Culture- ART FEATURE- Pulsing palettes: Up close with Indian painting

Have you ever wondered what goes into a tube of paint? Even if you haven't, Victoria Finlay's Color: A Natural History of the Palette will open your eyes to startling facts underlying the manufacture of paints and dyes through the ages. Who knew crushed bugs from South America produce the richest reds? Or that the essential ingredient in the vibrant yellow of many Indian miniature paintings is urine passed by cows fed mango leaves?

While discussing UVA Art Museum's current exhibition of Indian painting, "Intensity of Observation and Infinite Significance," curator Dan Ehnbom further revealed the cow-pee color actually glows when placed under a black light. Art historians use the test to distinguish true "piuri," dating to the Mughal era of Indian painting (1526-1858), from an inferior yellow made with arsenic (which at least keeps vermin away).

The Mughals not only fostered innovations in producing pigments, they also introduced a Persian style of painting more highly refined than the bold styles indigenous to Rajasthan, India (known collectively as Rajput). Under the 16th century ruler Akbar, the two approaches combined to create a new hybrid aesthetic. The current exhibition includes examples of all three styles in its display of Mughal portraiture and illustrations from Indian sacred texts.

What unifies all the works, though, is the sumptuousness of their palettes, whether revealed in a courtier's teal slippers or by the yellow blocks reserved for Sanskrit text in representations of the Ragamala, a compendium of Indian musical modes. Even the colors in pieces dating to the early 1500s still zing thanks to the artists' technique for working pigments into the paper and also to the fact that they're folio pages, which protected them from the elements.

"This kind of painting is really an art of the book," Ehnbom explained. "They're made to be seen close up."

Painted with the finest brushes (sometimes consisting of a single bristle), meticulous, color-rich patterns ornament stylized fabrics, architectural details, and even the natural world. Particularly impressive are the Ragamala illustrations. In one, an elephant festooned with bells and ornate fabric paws at coral and mauve stairs ascending to a palace, where blue-skinned Krishna stands on an olive-colored verandah consulting with two visitors.

The Museum opted to hang the paintings on panels of royal blue to bring out the best in their jewel-like colors. A shortcoming of the show, however, is its lack of signage explaining the colorful stories behind the colorful paintings.

"Intensity of Observation and Indian Significance: Indian Painting at the University of Virginia Art Museum" is on view through March 25. 155 Rugby Road. 924-3592.