I would rather look at the painted ceiling of Badal Mahal in Bundi Palace than just about anything else I can imagine. I immediately think: this is Rajasthan’s Sistine Chapel. Suddenly my trip to India divides itself in two–before and after Bundi.
Badal Mahal is an interior hall within Cloud Palace, itself a miniature palace within the empty, sprawling, Bundi Palace. The hall feels like a discovery, purposely hidden. The stairway leading up to it is narrow, the doorway so small; was its purpose to prevent easy access or escape? I believe this room was a Zenana, a place of women, a private harem of Rao Bhoj, and that the women didn’t have access to the outside world except for what they could see through the carved latticed windows. I wonder if they lived in a sort of captivity here, slaves to the art of beauty. I feel bitterness for them but also wonderment. I imagine them lying here on their backs, serving their rulers, gazing up at this masterpiece. I am dwarfed by the unfathomable history of India as it presents itself to me here, condensed into this glowing inner sanctum.
I enter the hall through the single door, go to the middle of the room and look up at the ceiling. In the center, a silver disk of moon holds a white, sanguine-edged lotus, surrounded by the heads of nine deities. They are all there–Shiva, Brahma and the rest–playing their polytheistic mischief. The nearness of this painted moon above pulls me like a tide. The mirror neurons inside my head are buzzing. I become strangely aware that my eyeballs are spherical and that the top of my skull is round and white like the moon. I get an itchy feeling in my painting fingers. This giant moon-blossom zings a beam straight into my forehead, lasering a third eye that I didn’t know I had before.
The origin of every image in the room seems to be that lotus moon, raining down its petal points, shape-changing into a garland of dancers, palm fronds, and peacock feathers full of eyes. The first ring out: Krishna and the gopis, crooked elbows linked together, dancing the visible world into existence. Their sky is red. I notice how delicately the interlaced fingers of Krishna and the gopis touch each other as if they are playing the strings of a veena, or lute. Six blue-faced Krishnas and six gopis, are paired off, each gopi gazing into the eyes of her own Krishna: as the story goes, each believes she is alone with him. That’s Krishna’s trick, to multiply himself, perhaps making a philosophical point about multiplicity and unity. Now I am reminded of myself as a traveler in this country of a billion people, imagining my one body among billions. I see myself tiny, among vast waves of human bodies all over the subcontinent. Is this a vision from Krishna? But here in this room I can count the sixteen dancing feet, see their clogs, bangles and fancy tights. The legs and feet look like they are propelled by some kind of sorcery, a percussion section keeping the beat. Clothing, garlands and jewels swing around in a fantastic invention of curls. It is a round, round world.
I am under an umbrella of sensual geometry, where the round moon marries the rectangle of the room: concentric energy radiates a kaleidoscope of scissoring diamonds and triangular arches. Each kite shape holds an image gem of the story-in-pieces, and they touch each other delicately at their angular tips.
Scenes of rescue and romance from the Ramayana swirl around in the sky. An army of monkeys and their king, dragons, geese, hawks, and pigeons accompany the gods and their avatars. Further down the wall at eye level is a Ragamala series, (Garland of Melodies) depicting nuanced emotional states in the love life of Shiva and Parvati. Celestial musicians are pictured, mirroring the once living musicians of the court who played here. Music seems to animate the architecture. I wonder if the singular rooster painted up there, weirdly out of place, indicates that we should imagine his earthly cock-a-doodle-do added to the music of the spheres.
Presumably these stories of the gods are stand-ins for the narrative that the ruler uses to represent himself and his court, celebrating the victories of love and conquest as his own. But how is it possible that this is what a ruler chose to do with his power? How is it that what was certainly a brutal form of power could be represented in such an intensely delightful way? There is a childlike playfulness permeating this place that reflects something about the attitudes of the Mughal Court. Could they compartmentalize to such a degree, intensifying pleasure and beauty at the expense of lower castes living down the hill with the actual monkeys and boars and their muck? As so often happens in India, these contrasts make my heart ache.
Who painted this heaven and when? From what I can gather, they were three painters, around 1605, at play with small brushes, on the brink of an artistic breakthrough, set loose to cover an entire room with pictures despite the fact that they were probably only experienced at making lap-sized paintings. They were from Chunar, from the imperial Mughal court, a gift from Akbar to the rulers of Bundi, in return for their obedience. But this is certain: they were inventing a new form; they improvised the composition; they made manifest the exquisite joy and physical exuberance of humans and other animals together in an imagined space.
The sky of my childhood was a dome-like shell, painted light blue or black at night, like a fresco. If you could get up there somehow you could poke your finger through the sky, to the other side, to nothingness. Out there was the invisible, the un-manifest. I understand the sky of Badal Mahal is the same metaphor as my childhood sky: the skin of painting is where the invisible takes form. In that sky, I need Krishna to keep dancing the Rasa lila, celebrating the love between the human and the divine through the night of a billion years, and the three painters from Chunar to hold it up, until the heavens fall on Bundi.