By Coco Banks //
One of Mia’s most recently acquired objects is Shiva and Parvati with Companions, painted around 1810 in northern India: brilliantly colorful, full of minute details, and only slightly larger than a piece of letter paper.
Currently on view in the museum’s rotunda (gallery 230), the painting is one of several acquired by Mia since 2020 from the collection of Ramesh Kapoor, a retired dealer renowned for having handled some of the finest paintings from the courts of the Pahari (Himalayan foothills). Created between the 17th and 19th centuries, they were intended for intimate viewing—their size was a feature—and today offer glimpses into the vast array of themes, subjects, and styles of Indian art. With these recent acquisitions, Mia has become a global destination for courtly Indian paintings.
This work was painted by Purkhu, a leading artist at the court of Sansar Chand, the raja of Kangra, a former hill state in present-day Himachal Pradesh. Purku was a master of complex compositions and evocative landscapes, and this work is an important example of religious narrative depictions in Indian art. The scene illustrates the poetic text written on the back of the painting, which describes an intimate moment shared by the Hindu deity Shiva and his wife, Parvati:
Let Shiva be victorious, who is so absorbed with the face of Gauri [Parvati] (his young bride) that he is unaware the snake forming his bracelet has drunk all the water that she pours into his hands during the performance of the evening’s ritual, seeing which [the maid] Vijaya laughs.
Translated by Gouriswar Bhattacharya, 2004
Shiva is one of the most omnipresent gods in the Hindu pantheon, endowed with numerous and seemingly paradoxical traits. Indicated in this painting by a thin crescent moon on his forehead, one of his common iconographical attributes, he is both destructive and benevolent, fearsome and familial. It is the more loving side of his personality that is portrayed in this painting.
The scene is set in a pleasant green meadow, the trees adorned with pairs of lovebirds and sprays of flowers. It is twilight, the sunset casting an orange glow over the subjects. Standing upon a smooth rock on the bank of a stream as it swirls behind him, Shiva locks eyes with Parvati. A tiny snake twists around his wrists, having just drunk the water that was cupped in his hands for performing the evening rite of saṃdhyā (a Hindu ritual bath). Shiva, so entranced by his wife’s beauty, does not notice.
Parvati stands across from him, upon a slope, and gazes down into his eyes with equal adoration. With a smile, she reaches up to grasp a branch of the flowery tree behind her. This gesture represents a more than 2,000-year-old trope(salabhanjika) in which a goddess touches a tree, allowing it to blossom and bear fruit, embodying notions of fertility and protection. Meanwhile, in the bottom right corner, a group of Parvati’s companions laugh at Shiva’s obliviousness. Their small presence gives the impression that they—and us, the viewers—are secretly spying on the couple’s intimate moment.
The transportive power of this painting, drawing the viewer into an enchanting and idyllic world, lies in Purkhu’s ability to convey rasa—in Indian aesthetics, the emotive essence of a work that may be difficult to put into words. He uses the wondrous beauty of nature to evoke the inflamed longing of divine love, while also capturing the very familiar human feelings of silliness and mischief.
“Purkhu has suspended time with fluid harmony, from the flowing lines of the dress to the creeping trees to the arc of the sky,” says Pujan Gandhi, Mia’s Jane Emison Assistant Curator of South and Southeast Asian Art. “It is pure delight.”