There must be a neuroscientific explanation for the pure pleasure of seeing these paintings. Every tree is a fireworks display, a dendritic rush—the brain recognizing itself in the universe. Painted rivers glimmer gold and silver, seeming to move by you playfully, as much as you move by them. The colors, opaque watercolors, are ecstatic. No wonder: They're made of lapis lazuli, malachite, vermilion, indigo plant, and the bright yellow urine of cows fed only mango leaves. Women, kings, gods, and animals appear in waves that reverberate across space. They dance, they chase each other, they give foot rubs, they swim, they consider their place in the cosmos, they fall in love.
The eye simply registers joy.
The exhibition is called Garden and Cosmos: The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur. Jodhpur was the capital of Marwar, a desert kingdom in the northwest of India, a rough area not renowned—until now—for its art. Many of the paintings in the show, which originated in Washington, D.C. (organized by the Smithsonian's Sackler Center) and is now visiting Seattle Asian Art Museum, were lost in a palace cabinet until three years ago. After Seattle, they go to the British Museum and the National Museum of India.
Seattle is lucky to have them; gratitude is palpable in the gem-colored galleries. Even on a weekday, people compete for the museum's free magnifying glasses. (Hint: If there aren't any hanging on the entrance racks, go around to the exit.) The glasses are a must: Some of these marks were laid down by a needle or a couple of squirrel hairs.
The earliest painting in the show, of a girl waiting longingly for her lover in 1623, is a torn fragment, but most of the show's delicate watercolors on handmade paper—dating from the 17th to the 19th centuries—are perfectly preserved. They're also large for Indian painting of the period, which is known for its miniaturism and influenced by Persia. The level of detail, stretched across such a relatively vast expanse, is mind-boggling. It's impossible to convey in photographs or even to take in at one look. You move constantly back and forth, picking up the magnifying glass and putting it down.
The setting for the earliest paintings is the zenana—or women's quarters—of the royal palace, meaning that the paintings are swarming with women arranged around the maharaja, carrying drinks to him, riding in pleasure boats with him, preparing beds for sex under the moonlight. (Pity the part of the world living under the Reformation at the time!) Terraces are festooned with flowers and patterned fabrics and colored powders thrown into the air; even monsoon clouds are confectionary spirals teasing the sky.
Scale and perspective look liberatingly wanton. The size of figures is determined by importance, not location in the scene. Perspectives are juxtaposed to exuberant effect: a bird's-eye view up against a frontal view up against a planimetric view. These paintings are wild, dizzying, contemporary. Times Square—hell, Google Earth—has nothing on them.
As rulers changed, so did the art. (For the most part, artists worked in atelier groups and went unnamed.) A more-religious maharaja inspired the invention of "monumental" manuscripts, to be held up by several people as court performers read the stories they depicted. Three folios, measuring two by four feet each, portray Krishna's conversion of an entire neighborhood of young women in one night: He draws them out of their homes, past their protesting husbands, into the forest. He multiplies himself so that each woman feels she has him to herself. Then he abandons them to their sacred longing. The paintings swarm with desire. (And the women sport reverse cleavage, with shirts high on their chests, lower breasts exposed.)
By the 19th century, a new maharaja has embraced cosmology and the metaphysics of hatha yoga (including the belief that certain yogis can fly and generate fire). The art is either sublimely minimal or even more intense and radiant than before, almost psychedelic. Ravishing fields of gold are symbols of empty preconsciousness; stages of being are divided by thick vertical stripes, as in the 1950s "zip" paintings of the American artist Barnett Newman.
Debra Diamond, an associate curator at the Smithsonian and the person who found some of these paintings in the palace cabinet, specialized in 20th-century American color-field painting before she switched to Indian art. The two make a comfortable pair—in the zenana paintings of the 1700s, striped doors and windows shimmer and glow as if Rothko had been there. The final room in the exhibition may as well be a color-field chapel. Seven paintings from 1823 hang on walls painted deep royal blue. The same trio of magically powerful yogis appears seven times, floating on oceans of texture and color: on flat gold, or white foam, or orange scales. It is amazing to remember that people can paint like gods. It is amazing to recognize life on a piece of paper.