Looking into cases at the small, utterly engaging exhibition of Indian paintings at the British Museum (Faith, Narrative and Desire, until 11 November) I kept bumping my head against the glass. Little greasy smudges showed where others had done the same thing. A label that describes how these works were first used helps explain why we wanted to get close to them. They were not intended to be hung on walls, but to be passed from hand to hand, ‘often enjoyed intimately, at particular times of the day and among a small group of people’ who would ‘share in the particular moods evoked by the paintings’.

There is one large portrait in the Mughal style at the beginning of the exhibition. The subject, however, despite such Mughal details as the flower held deftly between thumb and finger, is a Hindu: Maharana Karan Singh of Mewar. As the refinements of Mughal miniature painting spread south to the Rajput courts, they led to a hybrid style of exceptional beauty and vigour.

Although the character of what is shown varies from place to place, there is little sense of individual personality. The visual arts, we are told, ‘were usually deemed to be trades that were caste-specific and handed down through generations’. The manual skill is astonishing. The perfect representation of fabrics in which each motif in a repeated pattern is set out, and the transformation of any natural or man-made thing – a forest, a storm, a palace, animals, clothing – into a pattern gratify a deep appetite for well-organised things. One is reminded of how destructive, or at least over-complicating, the invention of linear perspective was to a natural order of understanding. We know the side of a box is a rectangle. Make it, in pursuit of perceptual truth, a rhombus and you achieve an illusion which is paid for in lost simplicity.

In their pictures young children ignore perspective, line things up, put a blue streak at the top of a picture to represent the sky and finish it with a row of flowers at the bottom. Some of these Indian pictures do this too, but do it beautifully and inventively, making patterns of delightful complexity. Other things depicted are not investigated at all. Faces, for example, are in strict profile and almost identical. Colours, like shapes, are there in their own right, unmodulated by distance or shadow. Subject-matter repeats. One kind of picture (often of a lover longing for an absent loved one, or of the loves of Krishna) illustrates musical modes. These are called Ragamalas (‘garlands of melody’). Another series of variations on more or less prescribed traditional images are Barahmasa, which describe the months in poetry and songs as well as in pictures (The Month of Bhadon is shown here).

‘The Month of Bhadon’ from the exhibtion, ‘Faith, Narrative and Desire’ at the British Museum, November 2007

A picture like the Pahari painting of c.1720, from the sub-Himalayan valleys of Himachal Pradesh, where Hindu courts preserved their political independence right through the Mughal period, is typical. It shows a woman in a pavilion in conversation, or so it looks, with the black snake curled round the neck of a plump pink vase. The whole is enclosed in a saffron yellow border and there are areas of wonderful dull purple.

The simplicity of this picture can seem provincial when compared with Mughal miniatures in the Persian tradition, but while delicacy and refinement have been overwhelmed by something coarser, it is also strong and confident. In another much more ‘Mughal’ image, Radha chases the shadow of a kite. Krishna (known, as he always is, by his blue skin) can be seen far off, flying the kite from a distant rooftop. The message – that we chase shadows and miss substance – is told with an unusual degree of movement and elegance. Radha’s clothes flow as she runs forward and the colours – orange, pale green and violet – do not, this time, bring to mind the saturated spectrum of spices (turmeric, pepper) but the pale, sweet colours of a Pontormo fresco. Also here are ‘Company Pictures’, commissioned from local artists by Europeans. The habit of neat, explicit detail could be put to work recording plants, native types and customs as easily as it could celebrate changing seasons.

There is a wall of Paithan paintings in which there is no shadow of Persian refinement. In these bold, stylised illustrations of Hindu epics, strong black outlines, bright colours, fierce expressions (eyes black and round like targets), weapons and their bloody work are woven into patterns in which heroes and demons pack the whole space of the sheet. There were groups, into the last century, whose occupation was to travel about showing pictures of gods and heroes and telling stories about them. These Paithan paintings would have been held up as illustrations to a poetic epic.

How anaemic, when contrasted with the uses of art suggested by this exhibition, are European ways with pictures. Daumier, perhaps because he was an illustrator working in the world of popular image-making, as well as a painter, gives the liveliest account we have of how people relate to pictures once they are made. Things were different then – the flood of commercial imagery had only just begun – but he picks on moments which are still recognisable. (And some which are not. I don’t think many people hang round the Academy’s Summer Exhibition hoping to have their importance bolstered by being recognised as the subject of a portrait.) His print collectors are not a totally extinct breed, even though I doubt if the number of people who leaf through prints of an evening is even as great as those who reach for a volume of poetry. Daumier’s contemplative connoisseurs and groups of collectors, gathered around a portfolio, are a bit like a Ragamala party as one imagines it. Open day at the painter’s studio, however, with the artist, palette in hand, in the background has too much individual creative hubris about it to fit with the tradition of caste-based artist craftsmen. The artist is not here seen as a man whose skill could be subordinate to the story he tells.

Of course, we sit for many hours in front of screens scanning images. But those images are not also things. One butts eagerly against the glass cases in which this exhibition is housed partly because one’s pleasure in the density of the pigments, the delicacy of the brush-marks – everything that makes them things as well as pictures – tells of an element missing from our own visual diet.

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