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Introduction to Indian Court Painting

Posted by Art Of Legend India [dot] Com On 10:01 PM
An elephant and royal rider A detail from the painted border of a Jain yantra A remarkable flowering of regional schools of painting took place at the Muslim and Hindu courts of northern India and the Deccan between the 16th and 19th centuries. Today this enormous production of pictures and illustrated manuscripts has been largely dispersed by the disinherited princely families and is found in public and private collections throughout the world. Even to modern man, living in Babel of visual information, the appeal of Indian pictures is immediate. They were made above all to delight the eye by their rich colour harmonies and fluent clarity of line and, by keeping in each case to a traditional range of expressive conventions, to impart mainly auspicious or pleasurable sentiments, whether of royal grandeur, devotional wonder or a refined eroticism. It was an art inseparable from the courtly milieu and its preoccupations both with religious, literary and musical culture and with the self-regarding imagery of power and display.

Except at the Mughal court, where the best of them were un-usually honoured, the painters themselves were generally artisans of no special status, hereditary craftsmen who transmitted a continuous tradition which was modified in each generation as a result of their patron's interest or lack of it in their work. Stylistic changes can often be related to the personalities of individual rulers, so far as we know them: they are on the whole better recorded by the more historically minded Muslim chroniclers than by the Hindu bards and genealogists. 

The chaste monk avoids the lures of women From a manuscript of the Uttaradhyayana Sutra Cambay, Gujarat
The medium used by the artists was gouache: mineral, vegetable and animal pigments mixed with gum arabic, often with embellishment in gold and silver, applied to a prepared paper or, more rarely, cloth support. At the Muslim courts the finished work was often mounted within wide paper borders which were ruled and decorated in gold and colour; Rajput pictures tend to have an integral painted border, often a bright lacquer red. The whole picture seldom exceeded a size suitable for holding in the hand. Although Indian paintings are nowadays seen hung uncompromisingly in rows in galleries, they were not intended for wall display. In the palaces their designs were sometimes enlarged and coarsened in mural paintings, of which few early examples survive. Paintings on paper were kept bound in albums or stacked in cloth-wrapped bundles in libraries or store-rooms, from which they would be fetched by command, to be appreciatively inspected at intimate gatherings of nobles or ladies.

An audience of this kind would have understood naturally the pictorial conventions employed by artists of their own and neighboring courts, and the densely interwoven mythological, poetical and musical allusion implicit in their subject matter. Such resonances could be lost on the modern viewer, who may also be bewildered by the sheer diversity of the regional court styles represented in museum collections, with subjects ranging from naturalistic portraits of rulers and courtiers to farouche depictions of Hindu deities or of the modes of North Indian music (ragas) personified as gods, princes and ladies. This diversity reflects above all the differing religious and cultural traditions of the four principal dynastic and regional centres of patronage. 

The marriage of Krishna's parents From a dispersed manuscript of the Bbagavata Purana RajasthanFrom the late r6th century the most influential of these was the prolific atelier of the Muslim Mughal emperors, who dominated northern India from their courts at Agra, Delhi and Lahore. It was complemented by the distinct traditions maintained by the independent Muslim sultanates of the Deccan until their annexation by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in the 168os. At the same time, a great variety of local styles, influenced by Mughal example but fundamentally indebted to older, indigenous traditions, flourished at the semi-independent Hindu courts of the Rajputs. These formed two geographically separate groups, in Rajasthan and Central India to the south and in the Punjab Hills to the north. If the Rajasthani and Pahari (or 'Hill) schools did not often achieve or seek the technical refinement of the best Mughal and Deccani painting, they made up for it both in intensity of feeling and in their greater longevity. Their relative isolation and closeness to folk roots enabled them to survive the political disasters of the T 8th century and, in the case of some Rajasthani schools, to continue into the mid- 9th century, or even later at a few courts, where the undermining influences of Western art and photography were for a time success-fully assimilated or ignored.

Painting Before the Mughal Period

A lady worshipping the lingam An illustration to the musical mode Bhairavi ragini RajasthanThe painting of India's classical civilization (c.500 BC-1000 AD) has been almost entirely destroyed by the climate, pests and later Muslim iconoclasm. Early literary sources describe palaces, houses and temples as being abundantly decorated with wall-paintings. Painting on wood or cloth was also widely practised, and picture-making is one of the sixty-four polite arts enjoined on the cultivated man or woman in the Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana. A glimpse of this incalculable loss to world art is offered by the remains of wall-paintings at the Buddhist cave-temples of Ajantamoo BC-500 AD). Their depictions of scenes from the lives of the Buddha evoke an ideal world, peopled by aristocratic and serenely graceful gods, men and women living in harmony with nature. The artists' methods, which included naturalistic techniques of tonal modelling and spatial recession, are recorded in extant manuals (shilpashastras).

The later paintings at Ajanta, however, appear to stand at the end of the classical tradition supported by the Gupta and Vakataka dynasties (fourth and fifth centuries). In the following centuries a gradual regression occurred from naturalistic, modelled forms to stylised outline drawing enclosing flat, decorative colour areas. Something of the graceful quality of Ajanta painting still remains in the earliest surviving illustrated palm-leaf manuscripts, produced in the scriptoria of the great Buddhist teaching monasteries of eastern India under the Pala dynasty in the 11th and 12th centuries. Paintings of the Buddhas or of associated deities, either wrathful or benign like the compassionate goddess Tara plate were introduced into the sublimely metaphysical Buddhist wisdom texts not for illustration but for the protection of the owner and the manuscript. 

LadyFrom the early 13th century northern India was overrun by Turks and Afghans from Central Asia, who established Muslim: dominance over all but the far south of the sub-continent. With the destruction of the monasteries, Buddhist culture all but disappeared in its homeland, and the Pala tradition was carried on only in Nepal and Tibet. Hindu religious and secular culture also suffered from the removal of royal patronage. The culture of the Muslim sultans was Persian, and their taste in painting extended only to manuscript illustration in Persianatc styles. During these lean early centuries of Muslim rule, the native tradition of painting was largely kept alive by members of the wealthy merchant classes of western India who were devotees of Jainism, an ascetically inclined religion founded by Mahavira, a near-contemporary of the Buddha, in the 6th century BC. Prosperous Jain laymen commonly sought religious merit by commissioning illustrated copies of sacred texts for presentation to monastic libraries. Huge numbers of stereotyped and sometimes gaudily opulent series of illustrations were thus produced.

The regression towards a linear, conceptual mode of representation was now complete. One of the characteristic features of the style is the protrusion into space of the further eye of the human face seen in profile. Nevertheless, their wiry drawing, simplified colour schemes and profuse detail can give Jain paintings an energy and charm of their own. The schematic and literal-minded approach of the artists to their subject matter is seen in a lively illustration, divided into upper and lower registers, of the ideally chaste monk, who is unmoved by the beguilements of women. 

mughal princessJain patronage thus preserved intact elements of a native style, which were by the early 16th century to be revivified by artists working in a new and more expressive idiom. During the 15th century a resurgence of popular Hindu devotional cults had occurred throughout northern India, centred on the incarnations of Vishnu as the hero Rama and, more particularly, as Krishna, the youthful, dark-skinned cowherd god. Krishna's mythical exploits during his childhood and youth spent in a village in the Braj country near Mathura included the slaying of many demons and a tyrant king as well as various love sports with the local milkmaids, among whom Radha became a preeminent figure. 

These episodes were celebrated in devotional verse in the Sanskrit and vernacular literatures, and they also came to be represented in a vigorous, widespread style of manuscript illustration. The patrons of this new development appear to have been both the Vaishnavite merchant classes of the Mathura region and, at a more refined level of production, the still independent Hindu courts of the Rajputs, who had resisted Muslim incursions and continued to rule the adjoining regions of Rajasthan and Central India. A page from the most lively and inventive of the surviving manuscripts in the style shows an enhanced spatial sense and fluency of drawing and a use of glowing colour to create an atmosphere of elation appropriate to its subject, Krishna's parents are shown standing before the sacrificial fire, on which the priest who is marrying them pours ghee, while female attendants and male guests look on. 

Mughal Era Indian PaintingAs patrons of learning, literature, music and art, the Rajput rulers also preserved and developed the secular traditions of classical Indian culture. Manuscript illustrations of poetical texts were produced in the same style as the devotional themes, and the two streams were in fact largely indistinguishable. 

Down to the 19th century, Krishna subjects in particular became closely associated with the imagery of poetical and rhetorical works. Displaying the Indian passion for minute classification, these enumerated the many different types of male and female lovers and their emotional states, or, in the case of ragantala texts, evoked the essential character of the ragas or musical modes in images of gods, ascetics, nobles, ladies and animals in specific attitudes and configurations. In one of the earliest surviving ragantala pictures the mode Bhairavi is described in the verses above as a lady of fair complexion who worships Shiva in his litigant (phallic) form with flowers, songs and cymbal accompaniment at a lakeside temple near the sacred Mount Kailasa's As so often in Rajput pictures, there is a mingling of the devotional and erotic sentiments, hinted at by the temple finial in the form of a flag-bearing inakara, a mythical aquatic beast emblematic of the love-god Kama. 

Love of Krishna
In its allusive subject matter, bold drawing and juxtaposition of broad areas of pure colour, this style of painting anticipates the later work of the Rajasthani and Central Indian schools, whose individual histories only begin to be clear from the early 17th century onwards. However, their continuity from the earlier style is difficult to trace precisely, for from the late 16th century Rajput patronage was both disrupted and modified by the coming of the Mughals, the last and most powerful of the Muslim dynasties of northern India.

Writer – Andrew Topsfield


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