Howard Hodgkin, who has been buying Indian paintings almost since he was a teenager, is the latest in a long line of artist-collectors, from Rubens to Picasso. The art collections of artists are unlike the collections of the rich and titled. The difference is hard to define, but it might come down to respect: the art bought by artists usually seems to have been bought for love, not display. Certainly that's the impression given by ''Indian Paintings and Drawings from the Collection of Howard Hodgkin'', which opened last week at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
Hodgkin has described art collecting as ''an illness'' and ''an incurable obsession''. Some works have obsessed him more than others. For the 16th-century Mughal watercolour called Mihrdukht Shoots Her Bow at the Ring he exchanged what was, at the time when he acquired it, his entire collection of Indian art: 62 paintings for one. ''But a good one.''
The standard explanation advanced for Hodgkin's love of Indian art is superficially convincing: here is a Western European artist, working within the Intimist tradition of Bonnard and Vuillard, who admires Indian art for its brilliant miniaturist qualities; an artist who finds, in the art of the Indian subcontinent, parallels to his own preference for bright, saturated colours and for a visual language of eloquent compression.
But this is to disregard the true qualities of most of the Indian art he owns. One of the more striking features of Hodgkin's Indian art collection is the predominance of low-toned, essentially linear paintings and drawings, especially from the Kota school. His interest in Indian painting may be hard to account for precisely because it does not neatly fit the standard genealogical model of influence peddled by conventional art history: the notion that artists who collect art are always in search of their ancestors; the idea that x must like y's work because he finds in it a striking prediction of his own. Much of what Hodgkin admires might be said to run directly counter to his own tendencies.
He likes the directness and straightforwardness of Indian drawing, its ''absolute, literal realism''. Looking at an early 18th-century hunting scene from Rajasthan, he admires the no-nonsense way in which it goes about telling a story. Hodgkin's painting sets itself against such forms of narrative clarity: his is an art of obliqueness, of subtle suggestions and glimmering ambiguities.
Hodgkin also admires the tremendously flexible approach to mimesis in Indian art, the sheer range of its representational languages. He has a particular fondness for paintings that combine a multitude of different viewpoints (conventionally perspectival, map-like, profile, aerial) and which ''seem to do so, almost miraculously, without any sense of dissonance or self-contradiction''.
Hodgkin has written well, and touchingly, about the Indian artist's supreme confidence in his own pictorial world: ''There are no saving clauses, no sudden descents into mysterious calligraphy or romantic vagueness, no hopeful journeys into the unknown. All is clear and, if not exact, at least concrete.''
Hodgkin owns very few overtly religious or allegorical Indian pictures, and a large number of essentially secular depictions of real places in which people are engaged in the commonplace activities of court and ordinary social life. One of the major sources of the fascination which Indian art holds for him is the way in which it serves up ''the real world on a plate''. Even in the allegorical works that he does possess, he is most touched by what he calls ''these sudden shafts of reality - those details (a portrait head, perhaps, or a part of the landscape) which suggest that the artist has, for a moment, gone beyond or behind the conventions in which he is working and allowed a little piece of the real world to seep into the image''.
Hodgkin likes Indian art's sheer alienness, the sense that it was created by people from an utterly different culture and with utterly different preoccupations from his own. Collecting may be in part, he suggests, an escape from the self and its preoccupations. ''It's an instant elsewhere''.
But the artist and the collector are not two different people, and it can certainly be argued that Hodgkin's painting has been affected by his love of Indian art. There are few visual similarities between a Hodgkin and a Mughal or Kota painting, but influence need not express itself through mimicry. A deeper and more complex affinity between collector and collected seems to be at work. When Hodgkin succeeds, in his own painting, he engineers a tension between the conventions of pictorial form and the pressures of lived, felt reality which is precisely analagous to what touches him most in Indian art. He uses his own, self- created vocabulary of feather-edged bars, blobs and stripes of colour to create an image meant to exceed the formal nature of its devices: an image that conveys an emotion; an image that lives in the subtle play between its forms and ''the sudden shaft of reality'' which it seeks to communicate. The difference is that the conventions of Hodgkin's own art have had to be constructed from scratch by the artist himself, whereas Indian artists inherited theirs. But this is only a difference of degree.
It is also possible to detect certain oblique stylistic connections between Hodgkin's art and that of India: the way he uses areas of pure colour to create, within essentially rather small pictures, a sense of large, spreading spaces; and, too, the freedom with which he combines different registers of style within a single painting. Hodgkin's love for Indian art is, like most forms of love, a complicated, difficult emotion.
A Marriage Procession in a Bazaar, Mandi, Punjab Hills, mid-17th century: ''What I think is most remarkable in this picture is the relationship of that tree, the third from the left, to the building that half-obscures it. There is nothing in Western art of the time that could prepare us for that: you would have the tree, and you would have the building. You would never have the tree cropped by the building. But that's reality, that's what one sees. And here it is in an image. Another wonderful thing about this is that the artist hasn't limited himself to any single viewpoint. One is looking at the market stalls head on, one is looking at the procession from above, one is looking at these buildings in the foreground from behind. Indian artists have this ability to describe space without any of the trouble that Western artists would have had. They just make space, OK. You also have all these precise depictions of people gossiping: the two women talking behind the buildings at centre right, the man sitting in a tree. It has the actuality of a news photograph.
This is far more minutely painted than a Pieter Brueghel the Elder, but it is also so confidently composed. All these tiny things, and yet it doesn't give way, ever, to niggliness. The beautiful white buildings in the foreground have been reduced to what could glibly be called a Cubist pattern. It's a sort of concertinaing of form: it's just squashed flat. Of course the discrepancies of scale are total. The windows are far too small to look through. Those people couldn't squeeze through those doors.''Howard Hodgkin
Rama, Lakshman and Sita in Panchavati, Mughal, c 1595-1600 (detail): ''This was sold to me by a great friend, who described it as a picture that had been painted specially for me in the first years of the 17th century. I do think it is extraordinary. Look at the feeling expressed between those two. The meeting of the eyes is something that is talked about in Indian iconography, and here it is - yet it is also adrift, in what is an incredible piece of pattern-making art.
The pavement is worthy of some great Italian master. Of course that is entirely the wrong way of looking at it, but we do, because we have been brought up in that tradition. So when I see this I think of Siena, or the floor of St Mark's in Venice. The architecture of course is pure fantasy, but then there is also reality there, in the trees and the landscape, reality creeping in. I am sure those double-pronged arrows are deeply symbolic, but I really don't care about the iconography. If you have a painting where Krishna is blue and it makes the picture wonderful because there is some blue in it - well fine. But I couldn't care if it was Krishna or somebody else.''
Elephant and Rider, Mughal, c 1640 (detail): ''Perhaps the elephant's shifting volume and surface, the colossal weight which can defy gravity and then sink to the ground in a heap, were to the Indian artist what the changing forms of the naked human body are supposed to have been to the Post-Renaissance European artist. They are indefinable, elephants, their forms are so limp and mobile, so perhaps not surprisingly many Indian paintings try to pretend they are completely the opposite, as here. This elephant is rather like certain Western paintings of horses, in which the animal is made transcendentally beautiful, completely idealised. But then you are also returned to the real world by the handling of the figure on the elephant's back, the way his flesh appears through his muslin clothes. But then again the fabric on the elephant's back is done like a patterned piece of cloth: there is none of the realism you find in the figure. All these different registers are there, which is why I am surprised that more artists in this century haven't been interested in Indian art. You would have thought that Juan Gris would have understood a painting like this.''