In “Monsoon Mood,” the latest episode of the Smithsonian podcast Sidedoor, host Lizzie Peabody digs into a 300-year-old artistic revolution—one that has surprising new relevance in the 21st century as we look for ways to forestall catastrophic climate change.
Peabody joins with co-curators Debra Diamond and Dipti Khera to discuss the new exhibition “A Splendid Land: Paintings from Royal Udaipur,” which opened at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art last November. The show brings together a series of paintings on paper and cloth created in the late 17th through late 19th centuries in the hot and dry Indian region of Udaipur—an area that relied on the heavy rainfall of the summer monsoon season for its survival through the remainder of the year. The way these paintings use landscapes, and specifically depictions of storms and bodies of water, to convey mood and emotion was radical when they were made.
In traditional Indian art, there’s a word to describe that visceral mood or emotion the work is meant to provoke within its audience: bhava.
Up until the 1690s, paintings of people in this region were made to flatter and venerate royalty. But when Maharana Amar Singh II became king of Udaipur around 1700, he had the wild idea that scenes, events, people and animals from his kingdom should be celebrated in art.
Prior to his reign, court painters would typically train their brushes a single subject—a peacock, for instance, or a cloud—as a symbolic reflection of some flattering idea about the ruler or the kingdom. But under this new king, court artists began to document scenes from life, albeit idealized ones. Their paintings also became much, much larger—as much as seven feet across. And scribes would rely on these semi-narrative paintings as sources for their written histories.
It is the attention to documentary detail in these massive paintings that has led to a renewed interest in them today. They’re no longer prized merely for their aesthetic qualities or historical value, but also for the ecological data they provide about the time and place in which they were created.
Diamond, who is the museum's curator for South Asian and Southeast Asian art, can trace the lineage of those huge paintings back to a small watercolor made around 1690 that hints at the way Singh—back when he was still just an adolescent prince—might’ve thought of himself as an iconoclast.
“At the very center of this dark gray and indigo, inky rainstorm, there’s a little luminous figure of a prince just wearing a pair of shorts, wearing his shield on his head as a kind of umbrella,” Diamond says in the podcast. “We can see the rain pinging off of his shield, dripping down his neck, coming down in rivulets off the back of his wrap and drenching the ground. His feet are kind of squidging in the mud.”
This was not how royals were typically depicted in this era: alone, barefoot, vulnerable. “We usually get these very formal images that present kings as powerful and protective,” Diamond points out. “But this is a picture of a prince all alone on a dark night, hardly dressed. It’s a very intimate look at someone sort of walking through the rain. And we get the sense that he’s enjoying, actually, getting drenched on this hot monsoon night.”
That he would choose to go for a stroll in a storm like that suggests an appreciation for the natural world that would inform his taste in art—and thus influence what court artists chose to paint, and how they chose to paint it, once he assumed the throne.
Khera, an art historian at New York University, explains that the monsoon season was associated with courtship and romantic love. She tells Peabody that there’s a connection in these paintings between the longing lovers feel for one another and the desire for the rains to nourish the ground and bring relief from the relentless heat. Court painters in early 18th-century Udaipur pushed this idea forward, bringing this sort of emotional coloration into the monumental panoramic scenes of life in the kingdom that their young king was already encouraging them to make.
But for all their aesthetic innovation, no one imagined these paintings might be a source of scientific data. At least, not until Diamond and Khera began consulting 21st-century satellite maps of the region, translating inscriptions found on the backs of some of the paintings and even talking with climate scientists to find out how these paintings could help them understand the environmental changes that have occurred in Udaipur in the centuries since these paintings were made.
It’s a process that’s in its infancy, as Khera acknowledges. “I think we’ve just started to scratch that surface,” she tells Peabody.
For Mark Giordano—a Georgetown University geography professor who teaches agricultural courses, and who contributed to “A Splendid Land”—the documentation these paintings provide of Udaipur’s infrastructure for capturing and rationing rainwater is a big part of their contemporary value. Giordano points out that the lakes seen surrounding the king’s palace in paintings from this time are artificial. They were used to store water collected during monsoon season for drinking, washing, irrigating crops and cooking during the arid balance of the year.
These dams, artificial lakes and water wheels were likely in place for centuries before it occurred to anyone to paint them. “Somebody purposely went out of their way to paint the water infrastructure, because they appreciated how important it was,” Giordano says on the podcast.
As climate change makes storms and the availability of water in arid regions more unpredictable, Giordano finds consolation in the fact that humankind has adapted to these kinds of challenges in eras past.
“I see hope, actually, in that we know how to manage variability of water,” he says. “We don’t always choose to do it, and we don’t always choose to do it at the right time. But we have the capacity to do it.”
The capacity, and—with the benefit of these monumental paintings—the inspiration.
“Art and science are not antithetical to each other,” Khera says. “One informs the other.”
Elsewhere in the Smithsonian Pod-a-Verse
In the “Flying Circus” episode of Air/Space, hosts Emily Martin and Matt Shindell welcome National Air and Space Museum social media guru Amy Stamm to recall some of the historic flights made by animals, including many preceding the era of powered flight. We’re not talking about animals that fly on their own—these normally Earth-bound animals were sent up in balloons and other vessels to test the effects of altitude on living creatures.
The episode begins with an account of a 1783 balloon flight launched from the Palace of Versailles, when a sheep, a rooster and a duck served as test subjects. (It was the sheep, Shindell points out, that was deemed sufficiently similar to humans.)
Then follows a harrowing account of the first attempt, circa 1910, of a trans-Atlantic crossing… by a cat. The America, the airship that carried the extremely unhappy kitty as a passenger, was also the first aircraft ever to fly with radio equipment aboard, allowing the crew to summon a rescue boat when they were forced to make an unscheduled water landing.
After aerial misadventures involving a dog and a lion cub, the episode concludes with an account of the conditions under which pandas fly when they return from the Smithsonian’s National Zoo to China—a condition of the agreement under which China lends these specimens to the United States. As they fly aboard a customized Boeing 777 operated by FedEx and dubbed the Panda Express, these pandas, Martin points out, probably enjoy better amenities than what humans can expect in Economy class.
“A Splendid Land: Paintings from Royal Udaipur” is on view at the National Museum of Asian Art through May 14, and it travels next to the Cleveland Museum of Art from June 11 through September 10.