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Indian art's celebration of color and technique

Nothing quite compares with the quality of the color found in traditional Indian miniatures. It is intense but also fresh. It can be tender or brilliant, soft or sharp, bright or shady, delicate or opulent.

"Domains of Wonder, Masterworks of Indian Painting," an exhibition at the San Diego Museum of Art, presents many outstanding examples. The catalog of the exhibition intriguingly provides a detailed and revealing description of the techniques of Indian painters. They used what in the West is called gouache, or opaque watercolor. Each painting went through numerous phases, beginning with drawing that was progressively refined. Two coats of translucent white primer, like sheets of tracing paper, covered the lines of the drawing, enabling the artist to gradually firm up the drawing to ready it for the color.

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The surface to be painted was burnished. The first colors were applied thinly and flatly. The paper was then turned upside down "on a flat surface - painters speak sometimes of having flat, thin sheets of ivory - and burnished with an agate stone or conch shell from the back," according to co-curators B.N. Goswamy and Caron Smith. "This caused the colors to become one with the ground and to acquire a luster." Much more was done before the painting was finished down to the last minute detail, and the entire description gives a strong idea of remarkable finesse.

The splendiferous painting shown here is from the Deccan Plateau, in southwestern India. This sultan, Abul Hasan, was portrayed a number of times. His detachment in the face of Mughal capture in 1687 - he is reputed to have simply invited his captors to have breakfast with him - could be seen as either a callous indifference to the fate of his citizens or as impressive impassivity in the face of defeat.

This exhibition ends Jan. 22. Then it travels to Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, Sept. 20 to Nov. 26, 2006; and to the Dallas Museum of Art, Nov. 18, 2007 to Jan. 27, 2008.


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