The National Gallery of Victoria is currently exhibiting their collection of Felton Bequest images of scenes from Rajput courts.
They are intimate and symbolic, and from 2019 there is something timeless about them, even though many of the paintings depict historical events and individuals. I think this has to do with context, some of the paintings are individuals or scenes on a flat field of view. Horses and men, in particular, hang in the air.
There is no story to attach to them within the scene, at least to the untrained eye unfamiliar with historical dress codes, and symbols of office.
Thus, for some images, the meaning comes from beyond the image. And it takes careful reading to understand who these individuals are.
Of course, apart from these context-less images, there are scenes that definitely provide a sense of action and narrative. There are displays of wealth and power, religious scenes, battles and hunting scenes.
Mostly though, as if you haven’t guessed it already, I was particularly drawn to the horses. They are fabulous.
Horses dominate every scene they are in, with their prancing, their delicate limbs, gold embellishments, and size to match the importance of the rider. No horse is like to any other and they are gorgeous.
As for history, for once we get a view of colonialism from a different vantage point than the usual European one. The Dutch and English envoys, dressed in their finery, accompanied with their own horses or dogs, or in military garb, definitely look out of place, not to mention uncomfortable on their knees. Meanwhile, the courtiers demonstrate their comfort and confidence in this world of their shaping.
Other scenes feature women in various situations, usually outside, encountering musicians or travellers, or just going about their toilette.
The images are grouped together so each wall forms a narrative display and they are worth lingering over, for their colour and movement, not to mention for their record of power, as well as for their value as historical documents.
Mostly though, I left thinking about what these illustrations have gone through. How delicate they are, and how far they are in space and time from their original homes and purpose, and what they once meant and mean now.