A passion for India

The Ashmolean's new exhibition of Indian art from the private collection of Howard Hodgkin is inspired by his love of the country

Most artists collect art, objects which can give them models or inspiration for their work, reproductions or even paintings of their heroes or rivals.

Howard Hodgkin must be unique, however, in being a genuine connoisseur of a relatively recherché area of art, Indian painting of the classic Mughal period. His collection, now on display at the Ashmolean in Oxford, is not only the product of an artist's eye, and a very considerable one at that, but also one who has collected over the decades at an ever more knowledgeable and refined level.

In all the fuss over David Hockney's new paintings and Lucian Freud's lifetime portraiture, Sir Howard Hodgkin has tended to be forgotten. He shouldn't be. Now approaching his 80th birthday, he is as eminent a British artist as they. Anything of his is worth going a long way to see and this is really quite an exhibition in terms both of the art on display and the mind behind it.

Collecting, as any true practitioner of the pursuit knows, is a serious and at times voracious business. Normally sane people have spent years weeping at purchases missed and treasures escaped. Hodgkin admits to the obsessiveness of it: "Things have to be acquired out of necessity, as well as passion," as he puts it. Over the years, what started out as a schoolboy fascination has driven him to foreswear it on more than one occasion as he has resented the energy and the funds it has taken up. But over nearly seven decades through trial and error he has kept being tempted again until he has build up one of the finest collections of its kind in private hands.

Most people react to India with an overwhelming sense of the colours and the brashness of its imagery and you would have thought that Hodgkin, with his sense of bold colour and fierce brushwork, would have gone for the same. Not so. Although he loves India, and says that he has been influenced far more by it as a place and people than by its art ("which has really had no influence on me at all" he asserts surprisingly), in collecting he has pursued mostly sophisticated works of muted and subtle colour, purchasing them not to hang on his walls but to frame and take out a few at a time to compare and contrast. While the museum has arranged the works in schools, that is not how Hodgkin has sought them. "My collection has nothing to do with art history," he has argued. "It is entirely to do with the arbitrary inclinations of one person."

A central "inclination" is for big pictures and for drawings. Both are combined in the entry room to the show in a beautiful Rajasthani cloth hanging, The Gopis Dance in the Forest, or Sarat Purnima (c1720-25) depicting a group milk maids ("gopis") holding hands in a dance before the god Krishna, all serenity and movement, and in the two large brush drawings from Kota, presumably done in preparation for a fresco, of Elephants Pushing Cannons Drawn by Bullocks, all muscle, tension and might. The gopi picture, he recalls with horror, was first unrolled for his view on the public pavement while he espied a corner of the cannon drawing on a dealer's table and knew instantly that they were for him.

Like almost everyone who approaches Indian art, Hodgkin has also clearly fallen in love with representations of elephants. He has a whole series of them standing in majesty, awaiting to carry their royal masters, fighting in the tournaments so beloved of Mughal courts, and in full rush during tiger hunts. A coloured drawing in gouache on paper, A Royal Lion Hunt, from Bundi (c1640), is a masterpiece of swirling activity and ferocity. But then so is a substantial drawing from nearby Kota of Elephants Fighting (1655-60).

Another of Hodgkin's passions is for portraiture. In other hands, these might have been somewhat dreary given the formulaic nature of this form of art, the heads of emperors, rajas and nobles almost always presented in head-and-shoulder profile. But Hodgkin has picked some individual portraits of great sensitivity, including a wonderful brush drawing of Maharaja Raj Singh of Junia (c1698) holding a flower and looking somewhat melancholically into the distance, as well as a superb study, which must have been taken from life, of Iltifat Kahan, a noble in Shah Jahan's court, and a desperately sad drawing of the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah, deposed and despised by the British after the Indian Mutiny in 1857.

Despite his pronounced aversion to the small pictures that make up the majority of paintings in India, where they were handed round at gatherings, Hodgkin has a number of fine "ragamala" pictures from the Punjab depicting gods, wrestlers and forlorn women. Depicting the titles, and the spirit, of the musical modes of northern India, they are also by coincidence the subject of another private collection on display at the moment, this time at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Taken from the Claudio Moscatelli Collection, they have been gathered with a typical collector's aim of buying representatives of each of the major schools of painting in India. They are the product of a keen eye nonetheless. While Hodgkin is somewhat dismissive of this genre, arguing that they are too mythical and poetic in subject matter to garner the "feeling for life and livelihood which is the saving grace of Indian art", the works at Dulwich display a remarkable vivacity in presenting even their most religious iconography. Ragas developed into a structured order of musical form. But they are about "feeling" as much as style. Using deep reds and the bright yellow of cow's urine, the pictures combine both a spirit of populism with a sense of artistic confidence. The Rajasthani and Pahari works in particular have a delight in their subjects that is particularly attractive and, if they lose some of that in the more sophisticated and less lively works from the Deccan, this small exhibition is a delight.

If art connoisseurship is in decline, overwhelmed by the extravagance of art purchases as an "investment", Indian art at least has collectors of real taste and distinction. Go and share their pleasure in this wonderfully vibrant work.

Visions of Mughal India: the Collection of Howard Hodgkin, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (01865 278002; ashmolean.org) to 22 April; Ragamala Paintings from India: Poetry, Passion, Song, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London SE21 (020 8693 5254; dulwichpicture gallery.org.uk) to 27 May

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