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"Drawing the likeness of anything is called tasveer. Since it is an excellent source, both of study and entertainment, His Majesty ... has taken a deep interest in painting and sought its spread and development. Consequently this magical art has gained in beauty. A very large number of painters has been set to work.
"From the Ain-i-Akbari, written by Abu] FazI in the reign of Emperor Akbar (r.1556-1605).
For a period of over two hundred and fifty years, from the mid-sixteenth to the early nineteenth centuries, there was a glorious flowering of painting in India. In the Imperial atelier at Agra, the Emperor Akbar a man of taste as well as the power and wealth with which to indulge it oversaw his artists as they created the works he had commissioned. It was a busy place, this atelier of Akbar's, where the great portfolios of the Hamza Nama and the Tuti Nama were painted and masters like Basawan, Daswanth, Kesho, Miskin and Lal put brush to paper. They were following in the traditions set by the Persian master painters, Mir Sayyid Ali and Abdus Samad, brought to India by Akbar's father Humayun.
But Akbar's artists were more than just copyists of the Persian style. They created the synthesis between India and Persia, between the formally-structured and decorative idiom of the Persians with its distinctive concept of perspective, and the vital, colourful but somewhat two-dimensional ouvre then prevalent in India. In the great kitabkhana at Fatehpur Sikri, Akbar's capital, they worked in teams and their output was prolific. Lesser accomplished artists undertook the arduous tasks of grinding the mineral pigments blue came from lapis lazuli, Indian red from oxide of iron, a more brilliant red from cinnabar, yellow from orpiment and gold from gold leaf. Thick handmade paper was repeatedly burnished on the reverse side with an agate to make the surface glossy, and after the primer coat of paint was laid, the master artist designed the scene and its colouring. To traditional Indian colours like indigo and deep madder, were now added the softer hues of delicate pistachio green and old rose. From this synthesis of form, of colour and content, was born the first truly enduring Indian style, one that was to spread to ateliers across the country, and influence artists elsewhere. It was a seminal moment in the history of Indian painting.
Seminal though it was, Akbar's atelier was part of a much earlier and longer tradition of Indian. Painting, a tradition that had spanned the course of more than a thousand years and seen cave paintings, and paintings on palm leaves, wood and cloth. The most famous examples, and deservedly so, of the art of ancient Indian painting are the cave paintings at Ajanta. So much has been written about them, about their supple and fluid lines, about their spatial and volumetric richness, about their naturalism. But in the end, nothing prepares you for their feeling of intense humanism, immediacy, and, yes, great joy. The images are densely packed, but in the unmistakable and universal grace of their contours and the warmth of the earth colours, there is a feeling of living, breathing presences.
Echoes of Ajanta are evident in the Buddhist palm leaf paintings of the eleventh-twelfth century Pala kings of eastern India. The threads are next picked up with Jain manuscripts, illustrated religious texts, a tradition which flourished between the eleventh and sixteenth centuries. During the Sultanate period of the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries came the Indo-Islamic confluence; but because of the disparate styles Afghan, Turkish, Persian there is no stylistic continuity. An outstanding work of this era is the Nimat Nama, commissoned by Ghiyasuddin Khilji of Malwa. The vitality of this work, perhaps the first illustrated cookbook in the world, draws equally from the spare elegance of line, a Persian characteristic, interspersed with the warmth of Indian textiles and poses. But the culmination of what could be called the indigenous style is found in the paintings of the Chaurapanchasika group and the folios of the Bhagavata Purana, among other examples, where the strong contrasting colours of religious manuscript illustrations were combined with a greater sophistication.
This then was the backdrop of Indian painting at the time of Akbar, the platform from which the next great impetus was to take place. Among the major contributions of Akbar and his artists to the development of Indian art was the introduction of portrait painting, a trend that was to be followed in later generations with great enthusiasm by miniature painters, and more especially by their patrons. But for the most part the paintings of that period, as of earlier periods, were illustrations for books and text illuminations, and the art of painting was closely associated with the art of the book. This was to change with Jahangir, Akbar's son, already an active patron of the arts when he ascended the throne; for his preference was for albums of single paintings. Jahangir had a deep and abiding love for the beauties of nature; flowers, plants, birds and animals fascinated him; and he commissioned his artists to paint them. Mansur was the most talented of these painters, whose superb executions of birds and flowers are intense and observant and have a grace and delicacy of touch.
These studies of nature were fresh and lyrical, but increasingly Jahangir turned to more formal compositions, and court paintings, and this direction was followed by his son and heir, Shah Jahan. There are now more portraits, scenes of audience (durbar) and processions, almost as if the weight of empire made its presence known in the pages of art. Nonetheless, many works of great artistic merit were executed in this period, including hunt and battle scenes painted with imagination and skill. A refinement of line and shading shows itself in the miniatures of this time.
However, active interest in art and its patronage went through ups and downs with succeeding rulers, and indeed Aurangzeb, who ruled in the second half of the seventeenth century, went so far as to dismiss his artists. Their dispersal led to a wave of Mughal influence in the courts to which they now flocked. A revival took place during the reign of Bahadur Shah; and a few years later, Muhammad Shah known to history as a pleasure loving monarch who preferred the company of women and buffoons to the more serious business of ruling also encouraged the arts. The paintings of his period depict moonlight revels, music parties and lovely concubines, themes executed in a mellow and graceful manner. But over the years the absolute centrifugal power of the Mughal dynasty had declined, and in 1738-39 the Persian invader Nadir Shah laid siege to Delhi and proceeded to strip it of its riches. This caused another exodus of painters, who fled to Lucknow, Patna, Hyderabad, the Punjab Hills and Rajasthan, and the future history of miniature painting was to take place in these provincial courts.
Meanwhile, far to the south in the Deccan, a parallel and contemporaneous development in painting had taken place in the Islamic Sultanates of Bijapur, Golconda and Ahmednagar. Here, in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, works of great mastery and unmistakably Deccani identity had been created, an interaction between Hindu traditions and the Muslim art of Persia, elegant Iranian line and earthy Indian colour. It was a world apart; as Stella Kramrisch writes "a kingdom of sated nostalgia, abandoned to scents and dreams, lingering in flowers, glowing in colours, calm and deep..." When the Deccan finally became subordinate to the Mughals, at the end of the seventeenth century, the style adapted itself to new conventions, combining Mughal, Rajput and Deccani elements.
The painters who had moved to Rajasthan settled themselves in the Rajput kingdoms of the area. Under the benign gaze of their new patrons, they gave fresh impetus to an existing tradition, a tradition rooted in the pre-Mughal style, strong of line and bold of colour. Local idioms were now combined with the supple refinement of the Mughal School to produce works of vibrant tenderness and intensity, each area having a distinct style and identity of its own. If Mewar (Udaipur) had austere lines and bold, burning colours, then Bundi was gentler, more lyrical, as seen in the famous Ragamala paintings. The soft colours and melting forms of Bikaner found a counterpoint in the elegance of Kishangarh. In the palaces of Kotah, of Jaipur, of Marwar (Jodhpur), and in the thikanas or estates of the local aristocracy, painters put brush to paper to record a variety of subjects and themes. .
The pre-occupations of the artist were naturally those of his patron. Court and hunt scenes abounded, a display of the mighty and valour of kings, who were also depicted leading their armies atop splendidly canopied elephants, astride magnificent horses or on camel-back. Individual portraits and illustrations from legends and epics were also painted; but one of the most remarkable themes was that of Ragamala, literally, the Garland of Ragas or musical modes. In Indian raga, the aural experience of heard music arouses certain moods and emotions, different ragas evoking different nuances ranging from the romantic to the deeply religious. The visual expression of these emotions, these feelings, richly delineated in colour and form, are the Ragamala paintings, which Coomaraswamy has described as "profoundly imagined pictures of human passion". Here is the ecstasy of love in union, as entwined lovers sway gently on a swing; here too is the despair and pain of love in separation, where the heroine pines for her absent lover against the poignant backdrop of indigo clouds. The passages of seasons, the intensity of sacred devotion, are all captured in the Ragamala paintings. Very often, the image of love is symbolised by the figures of Radha and Krishna, whose yearning and seeking is a metaphor for the soul's longing for God.
But the zenith of the Radha-Krishna paintings was surely reached in the hills of the Pahari kingdoms, far to the north, and with a climate and topography altogether more temperate than that of Rajasthan. Here, amidst verdant slopes and flowering trees, surrounded by women of beauty and grace, the artists of Guler and Kangra created those masterpieces of refinement and delicacy that were to delight and astonish the world. The concept of bhakti, that intensely personal love between man and his god, found a beautiful visual expression in the Kangra paintings of Krishna scenes. It is an enchanting luminosity that suffuses the paintings; now the golden light of day that shimmers on dense foliage, now the silver of moonlight reflected in river waters. It is a beautiful world of nature, lyrically reflected in the feathery brush strokes of the artist, with fine lines and glowing colours. It is also a world of beautiful humans with chiselled features and large dark eyes, radiant with youth and innocence. For its admirers, Kangra represents the most romantic form of Indian painting.
In the nineteenth century, a new milieu was evolving. The nature and character of patronage changed under the relentless pressure of history and colonialism. New classes, new tastes were emerging. The Europeans brought in the concept of realism and an altogether new palette of colours. Styles became precious, ornamented, or over-heated, and while miniature painting did not die it simply took different directions it never reached again the sublime heights that it had attained under its great patrons.
Writer - Asharani Mathur