An Elephant Combat

Artist/maker unknown, Indian

Made in Kota, Rajasthan, India, Asia

c. 1660

Ink and transparent and opaque watercolor on paper

Sheet: 10 3/16 × 10 15/16 inches (25.9 × 27.8 cm) Mount: 11 5/16 × 12 3/8 inches (28.7 × 31.4 cm)

Curatorial Department:
South Asian Art

Object Location:

Currently not on view

Accession Number:

Credit Line:
125th Anniversary Acquisition. Alvin O. Bellak Collection, 2004

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Elephant combats in Kota took place in the palace courtyard, while the ruler and his courtiers looked down from a high balcony. An elephant was placed to either side of a short wall, against which they would batter until the strongest vaulted the wall to finish off its opponent. In this drawing, the two elephants collide in midair. The weaker beast falls to the ground, his body an explosion of flattened parts. The impact of this jarring encounter has sent the elephant handlers flying and they circle helplessly at the outer edges of the page. Although his name is not known, the artist to whom this drawing is attributed has been dubbed the "Master of the Elephants" because his sure and lively brushwork captures the essence of both the elephants' power and their baggy skins.

Additional information:
  • PublicationIntimate Worlds: Indian Paintings from the Alvin O. Bellak Collection

    This wrenching elephant combat is seen from above, that is, from the same lofty vantage that Rao Jagat Singh (reigned 1658–83) of Kota occupied when he viewed the original event. At Kota, elephant combats were staged in a great courtyard near the palace gate. The rao and his principal courtiers watched from a high balcony. On the ground below, a wall three to four feet wide, and five to six feet high, separated the contestants. In the words of the French traveler François Bernier, who was in India at the time this drawing was made:

    The shock [when the elephants make contact] is tremendous and it appears surprising that they should even survive the dreadful wounds and blows inflicted with their teeth, their heads, and their trunks. There are frequent pauses during the fight; it is suspended and renewed, and the mud wall being at length thrown down, the stronger or more courageous elephant passes on and attacks his opponent and, putting him to flight, pursues and fastens on him with such obstinacy that the animals can be separated only by means of cherkys, or fireworks, which are made to explode between them.1

    This drawing condenses the climatic sequence described by Bernier. Having battered his adversary to pulp, the stronger elephant has vaulted the wall. The two elephants collide in midair, but no final chase will ensue. Disabled by the victor and falling to the ground, the weaker elephant has collapsed, his body an exploding confusion of flattened parts. The impact of this tremendous encounter has sent the elephant handlers flying. As if lifted by a seismic wave, they circle helplessly in a pinwheel at the outer edge.2

    This great work exemplifies Kota accomplishments in elephant portraiture and drawing—the subject and medium for which this important atelier is widely praised. It can be attributed to the significant artist Stuart Cary Welch has dubbed the “Master of the Elephants” (active 1640–80). Although the master’s name is not known, his personality and development as an artist can be reconstructed from a group of mid-seventeenth-century drawings that are clearly the work of a single, highly innovative artist.3 Welch believes the master was trained in Agra or Bundi, and migrated to Kota shortly after the year it was established as an independent state (1631). In the following decades two great patrons—Rao Madho Singh (reigned 1631–48) and Rao Jagat Singh—and a small group of painters perfected a local style independent of Bundi, Kota’s parent state. Because the Master of the Elephants was at the forefront of this activity, his influence can be traced in the work of later generations, including that of his greatest student, the so-called Kota Master (see Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2004-149-2).

    Numerous small details allow us to attribute this drawing to the master’s existing oeuvre. His human figures are particularly distinctive, and variants of the same formulaic character—a stocky, mustached fellow with an aquiline nose, small chin, bulbous torso, and tapering feet—appear in all of his works. The master’s elephants are equally distinctive. They wear disproportionately large ornaments and have thickened ankles and stubbed-toe feet. These features allow us to insert this drawing in a chronology of the master’s work. It falls midway between a drawing of c. 1650 in the Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge,4 and a drawing of c. 1670 in the Howard Hodgkin Collection, London.5 Terence McInerney, from Intimate Worlds: Indian Painting from the Alvin O. Bellak Collection (2001), pp. 158-159.

    1. Quoted in Vishakha N. Desai et al. Life at Court: Art for India’s Rulers, Sixteenth–Nineteenth Centuries. Exh. cat. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1985, p. 53, no. 4.
    2. For other Kota drawings of this subject, now in the collections of Lisbet Holmes and the Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, see Terence McInerney and Howard Hodgkin. Indian Drawing. Exh. cat. London: Arts Council of Great Britain, 1983, nos. 27, 29, respectively.
    3. For a discussion of the Master of the Elephants, see Stuart Cary Welch, “Kotah’s Lively Patrons and Artists,” in Stuart Cary Welch, ed. Gods, Kings, and Tigers: The Art of Kotah. Exh. cat. Munich: Prestel, 1997, pp. 19–23.
    4. Ibid., p. 21, fig. 7.
    5. Ibid., p. 20, fig. 6.