Paintings From Royal Udaipur

In 18th century Rajasthan, the artists of Udaipur developed a new genre, moving focus from small, poetic manuscripts to grand-scale, immersive paintings of the city’s palaces, streets, lakes, mountains, and seasons.

The artists sought to convey bhava – the emotional tenor and sensorial experiences, that make places and times memorable. Uniquely within Indian painting, the Udaipur painters attempted to illustrate the lived experience of places in ways that would elicit emotional responses, such as delight or awe. Over some 200 years, they pioneered ways to evoke ambience, trigger memories, and create feelings of connection to landscape and time.

This was unlike anything else seen in Indian art for over two millennia. The iconic status of Udaipur with its dazzling white palaces nestled in a valley of lakes, was established, in part, by its remarkable painters.

A Splendid Land

Many of the paintings, privately held in the royal collections of Udaipur, have never been exhibited outside of Udaipur, or anywhere outside India.

But an extraordinary new exhibition that opened November 19 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Art  in Washington, D.C., is about to change that.

A Splendid Land: Paintings from Royal Udaipur” brings together 63 works on paper, cotton and scrolls from collections across the world to reveal the innovative ways that artists depicted the emotions and ecologies of their lake city.

A Splendid Land/ Paintings from Royal Udaipur (image2/ Ron Boling (Jonathan Marder + Company) courtesy Smithsonian

18th Century Rajput Art

The works of art dating between 1700 and 1900, include paintings from The City Palace Museum in Udaipur and other collections.

In an exclusive interview with India Currents, curator Debra Diamond, the Elizabeth Moynihan Curator for South Asian and Southeast Asian Art at the National Museum of Art, said that her role is to disperse knowledge and appreciation of the Arts and Cultures of Asia, “but for me, basically, my core is India, helping audiences all over the world realize that Indian art and culture is great and amazing, and can be life changing and transformative.”

Planning for the exhibition began nearly 14 years ago says Diamond, in a collaborative partnership with Udaipur’s City Palace Museum, the biggest lender to the project. Conservators from India and the Smithsonian worked together to prepare the paintings for the exhibition.

“Our philosophy is that we try not to be just takers,” explains Diamond. “It took them like two or three years to conserve the paintings to get them ready. And then they are beautifully matted and perfectly framed and totally safe. And they look incredible”

Diamond, a specialist in Indian court painting,  co-curated the exhibition with Dipti Khera, associate professor at New York University’s Department of Art History and Institute of Fine Arts, who has published extensively on the painting traditions of 18 century Rajput art.

A Journey In Time

A visitor’s journey in “A Splendid Land” begins with Udaipur’s lakes and palaces, continues to the city and the countryside, then finishes in the cosmos.

The installation includes 51 works on paper (roughly 3 feet by 4 feet), five monumental works on cotton (ranging in height from 5 feet to 10 feet), one scroll (9 feet in length) from the 17th through 19th centuries and six photographs from the 19th and 20th centuries.

Masterpiece paintings are juxtaposed with digital projections, sound recordings, and poetic verses. The aim is to emphasize the ambience (bhava) of place by creating distinctive moods in each gallery. Khera’s  groundbreaking work on historical emotions is central to the exhibition.

A Splendid Land/ Paintings from Royal Udaipur (image3/ Ron Boling (Jonathan Marder + Company) courtesy Smithsonian

Bhava In A Gallery

Each gallery centers upon the emotions inspired by a particular place or season. An ambient soundscape by the renowned Indian experimental filmmaker Amit Dutta, invites contemporary audiences to sense – and not just see – the moods of these extraordinary places and paintings

“The sequence of immersive moods will heighten the sensorial experience of place for museum visitors,” says Diamond.

“A Splendid Land” includes 13 paintings from the National Museum of Asian Art and paintings from Udaipur that express universal themes of belonging and prosperity.

A Splendid Land/ Paintings from Royal Udaipur (image4/ Ron Boling (Jonathan Marder + Company) courtesy Smithsonian

Water, Water, Everywhere

The exhibits explore the environmental, political, and emotional contexts in which the new genre emerged, as well as climate and natural resource management in early modern India. Udaipur’s economy depended on annual monsoons, extensive water harvesting and securing the loyalty of nobles and allies.

“A lot of the paintings, of course, focus on the lakes, and the lake palaces. And the monsoon. And water is like a constant theme, runs through paintings. And often the compositions have no sky. There’s land, there’s water, there’s palette, and there’s no sky, which is like so mind blowing,” added Diamond.

Debra Diamond, on the importance of water in 18th century Udaipur painting.
A Splendid Land/ Paintings from Royal Udaipur (image1/ Ron Boling (Jonathan Marder + Company) courtesy Smithsonian.png

“A Splendid Land” will be accompanied by public programs to deepen the visitor’s understanding of Indian painting and the economic and cultural importance of water in Southeast Asian civilizations. A symposium on the monsoon, water architecture and present-day shortages and solutions, will explore how art reveals cultural attitudes towards natural resources, and speaks to climate crises in South Asia, by presenting perspectives of the past together with insights of the future.

A Collaborative Exhibition

Raitila Rajasthan, a traditional Rajasthani band will present  “Music of Splendid Land,” featuring songs inspired from themes of Udaipur paintings showcased at the exhibition.

A Splendid Land is the first in a series of exhibitions that celebrate the National Museum of Asian Art’s centennial in 2023. It is presented in collaboration with The City Palace Museum in Udaipur (administered by The Maharana of Mewar Charitable Foundation).

Padmaja Kumari Parmar, House of Mewar

Padmaja Kumari Parmar, the daughter of the current custodian of the House of Mewar, told India Currents that this was a project close to her heart.

“I’ve seen all these paintings growing up. I think it was, from a sense of responsibility that I felt it’d be wonderful to be able to bring these 300 year old paintings – not just to show the art aspect of it, but truly to have people focus on Udaipur in different ways. We’ve been working towards this for a very long time. It’s a matter of great joy, of course, but also pride.”

“The National Museum of Asian Art has a rich history of connecting visitors with South Asian arts and cultures,” said Chase F. Robinson, Dame Jillian Sackler Director of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art. “Built upon a long-standing collaboration with Indian colleagues, the exhibition will allow the museum to bring extraordinary but little-known pieces to a global audience, enriching its understanding of a fascinating moment in India’s past.”

A Splendid Land: Paintings from Royal Udaipur will be on view in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington, D.C. until May 14, 2023.

Following Washington D.C., the paintings will be displayed from June 2023–September 10,2023 at the Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio. 

Meera Kymal is the Managing Editor at India Currents and Founder/Producer at She produces multi-platform content on the South Asian diaspora through the lens of social justice,...