My favourite painting: Nicholas Coleridge

It’s like an 18th century Lowry, with so many characters, each of them different

Maharana Jagat Singh attending an elephant fight at the Chaugan during Navratri, 1750, by Syaji and Sukha, 25½in by 35in, The Udaipur City Palace Museum, Rajasthan, India

Nicholas Coleridge says:
‘This was the picture that kick-started my love of Indian miniature painting and inspired me to start collecting them. I love the bird’s eye perspective, enabling you to see everything that’s happening, all the action across the courtyard, the colour and life. There are almost 500 figures in the picture—I counted—from the Maharana and his courtiers to the fire dancers and elephant mahouts to the naked sadhus perched on the gate. It’s like an 18th century Lowry, with so many characters, each of them different. It is the most joyful of paintings and I wish it belonged to me.’

Nicholas Coleridge is President of Condé Nast International and incoming Chairman of the V&A

John McEwen comments:
‘This painting dates from the year before Jaghat Singh II died and shows the Navratri (‘Nine Nights’) festival at Udaipur. Jagat Singh was famed for his artistic patronage and the Hindu Navratri festival—the most famous takes place in the autumn—vaguely approximates to our harvest festival. In Udaipur, each day of Navratri began with a morning procession to the Chaugan arena led by the Maharana on his stately black horse, accompanied by nobles and attendants. Buffaloes were sacrificed—all but one of their carcases are seen at the bottom of the picture—followed by a fight between two mounted elephants, in this instance, Virabhadra and probably Aradal. The elephants are shown at various stages of the contest.
‘They are controlled by attendants who excite them with goads and firecrackers while a naqqara (drums) and shehnai (mixed instruments) band performs on the bandstand. An audience of courtiers, townspeople and sadhus (holy men) line the walls.
‘Sir Howard Hodgkin, the artist who is also renowned for his collection of Indian paintings, owns the other similarly large collaborative work by Syaji and Sukha for Jagat Singh. He has written: ‘For an artist there are elements of scale, form, and colour that are beyond verbal description. In Indian painting I have found much that for me could be found nowhere else, but I cannot tell you what—I can only metaphorically wave my arms at the pictures—and say look!’ One of his preferences is for elephants, especially when painted so that their ‘wild movement’ appears ‘almost weightless’.