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Diane Manuel, News Service (650) 725-1945; e-mail:

Exhibition of Indian paintings opens at Cantor Center Sept. 15

In some of the fiercest paintings, boar-headed gods face off against bilious green devils and elegantly caparisoned horses rear up at one another.

In the more delicate works, emerald greens are painted with flecks of iridescent beetle wings and courtly belts are highlighted in powdered gold leaf.

To judge from the craftsmanship and subjects of Gods and Courtiers: Indian Paintings from the Sidhu Collection, the deeds of the gods and events of court life kept artists and their patrons enthralled for centuries.

The new exhibition of 50 paintings from the collection of Stanford alumni Gursharan and Elvira Sidhu at the Cantor Arts Center opens on Sept. 15 in the Ruth Levinson Halperin Gallery and will be on display through Nov. 28.

"It's pretty amazing that the paintings have survived so well," says Gursharan Sidhu, who holds a doctorate in computer science and is currently launching a start-up in the valley. "They were owned by princes who prized them and kept them wrapped up, or in binders, where they were not exposed to light. In fact, paintings were often more prized than jewels and were even used as dowries on occasion."

Sidhu and his wife trace their earliest interest in collecting works from the Indian subcontinent to an exhibition they attended at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco in the early 1970s, when they were students.

"Why one chooses to own and live with art is difficult to explain," says Sidhu, who will speak about "The Passion of Collecting" in the center auditorium at 4 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 16. "It's simply something you enjoy and that brings you great pleasure."

The Sidhus' collection enables the center to show works from an Asian culture in which the permanent holdings are not strong.

"I'm no expert on Indian paintings, but it seems to be one of the best private collections in the country," says Patrick Maveety, curator of Asian art. "Some of my favorite paintings are the large courtly scenes, especially one that depicts a celebration of a holi festival in late spring where everyone is throwing colored water on each other."

In wall labels he prepared for the exhibition, Maveety notes that the tradition of Indian painting can be traced to 5th-century cave paintings at Ajanta. But the majority of works that survive today are small in size and often were used as illustrations for books.

The Sidhu collection, which spotlights works from the 15th through the 19th centuries, features a number of paintings that derive from the Bhagatvata Purana, a 9th- or 10th-century text that recounts the myths and legends of Krishna, an avatar or emanation of the Hindu god Vishnu. In Putana Cremated, Bhagatvata Purana, stylized flames of neon yellow and orange consume their victim while hawks fly above the conflagration and four human witnesses keep watch.

Another popular source for artists was the 12th-century Gita Covinda, or Song of the Cowherd God, and one painting in the exhibition The Hour of Cowdust pictures hundreds of cows being led into a white-walled city at eventide, as a great gray thunderstorm threatens in the distance.

At least one painting that depicts scenes from the Ramayana or The Story of Rama, a legendary hero and ideal Hindu man, is a phantasmagoric representation of peacocks, deer, wisemen and tribespeople in leaf gowns and grass garb, set against the backdrop of a stunning sunset.

The diversity of paintings composed for the royal courts of India from the 16th through the 19th centuries was the result of the convergence of two traditions, according to Maveety. One school originated with the indigenous Rajput patrons who preferred boldly colored illustrations of Hindu myths and epics that glorified the status of the rulers. A second, entirely different style derived from the Islamic Mughal court, which was influenced by more subtle, naturalistic Persian painting.

The works that result from these merged influences can be magical in their tonality and irony. In some works pairs of birds and animals, as well as dark colors and dramatic lighting, are used to suggest love themes. In one painting, Arabesque, what appears from a distance as a soothing floral decorative piece on closer inspection becomes a Darwinian horror show, with hawks attacking nesting birds and birds gobbling up butterflies.

In many of the early paintings, the colors were derived from minerals and plant extracts and the resulting pink-tinted mountains and lapis-blue deer lend their own touches of whimsy and delicacy.

But when the multi-armed female emanation of the god Shiva challenges evil-doers to combat in Durga Slaying Demons, her phalanx of swords and daggers is believably scary.

"The good guys had to protect their religion from the bad guys who were out to do damage, and they had to look pretty fierce," Maveety says.

Perhaps that is why the monster who steals the earth and drags it to the bottom of the ocean in Cosmic Ocean is pictured in such unappealing greens and why the heroic Shiva gets to dress up as a frighteningly tusked boar.


By Diane Manuel

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