The famously neutral Swiss are involved, this time, in a transcontinental rescue mission to free a forgotten people. The works of great artists of India are on show till August 20 at the Museum Rietberg, Zurich.

Why are so many early Indian paintings so small as to be labelled miniatures? Would a large canvas not free up the artist, the way the novel liberates the writer to deepen plot and characters in greater detail? Why would an entire colony of authors, for instance, opt to slave over the short story? The artist Purkhu — one of our foremost photojournalists, active between 1780 and 1820 — provides an answer through a painting with an exhaustively explanatory title, Maharaja Sansar Chand of Kangra Contemplates Paintings with his Courtiers. The king and his cohorts hold in their hands illustrations of women, and the painter himself stands at a corner, clutching a striped cover that possibly contained the pictures being passed around, the way we returned from vacations and huddled with family and handed out photographs before the digital camera transformed that warm image into isolated individuals ghostlit by laptop screens at 2.00 a.m.

Closer view

This, Purkhu says, was how paintings were once viewed in courts – not by standing five feet away from a large canvas but by sitting down and poring over detail in a picture clasped in the palm. Eventually, when paintings grew bigger, a new set of questions arose. How did painters, hitherto masters of compression, grapple with the expanse of real estate in front of them? Did they anticipate the photographic technologies of the zoom and the blowup and enhance the central object without losing focus? Or did their techniques evolve? The Udaipur artist Tara provides an answer through a newfound elaborateness in the palace scenes, with facades that protrude and recede with increased vigour and perspective, and with a fresh gaze that incorporated the aerial view in addition to the frontal. In Maharana Sarup Singh Playing Holi, exuberant bands of colours (leaping across the frame like small, single-hued rainbow arcs) contrast with orderly rows of onlookers, courtly etiquette uncompromised by festivity.

For centuries, Indian art was dominated not by Purkhu or Tara but a painter also found in numerous volumes of poetry – that self-effacing gent who called himself Anonymous. The committed art scholar and the keen-eyed connoisseur might hold forth on Tara's experiments with European techniques or Sahibuddin's attempts to suggest movement within the frame, but these names were barely known to the man on the street, the way a Michelangelo or a Rembrandt is familiar to eyes and ears around the world. Indian artists left behind no records, no diaries; their art was their autobiography. But now, thanks to Eberhard Fischer, Jorrit Britschgi and their team from Museum Rietberg, Zürich, these artists are no longer anonymous. They have been resurrected in an exhibition that opened the weekend after Easter, the day that saw the resurrection of a different kind of creator, a carpenter.

The exhibition, titled The Way of the Master — The Great Artists of India, 1100–1900, resides in the museum's basement, and the descent from the brightly lit entrance above – home to the gift shop and the information desk and other accoutrements of the business of art in the present day – carries the impression of navigating a wormhole to a land that time forgot. Fittingly, the painting that greets the visitor is a reminder. Titled Self-Portrait and Portraits of Artists, its margins feature miniature portraits of the painter (Daulat) along with some of the best-known artists of his time – and in a swashbucklingly romantic gesture, Daulat's image has been isolated and enhanced into separate portrait. (The original painting, far smaller in size, hangs alongside in shame, a rebuke to any culture that fails to remember its creators.) The unheralded painter has been rescued, in other words, from the margins he was confined to, and he is now the subject of a breathtaking show that celebrates him and many others like him who toiled away at the margins of courts, in the margins of history.

The display spans from the book cover and folios from a Pala-period Pancharaksha manuscript — eighth to late twelfth century; these Buddhist palm-leaf manuscripts are among the earliest examples of Indian painting, and an early instance of art that was held in the hand and inspected — to the ethnographic portraits commissioned by Scottish brothers William and James Fraser, both civil servants with the British East India Company, fascinated by the infinite dimensions of a new country and its people. The numbers are so formidable — 800 years of Indian painting; 200 masterpieces; more than 40 artists — that the only sane recourse, on a given day, is to duck into a corner and dwell on its treasures. The corner I pick is devoted to the Kota Master C — an anonymous artist designated only by alphabet, like his compatriots A and B. The name of the painting reveals its contents, Rama, Lakshmana, and the Army of Monkeys and Bears Besiege Lanka, but not the bold colours in its form, an orange battleground bordered by red splashes of bloodshed.

Old records

Why are these artists being recognised and revered in a country so far away from the one they belonged to and in whose kings they found generous patrons? Why isn't India the largest lender of paintings to this exhibition? Why, with the exception of the distinguished art historian BN Goswamy, hasn't any Indian expert donated his time and services? Forget not originating in India, why is this exhibition not even stopping by the country, so that its people can finally claim their own Renoirs and Raphaels? These, finally, are questions that find no answers in the exhibition, which runs May 1 through August 21, 2011, after which it will travel to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. A press release boasts, rightfully, “Never before has it been possible in the West to acquaint oneself with the entire history of Indian painting at a single exhibition.” They might have added, “And never, alas, in the East.”

Back to the Future

As much as the exhbition is about old art, there is enough to hint at what painting would evolve into – photography, and finally, the frozen mise en scène of the cinema shot. An Acolyte's Progression – by Nainsukh, whose very name suggests a willingness to pleasure the eye – features a young man in four ”scenes.” Shot 1: He has his head shaved. Shot 2: He begins his journey and sees a tree laden with fruit. Shot 3: He is on the tree, arm extended, the fruit just out of grasp. Shot 4: As he walks away, the fruit falls on his head. Slice this cosmic joke of a painting into four individual strips and you have a flipbook, a succession of frames ready to run through the mind's projector as uninterrupted action.

Elsewhere, there are early manifestations of a distorted reality that, in the twentieth century, would come to be called Expressionism. In Rao Bhoj Singh Killing a Tiger, the king is perched on a tree as his quarry lunges at him, its hind legs pressed on the ground and its elongated torso spanning the entire tree trunk. The exaggeration simultaneously renders the animal more fearsome, the attacker more fearless. And in Kunwar Anoop Singh Riding, the king's corpulence is mirrored in the deeply rounded croup of his mount. You have to wonder if the artist was rewarded for his sense of humour or if he wound up under a creature even more corpulent, the royal elephant.