Rarely seen royal art from India at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Rarely seen royal art from India at the Philadelphia Museum of Art
Philadelphia Museum of Art

The drawings that make up the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s “Drawn From Courtly India” exhibit span four centuries in the history of that country’s royal courts and range in subject from landscapesto wrestling matches with mythological beasts. But as curator Ainsley Cameron was assembling the show, her focus shifted from the scenes depicted in the drawings to the techniques used to produce them.

“I wanted to concentrate on process to reveal the techniques practiced by workshop-trained artists,” Cameron said during a tour of the exhibition.

The 65 works on paper come from the collection of landscape painter Conley Harris and the late architectural designer Howard Truelove, which the museum recently acquired. It was through Harris that Cameron came to appreciate the artistry of these rarely seen pieces. “Seeing these works through his eyes revealed to me their shared love of drawings and the passion behind amassing this gorgeous collection. It influenced the way I started to see drawings.”

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“Pouncing”on a sketch

Most of the drawings in the collection were created in the artist workshops of the royal courts of western India and the Himalayan foothills, mainly as preparatory sketches for paintings. A few are finished works, but many show the artist’s hand at work, as in the pin-pricked sketches used for “pouncing” — a process in which charcoal was sifted through the tiny holes in one drawing to create a ghostly sketch for a new piece.


Cameron immediately makes a connection to contemporary sign painting, which — like many of the drawings and techniques in the show — is often a tradition passed down from generation to generation. Christian Cantiello, founder of South Philly’s Keystone Sign & Company, created a graphic at the entrance to the show incorporating details from many of the drawings. At the end of the show, she encourages visitors to put what they’ve learned into action in a room filled with art supplies that allow guests to make their own drawings.

Making it modern

Across the main hall of the Perelman Building, another exhibit takes a look at a more modern India. “Picture This” presents the work of four contemporary photographers showing the country in very different ways, from Gauri Gill’s portraits of young rural girls to Belgian-born Max Pinckers’ vivid images blurring the line between photojournalism and pop-culture creations.

If you go:

“Drawn From Courtly India”

Through March 27

Philadelphia Museum of Art

26th Street and Ben Franklin Pkwy.