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Looking from Close at Indian Miniature Paintings

“Those of you who don’t yet know Indian miniature painting - I envy you!” Thus began Brijinder Goswamy, one of the most prominent scholars on the subject, his recent lecture at the Museum Rietberg in Zurich, hosted by Asia Society Switzerland. Why the envy? Because those who don’t yet know have the joy of discovery still ahead of them.

Instead of rattling off dates and names of painters, Goswamy focused his lecture on what really matters: Looking at the paintings - closely, curiously, repeatedly. He captivated his audience by simply talking about what he sees when he looks.

Indian miniature paintings - often the size of a postcard - were not meant to be hanged, but to be taken into your hands and “read”. Many feature intricate details, some of them only visible on second, third or fourth sight: A tree isn’t really a tree but an array of tangled snakes; and its leaves aren’t leaves but animal heads. A painting of a deer with several bodies will reveal different perspectives if turned on its head. All these details are not visible by glancing - they only reveal themselves to those who linger.

“It’s possible to look at something again, and see it differently, and enjoy it”, said Neeta Premchand of Bombay Paperie, who kindly supported the event. And so no one really knows about Indian miniature paintings - because every time one looks at them, they reveal something different.