By Sheila Wickouski
Two exhibits of Indian prints and photographs now on view at the Smithsonian Asian Art Museum go beneath the surface to consider the underlying themes of environment, politics and emotions. What the works from almost three centuries apart share in common is the importance of water as a cultural and economic necessity.
A Splendid Land Painting from Royal Udaipur (on view through May 14, 2023) is presented as a walk through the city and countryside, filled with sensorial experiences, and feelings of prosperity and belonging in an economy dependent on water from annual monsoons.
In the 18th century, Indian artists made some dramatic changes to artistic tradition. Unlike the previous two millennia of poetic miniature prints, these are monumental works celebrating the city’s architecture and countryside landscapes. Of the 51 works on display, five are on cotton (ranging in height from 5-10 feet) along with one scroll (9 feet in length). There are six photographs from the 19th and 20th centuries.
Sunrise in Udaipur (ca. 1722–23) is an opaque watercolor and gold on paper with sunrise clouds billowing above the City Palace and its walls with green hills and lake. The king is hunting a tiger while his subjects are busy with morning activities. In Maharana Fateh Singh crossing a river during the monsoon (Shivalal, ca. 1893) captures the river swelling, rain splashing and lightning across the sky. An ambient soundscape enhances the experience.
Fast forward to Unstill Waters: Contemporary Photography from India (on view through June 11, 2023) and through city streets and landscapes with a focus on the Yamuna River in northern India and the endangered rivers in urban life. Riverbank I by Ravi Agarwal (2007 Inkjet print on paper) and Girl at Ganpati immersion, Chowpatty, by Ketaki Sheth (2002) are two of the 29 works from 21st century India.
In 2023, the National Museum of Asian Art marks the 100th anniversary of its founding, and these exhibits connect across time and space, reflecting modern concerns about environmental sustainability for all who live in riverfront cities and beyond.