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The Jesuits and the Grand Mogul: Renaissance Art at the Imperial Court of India (1580-1630)

When Christian missionaries first arrived in India, they set up camp in Goa (still a popular hangout for Europeans, although ravers have largely replaced priests). The relatively open-minded Jesuits, however, pushed north into the Mughal empire. There they found Islamic rulers who were entirely willing to synthesize religious traditions—as long as the process strengthened their power over the predominantly Hindu population. Islam itself, since it banned depictions of God and the prophet, was no competition for Hinduism’s rich imagery. The 22 pieces in this small show, most of them works on paper, show how Indian artists in the Mughal courts adapted the styles introduced by the Jesuits, who brought European engravings, illustrated Bibles, and even the occasional European artist to the Mughal imperial cities of Lahore and Agra. Dutch, Flemish, and Italian themes and techniques blend with Hindu beliefs and tropical hues: Christ the shepherd is associated with Krishna the cowherd, and the Madonna becomes bare-breasted and voluptuous in the manner of female Hindu deities. In its modest way, the exhibit demonstrates how Hinduism survived the rise of Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity: Rather than resist alien doctrines, India’s multifarious worldview simply absorbed them. At the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW. Free. (202) 357-3200. (Mark Jenkins)