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Divine Rider on a Composite Elephant Preceded by a Demon
Divine Rider on a Composite Elephant Preceded by a Demon, c. 1760
India
Opaque watercolor on paper
Image: 6 1/4 × 9 13/16 inches (15.9 × 24.9 cm) Sheet: 8 × 11 5/8 inches (20.3 × 29.5 cm)
Purchased with the Edgar Viguers Seeler Fund, 1976
1976-15-1
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About This Painting

In this lively little painting, the artist has portrayed India’s most beloved animal, the elephant, in a highly imaginative way. The creature seems to be made up of the entire natural and supernatural animal kingdom. Mounted by a divine rider, this elephant charges across the page chasing a similarly composed, evil-looking figure. Such interactions between the forces of good and evil are a common motif in Hindu literature and art.

The rider atop the elephant is a deity who carries an anuska, or elephant goad, an instrument used to drive and direct the animal. The rider can be identified as a divine being by his crown, which is tipped with three lotus blossoms. The lotus flower has long been associated with divinity in Hindu and Buddhist art. The Asian lotus grows in still pools and swamps, and sends up a shoot that blossoms above the murky water, an apt metaphor for divine life blossoming above the ordinary earth. The nimbus, or circle of light, visible around the rider’s face is another mark of his heavenly nature.

Within the contours of the elephant figure, real and mythical animals engage in chaotic tumble. Several lion-like beasts seem to be nibbling on other animals. Green, sharp-toothed dragons chew and gnaw at each other. Two stags lock horns on the elephant’s flank. Tiny rabbits make up the beast’s feet. If we can overcome the sensation that they may be crushed by the weight of the creature, we can enjoy the artist’s humor as these swift little animals guide the gait of the lumbering beast.

Elephants in Indian Art

Elephants have been prominently featured in Indian art from the earliest times. On seals excavated from Indus Valley civilization sites, elephant imagery is common and seems already to have an auspicious meaning. There are murals showing elephants frolicking in pools of water on the rock-cut monasteries of Ajanta, around 475 CE. Elephants often appear lined up in rows at the base of temple walls, as if supporting the structure. They adorn entrances to domestic buildings, and are carved in the legs and backs of chairs and thrones of kings.

The animal’s shape, temperament, and strength have all contributed to its symbolic interpretations. There are many different names for the elephant in the ancient Sanskrit language. Among them is the word naga, which means both mountain and snake, a good description of the huge body and amazing trunk of the creature. The elephant is associated with clouds, probably due to its round, gray shape and the way elephants spray water from their trunks like raindrops. As clouds, they are symbolic of heaven, rainfall, the fertility of crops, and prosperity in general. They are also symbols for the four cardinal directions.

Indian Miniature Painting

The depiction of elephants in Indian art was given new impetus when Muslim Mughal rulers conquered northern India in the mid-1500s. The greatest ruler was Akbar, who ruled all of northern and central India from 1556–1605.

Though illiterate, Akbar was a great patron of literature and the arts. He brought from Persia two master painters who introduced native Hindu court painters to the Persian miniature painting tradition. Akbar had at one time more than 1,000 painters at his court at Agra, and amassed a library of 24,000 volumes.

In addition to supporting the arts of philosophy, painting, and poetry, Akbar was a fearsome and successful general, and had a great love for elephants. One hundred and one elephants were set aside for his personal use, and an enormous entourage was employed for the stabling, feeding, and exercising of the beasts. Akbar was a great connoisseur and rider of elephants. Because his influence on Indian painting was so strong, elephants became increasingly popular in Mughal-style miniature painting.

Style and Technique

The style and technique of this painting is descended from early Mughal tradition. Akbar’s influence spread to outlying Rajput courts which were under his dominion. Rajput rulers began to commission small paintings bound in volumes for meditation and aesthetic pleasure. They employed local Hindu or Muslim artists, facilitating the development of local styles. This painting was made in a court in Kota, Rajasthan, around 1760; long after Akbar’s reign but while India was still under Mughal rule. The meaning of this composite beast is unclear. Persian miniature paintings dating several centuries earlier contain images of composite beasts, and composite elephants were a known subject in Mughal painting. Perhaps this anonymous artist was simply creating a complex and humorous image to delight his patron.

An Animated Scene

Some scholars have suggested that these images demonstrate the dominion of the heavenly world over the natural world and, by inference, the dominion of a local ruler over his land and people. If this painting takes its inspiration from an earlier Mughal example, the rider may represent the glorious Mughal dynasty whose reign triumphed over the often warring native Indian Rajput kingdoms and brought peace to northern India for more than two hundred years. Whatever the intention, this artist has created an animated scene, which captivates both the eye and the mind of the viewer.

 

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