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Exhibition is first to offer a view of the various ideals of women in Indian painting
Eine Frau bindet sich einen Turban, Albumblatt, Werkstatt am Mogulhof, 1760-1780 © Museum Rietberg Zürich, Geschenk der Ganesha-Stiftung.

ZURICH.- Indian miniatures are like windows onto dreamlike, idealised worlds. The pictures have a broad spectrum of themes ranging from religious and mythological subjects through literary, poetic motifs to secular, courtly scenes. The exhibition at Museum Rietberg is the first to offer a view of the various ideals of women in Indian painting.

Images of women play a key role in many genres of Indian painting. In keeping with the perfectly crafted forms of expression in Indian miniatures, the female figures in the works on display have the character of ideal, aesthetically flawless visions. Reflecting artistic standards, they go beyond the representation of real persons and should not be regarded as portraits of existing women like those who lived at court. Rather, the images depict multifaceted beauties reminiscent of the lyrical descriptions of classical Indian poets like Jayadeva and Kalidasa, who compared the female form to positively connoted elements of nature: faces as round as the full moon, a mouth like a lotus flower on the water’s surface and legs as elegant as an elephant’s trunk.

The many faces of an ideal – stylised beauties
At first glance, female figures in Indian painting have a strongly stylised appearance that is especially noticeable in the context of male depictions. Portrayals of male figures are more individual in appearance because of their nuanced and varied facial features, and more personalised because of their distinct clothing, which reveals the figures’ rank. However, this does not mean that the painters devoted less care and attention to their depictions of female figures. They went into painstaking detail in portraying their lavish jewellery, costly draperies, delicately woven fabrics, subtle makeup and elegant coiffures. Their gestures and poses too are precisely observed and thought-out, revealing a special visual language that was understood and highly prized by the educated art lovers at the courts of the Indian potentates.

Along with aesthetic considerations, the portrayals of women also convey art historical information that provides crucial clues to the chronological placement of the largely undated and unsigned miniatures by anonymous artists. Style and aesthetics reveal the preferences of different times and places: In one region, heavy kajal eye makeup and finely drawn noses were popular, while strong eyebrows and prominent noses were favoured in another. Vividly coloured draperies alternate with precious, transparent fabrics and delicately woven patterns. In some regions, women dyed the entire palms of their hands and soles of their feet with henna, while in other places they applied this red dye only to their fingertips and toes.

The conventions and habits of seeing that are revealed by the visual language, the draperies, and the many different ideals of beauty embody far more than mere elements of style and fashion. Their stereotypical appearance provides well-founded evidence of the artistic and elaborate ideals of the periods in which the pictures originated.

The exhibition in the historical setting of the Rieter park villa consists of six sections and features approximately sixty works from the museum’s holdings that illustrate the many ideals of women portrayed in Indian painting. The works date from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century and originate from various workshops from the foot of the Himalayas to the Deccan Plateau.

The opening section explains the special features of the female portrayals. Miniatures showing women are placed in a direct dialogue with portrayals of masculinity. The differences in the way the two genders were portrayed are evident in the visual language, drapery, gestures and poses.

The second section focuses on chronological and regional peculiarities. From the early works of the fifteenth century to the late ones of the nineteenth, the miniatures document the preferred styles of representation in different regions and periods.

Poetry, aesthetics and emotion are key aspects of the idealised portrayals of femininity in the third section, which features representations of women that must be read and decoded with these concepts in mind.

In contrast to these miniatures, some of which are strongly biased towards aesthetic idealisation, Indian painting also brought forth a number of images that transcend convention and portray women in unexpected ways. In the fourth section, individuality breaks with the normative ideas of aesthetics and places personality in the spotlight.

The fifth section is devoted to goddesses and demonesses who are of crucial importance in Indian religiosity. The contrast between the facets of ideal and fantastic images of women is particularly striking.

The final exhibition section presents a group of trouvailles with unexpected scenes, the anecdotal commentaries to which will elicit smiles while simultaneously providing food for thought.

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