Visions of Mughal India: The Hodgkin Collection, by Andrew Topsfield

This text was first published in Visions of Mughal India: The Collection of Howard Hodgkin, Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, 2012.

Howard Hodgkin is one of the foremost artists of our time, one of the distinguished few who continue to extend and enrich the Western tradition of painting. As his introduction and essays in this volume demonstrate, he can also be on occasion a compelling writer and speaker – succinct, illuminating, candid, often unexpected. He has told the story of his early passion for Indian pictures: of how his art master at Eton (before he ran away from that school) showed him pictures from his collection, of his own first purchases at the age of thirteen, followed by a growing sense of their mediocrity, and his steady learning from that experience. 

From the very beginning, however, Hodgkin found in Indian painting a pictorial language, a vision of the world, at once intriguing and profoundly congenial. It was for him 

the most extraordinary phenomenon, because it was a system of representation, a microcosmic world, which was completely different, yet not completely different from our own.(1)

As he later told the critic David Sylvester, in a filmed interview in 1981:(2)

The first Indian paintings I saw astounded me because they depicted a whole world in a way which was completely convincing but totally separate from the tradition of Western art which I was used to. At least it seemed so at the time. I’ve realised long since that it wasn’t nearly as separate as I first thought, but as it was a whole world in which everything was very precise and visible and yet somewhere else, I was very excited by this.

He was impressed particularly by the Indian artists’ unselfconscious eclecticism and their great freedom, within certain formal conventions, to improvise:

… they seem to have an answer for everything. As a child I looked and I thought, you_paint a tree? Well, they show you numerous ways of painting a tree, perhaps in the same picture.(3)

Hodgkin’s turning-point as a collector came in early 1958, over lunch at the Daquise restaurant in South Kensington.(4) There Robert Skelton, the rising authority on Indian painting at the Victoria and Albert Museum, introduced him to the American scholar-collector Stuart Cary Welch (1928-2008), then in London on one of his regular study and buying trips. Later a curator at Harvard Art Museums, Welch was an inspired collector, writer, teacher and populariser, who did more than anyone over the next half century to inform taste and to open eyes to those exceptional Indian paintings whose quality sets them above the common run. Hodgkin immediately came under the spell of Welch’s generous enthusiasms and his example as a collector. They would remain close friends and uneasy rivals for fifty years.(5)

As Bruce Chatwin remarks, the immediate upshot of their meeting was that

Howard’s hunting instincts were thoroughly aroused. He bought, sold and traded; he perfected the tactics of the bazaar; and for over ten years he channelled about half his creative energies into his collection.(6)

Among his earlier finds was the superb Deccani portrait of Muhammad Adil Shah and Ikhlas Khan riding an elephant (no. 36), which had appeared at auction in 1961. Another milestone was his acquisition, through Chatwin’s mediation, of the early Mughal masterpiece, Mihrdukht aims her arrow at the ring (no.1), which belonged to the widow of an Islamic scholar in Switzerland. It was followed by the great Kata drawing, Elephants fighting (no. 80), which Hodgkin had traced to its owner, K. de B. Codrington, the brilliant and by then increasingly eccentric Professor of Indian Archaeology at London, through an illustration in a geographical magazine shown him by an aunt. A persistent elephant theme was already developing in his collecting.

In 1964 Hodgkin visited India for the first time. This was another revelation, and he would return there almost every year. Like Indian painting, the subcontinent was a different world, “somewhere else”.(7) Travelling there might involve trials or discomforts, but it also offered sudden epiphanies, what he has called “passionate moments”:(8)

I’ve never forgotten the first time I went to India and saw a pool surrounded by lilies, in a very unimportant, junky little yard somewhere; it wasn’t the yard of a palace or anything. There were birds flying about and there were very bright green trees. They were absolutely similar to the kind of pool, lilies and birds and trees that you would see in an eighteenth century Deccani painting. It was a sort of one-for-one representation.(9)

A twentieth century Indian courtyard was part of the same world – was the same world – as the formally ordered visions of Mughal India he had seen in the paintings.

Hodgkin was also moved by a quality of openness in the daily life of India, the different way (for an Englishman) in which people there seemed to live and interact:

It’s the sort of nakedness of their usually very inhibited emotions. I mean, everything is very visible, somehow, there. Life isn’t covered up with masses of objects, masses of possessions, so that the difference being indoors or out of doors and all the sort of functions of life are much more visible, straightforward, than they are here.(10)

On this first trip he travelled in the company of Robert Skelton, whose own first Indian visit had been made two years earlier.(11) They spent time in and around Delhi and Bombay and they toured Rajasthan and the Deccan. They saw monuments, museums, palaces and temples. But in the cities Hodgkin was also able to meet and befriend a select band of Indian connoisseurs, who shared his enthusiasm for Indian painting and also possessed a rare eye for quality. They included collectors, dealers and museum curators, who sometimes combined more than one of these roles. Among their number were such knowledgeable and perceptive figures as Jagdish Mittal in Hyderabad, or Kumar Sangram Singh of Nawalgarh in Jaipur. Such encounters gave a further strong impulse and direction to Hodgkin’s collecting, which at that period centred mainly on Rajasthani pictures, then abundantly available following the dispersal of many former princely collections in the 1950s and 60s.

But collecting is a passion fraught with anxiety. For Hodgkin it was never a simple process of accumulation, with occasional thinnings out. It was rather a continuous and often painful critical review of every picture he owned. In earlier days, whenever a new masterpiece declaring itself to be indispensable came into view, many other less brilliant pictures had to be traded off to obtain it. After a while this all became too demanding and distracting. He started making resolutions to give up collecting. Around 1979, he removed his Indian pictures from immediate sight by lending them to the V&A. (I was working there at the time, and we were glad to have them for display). But this strategy was only partly successful, as Hodgkin soon became aware. Speaking again to Sylvester in 1981:(12)

Howard Hodgkin with Jagdish Mittal, Hyderabad, 1964. (Photo: Robert Skelton)

Next year I’ll be fifty, and I think I can probably buy the two pictures which will complete my collection, and then I shall just stop, because I think it’s something I can’t continue dealing with… It’s another emotional strain I think I’m too old to contend with… Nearly all my collection is at the V&A. I think that’s the first step in stopping collecting. I lent them three years ago, and a great friend of mine said: as soon as you empty your shelves you’ll fill them again. And it’s quite true. I’ve made another collection since I lent those.

And so – fortunately for us – it has gone on.

The Hodgkin collection in its present form is several times larger than it was thirty years ago, and twice as large as twenty years ago. It then comprised about sixty pictures, two-thirds of which were included in the 1991-92 touring exhibition shown in Washington, Zurich and Oxford. In the last two decades many more important acquisitions have been made, including in recent years two previously unknown paintings of Raja Balwant Singh by his great artist Nainsukh (nos. 71-72) and the outstanding Bijapur portrait (no. 37) which appears on the cover of this book. Fifteen years ago, 87 of Hodgkin’s Indian paintings and drawings were successfully exhibited at the Museo di Castelvecchio, Verona.(13) The present Ashmolean showing of 115 works, held in Hodgkin’s 80th year, represents his collection at a still later stage of its evolution and virtually in its entirety. This review of a lifetime’s collecting is a valuable opportunity for us – and for the collector himself – to reappraise and take stock, to discern themes and patterns.

Hodgkin is an avowedly unacademic collector. He has always simply sought those works, of whatever school or region, that deliver an authentic “shock to the heart”. Even so, in his intuitive way, Hodgkin has shown a great breadth of taste as a collector, embracing much of the full range of Mughal period painting in India. At the present state of play, Mughal paintings – for imperial or sub-imperial patrons – account for almost a third of the collection. Paintings from the Rajput courts of Rajasthan are as ever slightly more numerous. Pahari pictures, from the Rajput courts of the Punjab Hills, comprise about a quarter, and the always rarer works from the Sultanates of the Deccan, less than a tenth. They are catalogued here broadly within these four main regional or stylistic groups, though such divisions are somewhat arbitrary. Many further thematic or stylistic connections can be seen between the works in Hodgkin’s collection, running between or throughout these groupings.

The Mughal empire in India was established in 1526 by the Central Asian prince and vivid diarist Babur (r.1526-30). It was consolidated from the 1560s by his dynamic grandson Akbar (r.1556- 1605). Under Akbar’s keen eye, the Mughal style of painting was also formed at this time, from an inspired synthesis of Persian miniature technique with vigorous local Indian styles and a growing element of European naturalistic influence. Many of Hodgkin’s Mughal pictures belong to the Akbar period, before the energetic qualities brought by his enlisted Indian artists were gradually refined out of the imperial style. These works include his three Hamzanama pages (nos.1-3 ), of which the hitherto unexhibited Khwaja Umar saved from pursuers (no. 2) is especially full of movement and drama; the rare elephant procession fragment (no. 4); and a spirited Harivamsha page depicting Krishna’s defeat of the giant water-snake Kaliya (no. 6).

There are paintings too in the hybrid sub-imperial style, by Mughal-trained artists of lesser rank for noble patrons, some of them Hindu Rajput princes, serving at the Mughal court around 1600 and after. With its assertive geometry, unrestrained pattern-making and heightened emotional sensitivity, Rama’s forest dwelling in Panchavati (no. 8) was probably made for a Raput patron from Datia in Central India. As Andrew Graham-Dixon has noted, its particular aesthetic accords in some ways with Hodgkin’s own vision as an artist:

To see the two lovers who gaze so intensely at each other, rapt in a field of high artifice, … is perhaps to sense the deeper, unpredictable affinity between the art of the collector and the art he collects. When Hodgkin succeeds, in his own painting, he engineers a tension between the conventions of pictorial form and the pressures of lived, felt reality which is precisely analogous to the effect of this sixteenth-century picture.(14)

Hodgkin came to post-Akbari Mughal painting, with its more highly refined naturalism, a little later in his collecting career, though he had already acquired the remarkable 1701 drawing Azam Shah enters Ahmedabad (no. 31) in the 1960s. His Mughal works of the Jahangir (1605-27) and Shah Jahan (1627-58) periods include a Padshahnama durbar scene of attendant figures with elephants and horses (no. 15), two fine – and contrasting – bust portraits of Iltifat Khan and Aurangzeb (nos.16-17), and superb groups of Imperial elephant portraits (nos. 20-25) and bird studies (nos.12-14). Some of the later works, such as two evocative scenes of noblemen at leisure on terraces (nos.18-19), or the majestic portrait of the elephant Ganesh Gaj (no.25), were probably executed away from the imperial centre of Delhi and Agra, and far south in the permanent Mughal military settlements in the Deccan.

In the Deccani Sultanates of Bijapur and Golconda, which would remain independent until 1686-87, the new Mughal conventions of royal portraiture had already been assimilated and transformed by local court artists. Outstanding Bijapur works in Hodgkin’s collection include Muhammad Adil Shah and Ikhlas Khan riding an elephant and Ali Adil Shah shooting a tiger (nos. 36-37). The former composition derives closely from a Mughal model, yet the treatment is wholly Deccani in its subtle richness of colour and the restricted modelling of the darkly massive forms of the royal elephant. In both pictures, painted about fifteen years apart, the Sultan wears an opulent, glowing gold robe. Gold too, in varying shades, permeates the extravagant flowering vase design (no. 43), a superb flight of Deccani decorative fantasy. Yet in contrast, a natural history illustration of bamboo plants (no. 35), an earlier and less typical work from Bijapur which Hodgkin acquired in the 1960s and prizes highly, is stark in its conceptual simplicity and boldly energetic brushwork.

Mughal art was still more influential at the semi-independent Rajput courts in the Punjab Hills, Rajasthan and Central India, many of whose princes were required to attend the imperial court and to serve in its armies. The interaction of Mughal pictorial conventions with indigenous painting styles led to the formation of numerous, distinctive local Rajput schools in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Each was also subject to wide variations of style at different periods.

Among the earliest paintings attributable to a Pahari (Hill) school is the superb Mandi scene of a wedding procession passing th[r]ough a bazaar (no. 49). This rare and exceptionally detailed view of mid-seventeenth century street life is executed with all the technical facility of Mughal art. (Compare also Hodgkin’s later slices of Indian urban life, in the processions of Azam Shah and Ranjit Singh, nos. 31, 77). Yet two generations later at Mandi, a robust indigenous idiom had reasserted itself, as seen in the powerful stippled image of the eight-armed deity Harihara Sadashiva (no. 51). Other Pahari works of the late seventeenth century fall between these stylistic extremes. A pair of vibrantly coloured portraits of Basohli rulers (nos. 61-62) adapt the Mughal portrait convention of a ruler smoking a hookah and make of it something altogether different. In each, the dominant figure of the Raja becomes twice the size of the humbly kneeling hookah-wallah holding the coal-tongs. The red borders and other strong primary and secondary colours, together with boldly assertive carpet and textile patterns, create an atmosphere more intense than serene. Some viewers have again found resonances of feeling here with Hodgkin’s own works.

Hodgkin has collected a few paintings of Hindu gods and mythological themes, such as Brahma (no. 52) or the Tantric goddess Bhadrakali (no. 50), but their iconography or symbolic meaning have not interested him much, only their effect as works of art. A quasi-mythological genre that has attracted him particularly, at least in its early Pahari forms at Basohli and other courts (nos. 53-60), is that of Ragamala (‘Garland of Ragas’). These series of illustrations depicting the ragas, the musical Mewar (nos. 98-102). Dating from c.1700-50, they were painted for the innovative patron Amar Singh II and his grandson Jagat Singh II. With its happily improvised perspective and rectilinear plan view, Jagat Singh in a lake palace garden (no. 101) evokes the pleasant hours spent by that hedonistic ruler in admiring his gardens and fountains, while listening to his female musicians. Comparable strong architectural symmetries appear in a slightly later Jodhpur painting, of Maharaja Vijai Singh’s water sports with his ladies in his palace at Nagaur (no. 104). An earlier important work from the same region is the resplendent bust portrait of the latter ruler’s father Bakhat Singh at a palace jharoka window, with his noble profile and tall Rathor turban and the richly varied textile patterns (no. 88).

At the minor courts – lesser kingdoms in the Rajput hierarchy, or else small baronial estates (thikanas) – the weight of dynastic history and court protocol was less oppressive, and painters working there could improvise or experiment more freely. At Kishangarh, the prevalent poetic cult of Krishna and his consort Radha led to expressive stylisations of figures and faces with a characteristic elongated eye, as in the magnificent early picchavai panel depicting four gopis or milkmaids, and the fine study of a singing-girl with a green tanpura (nos. 96-97). From the small court of Sawar, also in central Rajasthan, come several freely improvisational works, including a jharoka-type portrait of Maharaja Raj Singh in a garden (no. 89), and large scale, partly coloured drawings of his court life (nos. 90-91). Raj Singh and his elephants (no. 91) is notable for its accomplished, rhythmical drawing, bold compositional design and shifts of scale in the figure drawing. From Raghugarh, on the fringes of Madhya Pradesh, come a large, refined and strangely minimalist equestrian portrait of the redoubtable Dhiraj Singh (no. 94) and a warmly toned chamber scene of the same Raja watching a dancer (no. 95).

Rawat Gokul Das at the Singh Sagar (no. 110) is a late masterpiece by the master Bakhta, who trained at the major court of Udaipur, but found artistic liberation after moving to work for the Rawats of the Deogarh thikana in the late 1760s. This is a large format work but painted mainly on a miniaturist scale. Close viewing reveals abundant, brilliantly observed passages of human and animal life around the Deogarh lake, with its small pleasure pavilion on an island. Less inhibited still than Bakhta was his son Chokha, an ebullient and eclectic artist who worked both at Udaipur and Deogarh in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. Chokha’s large scale Court beauty (no. 112), painted for Bhim Singh of Mewar, transforms a standard languorous heroine figure, typically found in palace mural paintings, into a supercharged, nubile bombshell with a soulful Kishangarh eye.

While the Hodgkin collection is larger and more diverse than ever, it continues to reveal a coherent vision, rooted in his sensibility as an artist, in his long engagement with the country of India, and in particular themes or technical concerns that have intrigued or resonated with him. It is worth mentioning again at least three leading features of the collection, already alluded to: the matter of size, the interest in drawings and the prevalence of elephants.

Hodgkin has often acquired unusually big pictures. Most Indian paintings on paper were made as manuscript illustrations, or else to be held in the hand and passed round in intimate, appreciative gatherings of nobles or ladies. There are of course many works of those kinds in the collection. But many others are of greater than usual size, some even on the scale of palace wall-paintings, and their expansiveness undoubtedly lends much to their effect. Largest and most imposing of all are the two giant Kota drawings of elephants pushing cannons drawn by bullocks (nos. 108-9), both of them powerful, repetitive compositions. (How often, incidentally, Hodgkin’s favoured themes seem to come represented in pairs, or trios, of pictures).

Hodgkin has also collected drawings as keenly as finished paintings, and often also partly coloured works on a plain paper ground – like Raj Singh receives a yogi (no. 90) – which occupy an intriguing border area between the two. His interest in drawings is not surprising, since draughtsmanship – the mastery of outline and contour above all – is an essential test of quality in an Indian picture. Indian artists seldom lacked a sure sense of colour, yet only a few at any period could draw at a level above the conventional, or take a received pictorial idea and revivify it as the Kota masters did. Elephant studies, Hodgkin’s great predilection, in fact reveal this aptitude most clearly. Even when a painter’s human figures remain stiffly conventional – as they often do – it was unheard of for him (or her: no. 11) to produce a lifeless or listless elephant. From earliest times, Indian painters and sculptors have known how to convey a warmly sympathetic sense of this royal animal’s massive volumes, its grace in motion, its noble intelligence and playful charm.

Collecting Indian paintings has been almost as deep a passion in Hodgkin’s life as painting, and this exhibition is in a sense a summation of his collecting. We hope it will inspire, inform and delight. It is appropriate to leave Howard Hodgkin the last word:

These pictures have been chosen because I thought they were beautiful, because they touched my emotions, and not for any scholarly purposes. It is a collection made by an artist. I hope you enjoy looking at it.(15)


  1. From Hodgkin’s talk ‘On collecting Indian paintings’, reprinted here as Appendix 2: see p. 280.
  2. David Sylvester, London Recordings, London, 2005, p. 107; recorded for an Arts Council film, the interview was first printed in the catalogue Howard Hodgkin: Forty paintings 1973-84, London: Whitechapel Gallery, 1984.
  3. Sylvester, London Recordings, p. 108
  4. This and some other passages below appeared in a different form in my essay ‘Rajput and Mughal paintings in the Hodgkin Collection’, in A. Topsfield and M.C. Beach, Indian paintings and drawings from the collection of Howard Hodgkin, New York, 1991.
  5. See Howard Hodgkin’s short memoir, ‘Stuart Cary Welch’, Artibus Asiae, LXVIII, 1, 2008, p. 159.
  6. Bruce Chatwin, ‘A portrait of the artist’, in Howard Hodgkin’s Indian Leaves, London, 1982, pp. 5-17; reprinted as ‘Howard Hodgkin’, in Chatwin’s What am I doing here, London, 1990, pp.70-78; and in E. Juncosa ed., Writers on Howard Hodgkin, Dublin and London, 2006, pp. 57-67.
  7. Sylvester, London Recordings, p. 108.
  8. Ibid., p. 110.
  9. Hodgkin, ‘On collecting Indian paintings’, Appendix 2, p. 280.
  10. Sylvester, London Recordings, p. 109.
  11. Simon Digby, ‘Travels with Robert’, in R. Crill, S. Strange and A. Topsfield eds., The arts of Mughal India: Studies in honour of Robert Skelton, London, 2004, pp.14-19. I am grateful to Robert Skelton for providing his recollections of the 1964 tour with Howard Hodgkin.
  12. Sylvester, London Recordings, p. 111.
  13. G.G. Filippi, Indian miniatures and paintings from the 16th to the 19th century, Milan, 1997.
  14. Andrew Graham-Dixon, Howard Hodgkin, London, rev. Ed. 2001, p. 118.
  15. From a note Hodgkin added to the 1997 Verona exhibition catalogue: Filippi, Indian miniatures and paintings from the 16th to the 19th century, p. 16