Gita Govinda – India’s Great Love Story / Museum Rietberg, Zürich

In India, literature and imagery became fused in a unique fashion: series of miniature paintings, wrapped in bundles in cloth and carefully stored away in chests were extremely popular at the courts of Hindu princes between the 16th and 19th century. These extremely precious works of art, created with the finest brushes and rendered in costly pigments, including gold, recount some of India’s greatest tales. One of these stories is the Gita Govinda (short for Gitagovindakavyam), a poem that celebrates the love between a god and human girl. It was composed by the poet Jayadeva in Sanskrit at the end of the 12th century. Over the course of time, many artists have tried to render this tale in images, but none succeeded better in capturing the magical poetry, the emotional power, and the narrative impact than the Gita Govinda created by a family of artists from Guler, a small town in today’s state of Himachal Pradesh.

In the 18th century, Manaku and Nainsukh of Guler, together with their sons, created two pictorial series of the Gita Govinda, unsurpassed in significance and beauty to this day. Each of the two cycles contains 151 paintings alongside a whole set of drawings which are today spread across the entire globe. With a selection of some of the most beautiful works, the exhibition “Gita Govinda – India’s Great Love Story” at Museum Rietberg in Zürich (Switzerland) invites viewers to immerse themselves in the ups and downs of a love story between a god and a human.

Gita Govinda – India’s Great Love Story. Exhibition at Museum Rietberg in Zürich, Switzerland. Vernissage, October 23, 2019.

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Indian tales and stories are notoriously complex and elaborate – capturing them in images is quite a challenge in terms of design as well as rendition, and requires detailed planning. First, the artists have to decide on which of the episodes are key to the tale. They must know the story very well and be able to discern the significant from the unimportant. Depending on how they are remunerated for their efforts, the series can turn out to be longer or shorter. And, of course, in the end it all comes down to the artists’ creativity.

Before an artist starts with the actual painting, he first creates sketch- es and then preliminary drawings, which are rendered directly on the paper – probably for the whole series at once. These are then coated with a fine layer of lime, allowing the drawing to still shimmer through. The colour pigments are then carefully applied, layer by layer, after which the reverse of the painting is polished. The rendition of the facial features and the jewellery is the last step in the process.

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