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Garden and Cosmos: the Royal Paintings of Jodhpur

A strange and shocking Indian movement is brought back to life

Two hundred years ago, the little Indian kingdom of Marwar, in what is now Rajasthan, was a bloodsoaked and troublesome place. The long decline of the Mughal empire encouraged squabbles in the Hindu ruling dynasty; in 1751 an upstart second son, Bakhat Singh, came to power, having murdered his father the maharaja a quarter-century earlier. But the upheavals brought with them a creative revolution. Over the next century and a quarter, Marwar produced some of the most colourful, strange and shocking art on the subcontinent. "Garden and Cosmos" tells its story.

Bakhat Singh swept aside Marwari artists' decorous imitations of Mughal miniatures. His artists were set to work on murals and large panel paintings showing the maharaja frolicking in palace courtyards and gardens with the ladies of his zenana, or harem. There is no hint of the bloodshed and instability that surrounded Bakhat Singh, who ordered himself portrayed not as a regal warrior, but as Marwar's pre-eminent lover. Maharaja Bakhat Singh Rejoices During Holi (c.1748) shows the bare-chested ruler celebrating Holi with a coloured-water fight with his zenana. He suggestively squirts his favourites with a giant golden syringe.

When Bakhat Singh's son Vijai Singh took the throne in 1752 (his father having been poisoned by a vengeful niece), Marwari art abandoned sex for devotion. Vijai Singh was highly religious, but his taste in art was anything but austere. His atelier in Jodhpur was ordered to create yet another new genre of painting: giant illustrations of episodes from the great Indian religious texts, to be displayed as poets recited the accompanying verses. The dizzying detail was intended to draw viewers into the direct contact with the divine sought by devotees of Krishna.

Three successive panels show blue-skinned Krishna luring a crowd of gopis (female cowherds) from their homes under a sky filled with golden stars, embracing them in an enchanted forest (to make each gopi believe that she is alone with him, the god appears nine times) and ischievously disappearing. But Sage Markandeya's Ashram and the Milky Ocean (c.1790), from the end of Vijai Singh's reign, abandons detail for starkness: Vishnu sleeps upon a multi-headed serpent amid a sea of black and silver billows, the cosmic ocean that existed before the creation of the universe.

The final third of "Garden and Cosmos" traces the development of this disturbing new style. When Man Singh succeeded Vijai Singh in 1803, he abandoned his father's orthodox piety for devotion to an esoteric yogic sect, the Naths. His beliefs forced Marwari painting to grapple with nothing less than the mysteries underpinning the universe.

In these paintings, Man Singh consults unearthly beings with unkempt hair and blue-grey skin - an echo of the fearsome, dreadlocked, ash-smeared appearance of real Naths, whom devotees credited with supernatural powers and immortality. Under his patronage, they grew wealthy and arrogant. Jallandharnath and Maharaja Man Singh on Diwali (c.1820) upset Marwari social mores by showing the ruler prostrating himself to the immortal ascetic Jallandharnath; Nathji Creates the Ganges (c.1825) overturns Hindu cosmology itself by showing the holy river Ganges springing not from Shiva's hair, but from the glowing footprints of the Nath deity Nathji.

But these images look conservative beside the artists' hallucinatory explorations of Nath philosophy. In The Equivalence of Self and Universe (1824), which reflects the Nath belief that the universe is contained in the perfected yogic body, miniature landscapes and deities are absorbed into the huge form of a meditating adept. Three Yantras from the Meghmala (1825), meanwhile, shows landscapes dissolving into brightly coloured, mandala-like figures conveying the "sacred geometry" that is their true form. The most unique achievement of Man Singh's atelier was the near-abstraction of Three Aspects of the Absolute (1823). The series begins with a glowing, Rothko-like plain of pure gold - the formless, eternal Absolute - from which a single, floating yogi emerges to create the next level of consciousness: a silvery ocean of light.

The golden age of Marwari painting came to an end at the hands of the East India Company. In 1843, the expansion of British power forced Man Singh to relinquish his throne, and he withdrew to live as an ash-smeared yogi in a tent in Jodhpur. The power of the Naths was shattered, Man Singh's atelier atrophied, and his heretical paintings were locked away in a Jodhpur fort, where they were recently rediscovered. Their first trip to this country is a rare chance to discover a long-forgotten tradition that Britain's colonial ambition destroyed.

British Museum, London WC1, Until 11 October. More details: www.britishmuseum.org

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan: The Lost War