju Swami. Miniature (4 inches by 6 inches) in natural paints; 2004, from Bikaner, Rajasthan.

Photos by Loren K.D. Farmer

You say you can't afford just now to meet nature in her pure state in the Himalayas and to see Indian art and crafts firsthand in their full splendor?

An East-West Center display provides the next best thing to an actual travel experience, at once stimulating and educational.

This excellent exhibition focuses on the interrelationship between the folk art tradition of the region's village and wandering tribal people and the classical art tradition of the urban merchants and nobility of Rajasthan.

Rajasthan, the land of kings, was made up of many small kingdoms ruled over by clans who contended constantly for supremacy as they fought to defend the region from Islamic invasions.

Many civilizations shaped this region, forged by waves of settlers, ranging from ancient Indus Valley urbanites to pastoral Aryan herdsmen, Bhil forest dwellers, Jain merchant princes, Jat and Gujjar cultivators, Muslim craftsmen and the Rajput warrior aristocracy.

'The Palace and the People: Arts of Rajasthan'

East-West Center Gallery

John A. Burns Hall, East-West Center

Through June 3

8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, noon to 4 p.m. Sundays; closed Saturdays and holidays


Embracing the spirit of the Thar Desert and influenced by its place in the ancient trade route, the region has produced myriad forms of folk art. A central form is dance.

Indeed, Rajasthani art could be described as fundamentally inspired by performance.

Found in almost unlimited variations, its dances punctuate the barren landscape, turning the land into a fertile basin of color and creativity. The dances are an expression of human emotion and yearning as much as the region's mystical folk music.

Colorful costumes, festivals and customs relieve the tedium of coping with a harsh, demanding environment.

The very names of these exotic dances summon forth their poetic potency and magic: spectacular bhavai, with its brass pitchers; the bandit region's kachi godhi, with its horse puppets; women's water-gathering chari; picturesque gair; sensuous kalbeliya, women's ghoomar; kathputli, the puppet dance; devotional terahtaali.

Kavad (a mobile illustrated story temple) made of wood and paint, early 20th century; from Basi, Rajasthan.
These are a people who love celebrations, and whose love for color is practically unparalleled.

Rajasthani crafts have emerged not as mere decoration but as a central part of the people's lives.

Utensils are designed to please the eye. Clothes and jewelry not only give color to the desert's stark barrenness but also enliven the puppets visually. Costumes of the dancers and the illustrated story temples are resplendent.

Classic methods developed side by side with folk tradition. Supported by royalty, the aristocratic and wealthy, artists created such works as the exquisite, delicate and romantic court miniatures, with their images of idealized love and works based on sacred, primarily Hindu texts.

Both low-fired clay objects and gold enamels encrusted with jewels display common motifs and a shared aesthetic sensibility.

Village woman's attire; blouse, skirt and scarf; 20th century, Rajasthan state, India.
Silver jewelry worn by tribal women, miniatures found in merchant palaces, a temple god and village shrine, wood toys and puppets, elaborate embroidered and bejeweled clothing: All these demonstrate the diversity of media found in this desert region and the cross fertilization as shown, for example, in the pervasive use of bold color.

For centuries, the Rajasthani printer has perfected his art, mixing vegetable dyes and mineral colors to arrive at hues and tones that positively glow.

The region is also famous for its tie-dye technique, in which fabrics, tied in small twists with thread, are dipped into vats with an array of bright colors to create a mosaic of patterns.

Jaipur, India's first planned city founded in 1727, is one of the largest centers in the world for gem cutting and polishing, utilizing onyx and cat's eye, lapis lazuli, carnelian, garnets, amethysts and topaz along with rubies, emeralds and diamonds for jewelry, carved figurines and statues.

Popularly known as the Pink City, Jaipur is also a major center for the enameled jewelry called kundan.

Master painters, with the fine strokes of their squirrel-hair brushes, create delicate Rajasthani paintings, always an integral part of the Rajasthan culture and more, a way of life.

The art of puppetry has a long tradition in the region. The puppets themselves are fairly simple creations, with painted wooden heads draped with dresses made from old fabrics and sequined for disarming harm. Hands are simply made by stuffing rags or cotton into the sleeve of a dress and filling it out.

The puppets are completed with large expressive painted eyes, with arched brows and curling mustaches for men or nose rings for the women.

Rajasthan's furniture reflects some of its recent past, with its tradition of made-as-old furniture in which doors, windows and even wooden jharokhas (window frames), chairs, benches and more are made to resemble the furniture that was in vogue in mansions of medieval times.

Curator Michael Schuster has assembled an impressive collection of key and representative pieces expressive of the arts and culture of this fascinating region.

Thanks to the generosity of the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art and several individual collectors, the exhibition provides a tantalizing taste of a place in our global village many of us will never have the opportunity to see firsthand.

Consider this exhibition a kind of armchair travel at its very best.

David C. Farmer holds a bachelor of fine arts degree in painting and drawing, and a master's degree in Asian and Pacific art history from the University of Hawai'i-Manoa.