PASADENA, Calif. — For more than half a century, Ramesh Kapoor’s family collected Indian art – colorful, intricately detailed and magical paintings – and turned what had been a hobby into a means of survival.
When the family arrived in India more than 50 years ago as refugees of Pakistan’s political turmoil, Kapoor’s father used the collection to become a successful art dealer in New Delhi. When the younger Kapoor ventured to America, the passion for Indian art that he’d inherited from his family helped him create the Kapoor Galleries in New York City.
Now Kapoor and his wife are sharing that passion for Indian art in the exhibit “Painted Poems: Rajput Paintings From the Ramesh and Urmil Kapoor Collection,” on display at Pasadena’s Norton Simon Museum through Aug. 23. After the exhibition closes, 64 of the 85 paintings will remain at the Norton Simon, 49 as gifts and 15 on permanent loan. For decades, Ramesh Kapoor and his wife have collected Rajput paintings, works that Indian art historian Ananda K. Coomaraswamy once famously described as creating “a magic world where all men are heroic, all women are beautiful, passionate and shy, beasts both wild and tame are the friends of man and trees, and flowers are conscious of the footsteps of the bridegroom as he passes by.” The show adds a new dimension to the Norton Simon, which until now has been known for its collection of Old Masters as well as its modern and impressionist collections. Its holdings include works by such artists as van Gogh, Degas, Picasso, Renoir, Cezanne and Warhol.
The museum also has a fairly extensive collection of Indian sculpture, but until now no paintings representing India. Kapoor, who met Simon briefly in the 1970s but never did business with him, said he decided to give the museum the works because they would complement its sculpture collection and because, at age 64, “it was time to give something back” to his adopted country. He considered sending the paintings to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but decided that the New York museum already had enough treasures, thanks to the generosity of philanthropist Walter Annenberg, who gave his extensive art collection to the Met upon his death in 2002, and others. “If the gourd is already full, you can’t put more water in there,” he said during an interview from his gallery on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
The Norton Simon was built largely on the personal tastes of its namesake, the Los Angeles philanthropist who established it 30 years ago by merging his private collection with that of the Pasadena Museum of Modern Art. He died in 1993. Until Simon’s widow, actress Jennifer Jones, awakened his interest in Indian sculpture in the 1970s, those tastes ran largely to Western works, including a number of Christian-themed paintings by artists such as Boticelli and Raphael. The Kapoor collection adds to those works scores of “painted poems,” watercolors done mostly on paper, that tell stories on a range of subjects, including the Hindu gods, Indian legends and often simple events that relate day-to-day Indian life from the 15th to the 19th century.
“By looking at paintings like these, you really get a feel for what life was like then,” assistant curator Christine Knoke said during a recent museum tour. “Greeting of a Digambara Jain Monk,” for example, shows people greeting a monk as he emerges from a forest. Another, “An Equestrian Portrait of a Sikh Prince,” shows the prince on his steed, accompanied by his servants. Still others depict scenes of dances, musical performances, and religious and social rituals. The Hindu gods and goddesses Krishna, Shiva, Parvata, Ganesh and Devi are represented in a number of the paintings, including a particularly vivid, colorful rendering called “Victorious Krishna Dances on Kaliya.” It shows Krishna defeating Kaliya, the snake demon, at the river Jamuna. The oldest of the paintings, “Jain Tantric Diagram,” dates to 1450 and is one of only two in the show that was done on cloth. One of the largest, it probably would have hung in a temple, while most of those on paper are much smaller and would have been kept in books or drawers, Knoke said. “They would have been taken out on special occasions for viewing,” she said. “People might have had friends over and taken them out to look over. You would have contemplated them.” They differ from Western paintings in that most aren’t signed by the artists, although Knoke said experts can recognize the styles of certain masters in one painting or another. They just don’t know their names. “It’s kind of the opposite of Western art,” she said. “They kind of stress the guild or workshop (that the artist belonged to), rather than the big-shot artist as an individual.”