Founded in 1975 by Ramesh and Urmil Kapoor, New York City-based Kapoor Galleries specialises in Indian and also more specifically Himalayan art emerging from Tibet, Nepal, China and Mongolia. The gallery—which is the privileged custodian of top-quality bronzes, sculptures, miniatures and thangkas—has been instrumental in developing distinguished private collections worldwide as well as those of major museums—among them the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the San Diego Museum of Art and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
The paintings at Kapoor Galleries are especially enchanting, with pieces belonging to various historical “schools” that emerged from major urban centres of royal patronage across the subcontinent. As specialist Hannah Perry of the auction house Christie’s points out, these schools “flourished from the 16th century through to the early 20th century under royal and princely patrons, recording the passions, pastimes, religious observances and courtly pomp and ceremony of the Indian elite. Indian painting can be divided into distinct yet interrelated schools that underpin the diversity and creative genius of the subcontinent.”
The schools at Kapoor are roughly as follows (some are names of regions, some former cities, others cities still in existence): from north India—Basohli, Chamba, Garhwal, Guler, Kangra, Mandi, Pahari; from central India—Bilaspur, Datia, Deccan; from western India—Bikaner, Bundi, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Kishangarh, Kotah, Mewar. Additionally, the “Mughal” school refers to art produced under the medieval and early modern Islamic Mughal empire while the “Company” school is a hybrid style of Indo-European miniatures that developed in the second half of the 18th century in response to the tastes of the British serving with the East India Company.
The themes in these paintings are wide-ranging—Hindu epics, folklore, the lives of rulers, musical modes, seasons of the year, dramatic subjects, etc. For instance, the “nayikas”, which is the classification of heroines proposed by Bharat Muni, the ancient Indian theatrologist and musicologist in his Sanskrit treatise on the performing arts “Natya Shastra”. The “Ashta-Nayika” are collectively eight heroines in different states (avastha) in response to men, each defined according to her relationship with her particular hero or “nayak”.
For context, a nayika could be “Vasakasajja Nayika” (one dressed up for union), “Virahotkanthita Nayika” (one distressed by separation), “Svadhinabhartruka Nayika” (one having her husband in subjection), “Kalahantarita Nayika” (one separated by quarrel), “Khandita Nayika” (one enraged with her lover), “Vipralabdha Nayika” (one deceived by her lover), “Proshitabhartruka Nayika” (one with a sojourning husband) and “Abhisarika Nayika” (one going to meet her lover).
The poet and scholar Keshavdas (1555–1617) also mentions nayikas in his work Rasikapriya. They are put into several groupings—according to age: up to sixteen (bala), from sixteen to thirty (taruni), from thirty to fifty-five (praudhaI) and over fifty-five (vriddha); according to their relation to the nayak: one’s own (svakiya), another’s (parakiya) and anybody’s (samanya); in terms of experience in love: innocent (mugdha), experienced (pragaltha) or average (madhya). These categories have further sub-classifications.
From a modern-day feminist perspective, it can seem a little odd and limiting that these heroines do not seem to have an independent status and are understood only by their engagement with, or lack thereof, with the opposite sex. Even so, their states have led to some really splendid art touching upon multiple emotions and mental dispositions—anxiety, melancholy, contentment, creativity, yearning, resolve, courage, the pain of abandonment and rejection, hope, also self-love and self-care.
In the following paintings, we find nayikas getting dressed, writing, showing sadness. In one exquisite piece, Radha (a consort of the god Krishna) is a nayika clad in a richly ornamented red costume, is standing under a turbulent monsoon sky of billowing rain clouds and lightning. She looks back to her courtesans, gesturing in the hope that the arrival of the rain will hasten the return of her lover. The powerful and brooding presence of the peacock signifies both the arrival of the rainy season and amplifies the absence of the nayak. In another piece, a bashful new bride bows her head, seeking comfort from a confidante. We may almost feel the wild beating of her heart and the tremulous touch of her delicate red-stained fingers.
Like the nayika series, there is another set of artworks in the collection with a common theme—the ragamala (“garland of ragas”) paintings that bring together music, visual art and poetry. A “raga” or “raag” is a musical mode in Indian classical music with no Western equivalent. It can be described as a melodic structure that is supposed to colour the mind of the listener with a particular emotion. Ragas have personalities and are linked to gods and goddesses. Ragas are found in both Hindustani (north Indian) and Carnatic (south Indian) branches of Indian classical music and supposedly there isn’t a definite count of how many exist.
According to an exhibition overview on the Met: “The unifying subject of a ragamala is love, which is evoked as a range of specific emotions (rasa) that have a corresponding musical form. In paintings these are typically the trials and passions of lovers, which are explored in both sound (raga) and analogous imagery, with a raga generally understood to denote the male protagonist and a ragini the female. These musical modes are also linked to six seasons—summer, monsoon, autumn, early winter, winter, and spring—and times of the day, dawn, dusk, night, and so on.” The ragamala paintings depict the personified ragas along with their wives (raginis), their sons (ragaputra) and daughters (ragaputri). Sometimes we only see the raginis.