Bathing in the Moonlight

Attributed to Mir Kalan Khan.
Lucknow, India, circa 1750-60.
Opaque watercolour, gold and silver on paper.
29 x 21.5 cm.

This delicate painting is witness to Mir Kalan Khan’s mature style, and exhibits sensitivity and subtlety in the depiction of a beautiful and private moment with great elegance. Five ladies bathe in a lake, surrounded by a rocky landscape punctuated by musk and trees and inhabited by various birds. The palette chosen by the artist is exquisite in its subdued quality, making use of an array of white and grey tones and colour almost limited to the vibrant yellow-green of the foliage and the golden details of the ladies’ jewellery. However, colour can be found along the smooth pictorial surface, disguised in the grey tonalities of the landscape.

Mir Kalan Khan creates the mood for a nocturnal scene profusely illuminated by a bright moonlight, and it is interesting to note that the dark area of the lake was once silver, an exuberant an ingenious solution to convey the reflections of the moon on the water surface. Today, the almost-black tarnished silver creates a stark graphic effect, an enhanced contrast between the depth of the waters and the porcelain-like fairness of the ladies. The delicacy of their gestures and poses, the interchanged intense looks and gentle caresses, the softness of their hair and bare skin, only lightly veiled by transparent tunics, are all signs of a master artist. Mir Kalan Khan’s hand can also be seen in highly original elements of the painting, particularly the use of golden reflexes emanating from underneath the grass and minute foliage, and the depiction of one of the bathers seen from the back, quite a rare occasion in Indian miniature painting, but a devise also used in other works by the same master.

Active circa 1734-1770, Mir Kalan Khan’s style was more experimental than his contemporaries. He rejected the classicising formal aesthetic typical of the period in favour of a more expressive and emotive style that incorporated a range of influences, from masterpieces of the Mughal and Deccani courts to works of art from Europe. The most important Mughal artist of the 18th century, his paintings show great sophistication, mastering both elegance and a taste for the peculiar, signs of a unique artistic vision.

 

Provenance:
Benkaim Collection, USA.
Private collection, UK.

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