A Peek into India’s Ancient Art

The Philadelphia Museum of Art recently exhibited a collection of drawings from the royal courts of northern India.

Ornate palaces, noble warriors and adorned gods—ancient Indian paintings depicting royal life are intricate works of art that have survived centuries. The Philadelphia Museum of Art recently took a look at just how much work and care went into creating the striking pieces that came out of the court workshops of northern India from 1500 to1800.

The museum’s exhibition, “Drawn from Courtly India: The Conley Harris and Howard Truelove Collection,” which ran from December 6, 2015 to March 27, 2016, revealed that ancient Indian art was often a collaborative and colorful experiment.

Excerpts from an interview with exhibit curator Ainsley M. Cameron.

What does showcasing these historic works inspire in artists or art enthusiasts today?

The collection of 65 works on paper was lovingly collected by two art aficionados based in Boston. Conley Harris, an artist himself, and his late partner Howard Truelove amassed these works over the course of a decade. As they collected, they were inspired by the arts of India, of course, but also the art of drawing itself. They were attracted to the subtlety of line and the fluid motion of the artist’s hand, as well as the workshop traditions from which these works originate.

Their passion for drawing started to influence the way I perceived the collection. I decided to organize the exhibition to reflect this passion by highlighting the process and technique behind art making. The brushstrokes that combine to create these drawings inspired Conley and Howard to collect, and also inspired Conley’s own artworks and my curatorial approach.

How were artists back then trained?

The artists were trained in workshops that were connected to royal courts. Each workshop had varied approaches to figural form, color palette and composition. Yet, what remained consistent was these artists learned their trade by studying what came before.

Drawings, like the ones in the Harris-Truelove collection, were kept for many years by the artists in the workshop for this very purpose. Sometimes, one piece of paper has evidence of this—where several hands added different drawings to a single page over a period of a hundred years or more. Artists would return to the paper time and again, adding drawings and drawing inspiration from what came before.


Do Indian artists today still create art this way?

The court workshops, as described in the exhibition, were all linked to royal families. As the politics of the region changed, so did the position of these rulers, and their ability and desire to retain artists. However, there are still areas like Rajasthan where you can find paintings being created by artists that follow these techniques. The market is no longer royal patronage, but tourism; and not only international tourists, but also local and religious pilgrims who travel to temples and sites.

What kind of preservation work goes into keeping these drawings intact?

The works in the collection are very delicate and sensitive to light. As the paper is usually very thin yet heavily burnished, the paint and pigment can easily flake off. And, because these works were often kept in artist’s workshops and were referred to time and again by the artists, the corners of the paper can be very brittle and result in rips and tears.

Our conservation team has a lot of experience in working with drawings and paintings from India since we have such a strong collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. They expertly conserve these works by stabilizing their condition—securing paint and carefully repairing small tears—so we can let the artworks really shine.


How much do religious icons or gods figure in this collection?

Much of the art from South Asia is related to religious devotion; works on paper, stone sculptures and metal ritual objects often celebrate the divine. Quite a few of the drawings in the Harris-Truelove collection are illustrations of Hindu religious texts, bringing these stories to life for their audiences.  Drawings and paintings from the royal courts of India are fascinating in that many works represent secular life as well. Think of it as a way to document life at court before photography. If a king wanted to capture his own likeness or the activities of his court, with all the pomp and ceremony associated with it, he would turn to his workshop artists.


Do you have a favorite piece?

I have so many favorite pieces! Through my research and as I was writing the catalogue and putting together the exhibition, it was like different works from the collection would reveal themselves to me over time. I would pick up a drawing and rediscover the intricacy of line or the subtle addition of color, and become enamored with the work all over again.

Because Indian drawings and paintings are so detailed, there is always something new to discover. Right now, I keep returning to “Chandi Defeats Shumbha” from Chamba dated circa 1780. I’m obsessed with the sense of movement and spontaneity that results from just a few lines. The artist created only an outline of the central action, capturing the energy of the fierce goddess battling a demon in mid-fight. The proximity of the goddess and the demon, as well as their isolation on the page, builds a sense of dramatic tension. Sometimes a drawing can be more powerful than a fully finished painting.


What, in your opinion, is the biggest skill or practice a young artist today could learn from these drawings?

I talk a lot about inspiration and innovation in the show, and I think that holds true. These artists carefully studied what came before them and were then inspired to use those skills to reinvent compositions. The drawings in the Harris-Truelove collection—considered to be from long ago and far away—are still breathtaking works of art that inspire contemporary artists through their intricate detail, thoughtful application of medium and delicate brushstrokes used to define space.


Anne Walls is a writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles, California.