India's arts and crafts: new books that offer an eye-popping overview

Both traditional and avant-garde Indian imagery are given colorful display in these four richly diverse books that celebrate the continent's creativity.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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Take a saunter through an import store or museum with Asian art. There's a moment when your vision seizes upon an object so color saturated, so replete with multiple stories about otherworldly creatures, you just guess it is from India. Or if you trace your heritage to India, these objects remind you of the extraordinary layers of artistic creativity of your complex homeland. These four extraordinary art books bring the sparkling colors and narratives of Indian art into startling relief.

'Four Centuries of Rajput Painting: Mewar, Marwar and Dhundhar,' by Vicky Ducrot (Skira, $85)

Indian miniature paintings create an immensely captivating world through delicate brush strokes on paper as small as a common greeting card. "Rajput" refers to a style relatively unhinged from Persian and European influences. Depicting scenes from mythology and religious literature of sacred elephants and romancing princes, the nearly 250 paintings collected by Vicky Ducrot, a cultural tour guide, offer culturally sensitive interpretations. Pigments reflecting their origins in silver, gold, and pulverized gem make these reproductions electrifying through repeated viewing. Quite possibly the more dramatically engaging overview of Indian art from the 16th through 20th century ever published.

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'V&A Pattern: Indian Florals,' by Rosemary Crill (V&A Publications, $12.95)

Seeking more electrifying art? Here is a combination book/CD-ROM focused exclusively upon floral patterns that have adorned Indian textiles over the centuries. Each of the 70 images within this petite volume becomes the expanse of your computer monitor when you view the nature-inspired ornamental motifs on CD. Whether in ink or pixels, these colorful folk patterns based upon lotuses, roses, and lilies will seem familiar since these designs have been transplanted into everything from wallpaper to men's ties in the West. Culled from the lavish textiles collection of the U.K.'s most craft-oriented museum, this bargain-priced primer to Indian floral design offers a gentle introduction to a greatly underappreciated vernacular tradition.

'Handmade in India: A Geographic Encyclopedia of Indian Handicrafts,' edited by Aditi Ranjan and M.P. Ranjan. (Abbeville Press, $65)

If you've become smitten with Indian handicrafts – clothing, toys, carpets, pottery, etc – this hefty encyclopedia will be your Rosetta stone for additional craft appreciation and collecting. Organized by region, and packed with hundreds of small but legible color photographs, no better guide exists in revealing the astonishing diversity of Indian craftwork. An added plus is how the materials, tools, and processes used in handmade crafts are elucidated alongside explanations of their symbolism and aesthetic value in today's Indian lifestyles.

'Chalo! India: A New Era of Indian Art,' by Karlheinz Essl (Prestel Publishing, $45)

Here's an unsettling but often humorous selection of new art from India from the 1990s to the present, a catalog from a first-rate exhibit at Tokyo's Mori Art Museum. Highlights include a number of young artists who cleverly repurpose the symbolism from traditional arts and crafts. Bharti Kher confronts women's rights by using the bindi, the red dot or third eye traditionally painted on women's foreheads, to cover a wounded female elephant sculpture. Reflecting the political and social tensions crystallized by consumerism, globalization, and fundamentalist protests, artists like Atul Dodiya mix Indian movie poster designs with surrealistic dream imagery to convey provocatively colorful protest against mindless materialism. "Chalo!" means "Let's Go!" in Hindi, and this book offers bracing evidence of a new artistic generation on the move.

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