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Everybody Loves Babloo
You know how some people are just so sweet and cute, it’s not surprising they’re everyone’s favourite? After spending much time pouring over this soaked portrait of Prince Amar Singh II, c. 1690, I am convinced he was the court’s favourite Babloo. I am fairly certain the artist known to us only as “The Stipple Master” adored him; why else would they have taken so much time to paint each rain-drop detail in this unusually unembellished portrait of a royal figure?
I have already made translations of this painting (perfume, soap, incense) in 2021 when I first laid eyes on it in the midst of monsoon season — while attending Dipti Khera’s online presentation of her new book “The Place of many Moods: Udaipur’s Painted Lands and India’s Eighteenth Century”. I have since observed that in her eloquent discussions of how indulgently the monsoon clouds were painted in 18th century Udaipur, Khera often lingers over this particular painting to point out the rain drops bouncing off the Prince’s shield and the rivulets of rain water running down his clothes. This Babloo must be her favourite too.
Over the last month we have faced such an intense heat-wave across Maharashtra that it became near-impossible for me to think about perfume/ smells. As the only scent I could consider was that of rain and damp earth, this image became so irresistible that I decided to expand its synesthesia experience by painting it as a pop up-playset.
I licked it, so it’s mine now
Images of future kings, as we already know, are so carefully constructed in such court paintings. Symbols of regalia are worked into sombre postures of (male) personalities to signify their power, refinement and majesty. The artistic fuss created in placing details of jewellery, textiles, the elevation of the throne or seating position in the composition, in details of weaponry and all sorts of ornamentation laid out for our eyes are meant to signal the subject’s resplendence. Or they are portrayed as men of action, out on a hunt, looking virile, valiant, victorious.
In striking contrast to conventions of the time, here we see our Prince out and about during a heavy monsoon downpour, in the middle of the night. Visually tactful details inform us, not of his decadence, but of this future king’s character.
The young Amar Singh is unafraid to tread on his own into the dark night as heavy clouds threaten his intended path. Torrential rain, thunder and potentially flooded zones are not going to stop him. Absolutely nothing is going to dampen his will as he has made up his mind, and his word is his bond. As determined as he is, he is no fool. Independent and resourceful, he is equipped and dressed in the most practical manner for this excursion into an apparently unrelenting storm.
As a teenager, he chooses pragmatism over pretension. A vermilion red dhoti, tightly draped around his hip and hitched over his upper thighs, is paired only with a chadar to cover the rest of his bare body. I would not describe the chadar as a “cloak” precisely. The manner in which the artist has illustrated its sheerness, and the way the cloth is painted sticking to his drenched body, informs us of the look, feel, sensation of very fine muslin. Indeed, this lightweight, near-transparent cotton fabric wrung just once ensures it dries quickly and could act as a towel in a pinch.
He balances his shield above his body, keeping his head dry and protected from gusts of wind. His hair is wrapped in a turban, away from his eyes, painted a delicate pool of light blue-gray— unlike the overcast skies burdened with clouds, his vision remains clear to chart the path ahead.
Apart from the pair of heavy gold kada bangles, one on each wrist, the rest of his adornments do not weigh him down as he needs to be efficient and speedy. A pair of pearls and a ruby on a rim of gold wire in his ears, a single string of pearls around his neck and two very slim, simple gold chains are his only adornments. Pay attention to the dagger tucked securely in the folds of the gold zari-trimmed white mul fabric tightly tied over his dhoti. He is prepared for anything or anyone in his way. He is scrappy, he can handle himself.
I have magnified this image multiple times since 2021, but only recently, in the course of painting this portrait myself, did I finally pick up on the fact that there is a sword hanging off his right side. There is a gold strap over his shoulder blade, and a glint of metallic gold on the scabbard-tip barely visible in the drenched turns of his chadar.
He is barefoot. Shoes made of leather or suede are going to be of no use in this rain but the terrain he is navigating may also not be so ridden with jagged surfaces. Perhaps he spends most of his time on his feet any way, so they are callused enough to withstand minor scrapes. Maybe he knows this path and his destination well enough to confidently be on his way without any worry. As an aside, I also wonder if the fact that he has ventured out alone implies that he has illicitly snuck out of the palace grounds for his own secret adventure. A prince pretending to be an ordinary boy out to explore the kingdom he will soon reign (r. 1698–1710).
A close study of the painting and its charcoal grey background reveals bursts of neon chlorophyll-green grass and moss— features that I have expanded on in my own painted pop-up version.
I call this art installation a “Bagh Synesthesia Playset”, the first of many delightful ways of experiencing paintings we cannot otherwise see or access. This “Playset” comes with perfume, incense, soap and flavour translations. And the custom made glass flacon with the little baby elephant glass-stopper is the best part! This Booboo follows our Babloo everywhere he goes, faithfully keeping him company.
The Bagh Synesthesia Playset
This late 17th century portrait of a prince has always been a painting I could smell, feel, sense. My nose, brain and taste buds light up with very specific, almost tangible sensations that I wanted to communicate to my viewer. So I felt I must go into and beyond the painting itself. By reproducing the painting in parts, maybe I could come to understand the intentions of the artist known as “the Stipple Master”. Stippling is a technique of making individual dots in order to compose an image. No lines. The brush must dot, each rain drop is created this way.
For my own Pop-up composition, I painted key elements separately so they could be aligned to create depth and perspective: the Prince, the movable monsoon cloud that could float above him, the topography, the second rocky relief with moss and grass, and the charcoal black backdrop splattered with white paint to depict torrential rain towards the right, just like in the original painting.
What a delight this exercise has been! I now know firsthand, how the artist delights in painting opaque coloured clouds, and splashing paint to create the effect of rain! I know how he delights in the mixing of two contrasting colours that form streams blending into one another, drying up just enough to leave behind expertly manipulated watery stains. I know how he delights in pouring out the grey and black paint that flows onto paper becoming monsoon thunder clouds heavy with rain! The Stipple Master painted these clouds with apparent tact and ease - and that's the approach I felt I could take as well. The vision of two opaque colours flowing, colliding, merging, marbling and suddenly remaining static in place, is just...magic!
So I am going to be painting monsoon clouds for everyone! I don’t run a conventional shop, so just hit reply to ask about perfume or art.