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Dance of Death

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The delicate, occasionally whimsical creatures depicted by Indian court artists currently on display at the Art Institute of Chicago seem innocuous at first glance. The colorful menagerie includes elegant gray herons, handsome hounds, a wizened baboon, a cheetah on a leash, and a cuddly black bear. Then you notice an 1875 watercolor from Calcutta showing Narasimha, the man-lion avatar of Vishnu, disemboweling the disbeliever King Hiranyakashipu. And Taming a Berserk Elephant depicts a chaotic scene of unsuccessful tamers beheaded, impaled, and smashed by an enraged beast.

"By their very nature elephants are gentle creatures," says Betty Seid, the researcher who coauthored the exhibit catalog. "They have no reason to be violent." Yet Two Charging Elephants (circa 1730) shows a pair of unchained pachyderms in combat, goaded on by their handlers. They look like a couple of monster trucks facing off. "Elephant fighting was a particularly popular sport in the state of Rajasthan," says Seid, adding that the once common animals often served as "limousines of state" and four-legged battle tanks.

"The artist understood elephant anatomy but has taken some liberties in almost making them balletic," says Seid. "It reminds me of the waltzing hippos in Fantasia. But he used the graphic possibilities of the curled trunks and interlocking horns--except elephants never use their tender trunks to fight. It would be like going into battle with the inside of your elbow. You'd never try to slug someone with that."

"The Holy Cow and Other Animals: A Selection of Indian Paintings From the Art Institute of Chicago" closes June 1 at the museum, which is at Michigan and Adams (312-443-3600).

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