The Paradox of Scale: Indian Master Paintings at the Met

Think of grandeur and it’s easy to imagine something on a large scale, but grandeur is the unexpected experience of the miniature Indian paintings on display at the Met.

The richness of color, the terrific presence of Gods and demonic animals, the complexity of scenes among tents and forests, lovers and armies all rendered in precise, intricate detail make it nearly impossible to absorb them quickly—and just as difficult to leave them again.

None of these paintings were made for display—intended for small private viewings in intimate settings, they were handed from one person to another in frames that allowed them to be held and turned, examined as closely as one wanted.

The result of this method of viewing is not small paintings, but more like very big painting made to fit in one’s hands. And the smaller they are, the more the sense of other-worldliness grows impressive.

Very few of them give their subject matter away from more than a couple of feet—there are no grand gestures, no composition of colors to beckon a distant eye. Even the ornate borders around many of them—many almost equal in area to the image—become a monochrome frame that fades into the background. In short, nothing is designed to entice from afar.

And yet, for that reason the depth of detail inside becomes even more mysterious—they are worlds hidden in plain sight. Bright, gilded worlds full of distinctive individuals, many of whom—like the God Krishna—credited with powerful universal force. It does not feel like looking at a small world, but like a glimpse into worlds we normally cannot see. Worlds around us, worlds above ours, worlds that govern our world. They seem to derive their most mystical quality from the way they are nearly hidden in plain sight.

You approach a painting—you notice the colors first, the larger figures, then the expression in a face, an eye, the gesture of a hand. You look further—they are wearing makeup, jewelry, nail-polish—a rope connecting a man’s scabbard to his belt is painted with a brush that must have been made of a single hair. These details don’t feel inconsequential, cosmetic—above all the painstaking care seems to ask you to look deeper and more carefully.

Whether the details are symbolic, or meant to render the work more realistic, seems beside the point. What they most certainly do is slow down the experience of looking. It takes a fair amount of time for all the details to be revealed—a bird, a plant, a star far in the distance—and still longer to understand the scene in terms of a larger story—often a chapter from the Upanishads.

They are pictures that must be read. And that sense of reading grows stronger as you focus before one after another, identifying characters, deciphering relationships, experiencing the image one detail at a time, until finally the growing sense of that world is ultimately more complete than any suggested by them individually. They are complex, secretive, slow paintings designed to absorb you during an extended viewing, and to invite you in repeatedly.

-Catherine Despont


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