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"Every work of art is fragrant of its time," says Laurence Binyon. The religion of Vaishnavism and particularly, the Radha-Krishna cult provided Kangra painters with inspiration while in Sansar Chand they found a patron who honoured and encouraged them. It was in such happy circumstances that these artists created a style which combines elegance with nervous grace. There is delicacy and sensitivity in the line, combined with rare beauty of colour. For almost forty years these artists were aglow with inspiration and they created these memorable paintings which communicate spiritual concepts of the Krishna cult so vividly. It is not a spiritual art in the Western Christian sense, where spirit and body are regarded as two separate entities. It is not gloomy, cold and forbidding, but is an art which is a happy blend of the sensuous and the spiritual. The spirituality is not chilled by an asceticism which is disdainful of female loveliness and the delights of love. In fact, its spirituality is very much based on flesh and blood. It is an art which glorifies female beauty and revels in the loveliness of the female form.
This art is an interpretation of the religious creed of Vaishnavism, the religion of love, which inspired the poetry of Keshav Das, Sur Das, and Bihari. No doubt, the verses of these poets inspired whole cycles of painting in Rajasthan, but the manner in which Khushala, the Kangra artist, matched his imagination with the poet Bihari's is unique indeed. With what depth of feeling, and sincerity he has painted the love poems of Bihari! As in the art of China and Japan, there is a close association of poetry and painting in the art of Kangra. The aim of the artist was to embody in the picture the emotion caused by reading the poem. In this he achieved unique success, and in the process of translating poetry into painting, he also evolved an art which has lyrical quality. This explains the emotive power of these paintings, which are really love lyrics translated into line and colour. In no other art does one see such a successful and harmonious association of literary and plastic ideas.
The aesthetics of an age grows out of its environment, physical, cultural, spiritual, technological and economic. We have already mentioned the cultural and spiritual background of Kangra painting in the religion and poetry of the Vaishnavas. We will now explain the influence of physical environment on Kangra art. 'I do not want to exaggerate the importance of climatic factors,' says Herbert Read, 'but the fact remains that when-ever an ideological movement whether merely stylistic or profoundly religious and spiritual is transplanted into a region of different climatic and material conditions, that movement is completely transformed. It adapts itself to the prevailing ethos that emanation of the soil and the weather which is the characteristic spirit of a community.'" This is what happened to Mughal styles of painting when they reached the Punjab hills. Mughal painting had already achieved excellence in portraiture and scenes of the zenana. The fluid line and delicate colouring of some of the Mughal paintings is truly admirable. It is the religious paintings, however, in which princes and emperors are shown in conversation with saints, which are the most inspired products of the Mughal school, and have a rare mystic quality which is the hall-mark of great art. Such paintings are, however, few and the main preoccupations of the Mughal artists were durbar and hunting scenes, and portraiture. It is only when the later Mughal style reached the valley of Kangra and absorbed the elements of a new environment that it blended beauty and lyrical quality with exquisite flow of line. Mughal paintings were usually painted against the background of the drab and monotonous plains of northern India. When the artists introduced the gently undulating hills, rivulets and the characteristic vegetation of the Shivaliks, painting in the Kangra valley acquired grace and loveliness. In fact, it is the passionate love of hill scenery which dominates Kangra painting and lends it charm. The sophistication of the court, its dullness, and regimentation were forgotten. And instead the atmosphere of the hill village, with its joy, freedom, contact with nature, and serenity, makes its appearance. Take away the hills, the rivers, and the groves of trees from these paintings, and see how much they lose in beauty!
The Kangra valley is undoubtedly one of the beauty spots of the world, and people who are sensitive to beauty of nature, when they happen to visit it, come back full of praise for it. On the one side is a snow-covered mountain range towering to an altitude of 16,000 feet above sea-level. Below it is a green, sloping valley, at an altitude ranging from 3,000 to 4,000 feet, strewn with enormous lichen-stained boulders. Tropical mangoes and plantains jostle with temperate cherries, crab apples, medlars and rambling roses. No scenery presents such sublime and delightful contrasts. Carefully terraced fields, irrigated by streams which descend from perennial snows, present a picture of rural loveliness and repose which cannot be seen elsewhere in India. The terraces sparkle like mosaics of mirrors when they are flooded with water in the month of June. Then follows the velvet green paddy crop. Green is a soothing colour but it is hard to match the rich shade of paddy plants which shine like emeralds in the sun. Nowhere in the vegetable kingdom can we see such an exquisite shade of green, so comforting and so pleasant. Spread all over are homesteads of farmers, buried in groves of mangoes, bamboos, plan-tains and kachnar. Unlike most hillmen, the people of Kangra are conscious of the beauty of their land. In one of their folk songs, they thus pay homage to their native hills:
Oh mother Dhauladhar, you have made Kangra a paradise.
Green, green hills, and deep, deep gorges with rivers flowing.
Lithe and handsome young men, and lovely women who speak so gently.
Oh, my dear land of Kangra, you are unique.
If common people could feel the beauty of the valley, sensitive artists could not remain immune to it. In fact, they responded enthusiastically to the charm of gentle hills and rolling valleys.
It is, however, surprising that though the artists were living and working in a valley, where the snow-covered mountain range of the Dhauladhar is constantly in sight, in none of the paintings do we find the snows painted. The Dhauladhar is perhaps too domineering, cold and forbidding. That is why it seems the artists preferred painting the gently undulating Shivalik hills among which they lived.
The Kangra artists were hereditary painters who worked in the quiet of their cottages in the sylvan retreats of the Kangra valley. Sons and nephews were usually accepted as pupils and they served the master artists by carefully grinding mineral colours, a work requiring skill and patience. It is thus they were initiated into the art and technique of painting. Life was simple, and the Rajas provided foodgrains and a cow for milk to the artists. Whenever they presented a beautiful painting to the Raja, they were handsomely rewarded. Thus their economic needs were taken care of by their patrons, and they were free to devote their entire time to painting. Miniature painting requires infinite patience and care, and it is a type of art which could flourish only in an age of leisure, under a benevolent feudalistic system. At the close of the nineteenth century, art also languished because of the lack of patronage. Apart from this, the inspiration was gone, and the generation of geniuses, who painted the well-known masterpieces, had also passed away. Why, in particular periods, certain countries reach a high level of creativeness, is one of the unsolved riddles of history. The spell of creative enthusiasm which gripped the Kangra valley for a century and then ebbed away likewise remains only partially explained.
Here is an art which celebrates life and love. And with what delicacy the ecstasies of love are depicted! This art is truly a record of human joy. The eyes of lovers meet and a world of feeling and tenderness is revealed in them. There are chance encounters in the courtyard, and Radha who is keeping her secret from the prying and inquisitive sakhis, conveys her message in the language which the lovers alone mutually understand. Radha meets Krishna suddenly near the entrance door of her house. While he looks at her with hungry eyes, she stands veiled, with her face bent down, and she looks like a painted image, a picture of innocence, swayed by the crosscurrents of youthful passion and virgin modesty. We find her gazing at Krishna from the terrace, the windows and balconies of her home. With what elegance the artist has depicted the restlessness of love!
Clad in a white sari, the lovely girl is cooking. The beauty of her face, and the charm of her personality have brightened the kitchen.
Another characteristic of these paintings is the manner in which dramatic relations and expectancy are expressed through design, as well as expression, on the faces of the lovers.
Others are present, and, due to modesty, physical contact is not possible. She glances at Krishna with loving eyes through her veil, and on some pretext she moves away brushing her shadow with his shadow.
The lovers are standing in the balconies of their houses facing each other. Their fixed gaze has provided a rope on which their hearts travel fearlessly like rope-dancers.
Demonstrates the strength, as well as the weakness, of this form of art. While the delicate profile of the Nayika is so fascinating, the full face of her companion is positively repulsive. When these artists make an attempt to paint the full face they fail.
Clad in white, the lady has gone into the moon-light to meet her lover. It is white everywhere and hidden in it only the fragrance of the body enables her sakhi to follow her. The white radiance of the moon and its pale silvery light has been marvellously evoked by the artist.
The artist has shown considerable skill in painting night scenes. The night is pitch-dark and the lane is narrow. The lovers coming from opposite directions brush against each other, and only the light touch of their bodies enables them to recognize each other. How brilliantly the artist has painted the inky sky, resplendent with stars!
Against the background of a paddy field and her home stands the demure village beauty. Wearing a fillet, and holding a stick, stands she of the slender waist, with eyes downcast, unconscious of her innocent charm and beauty. A garland decorates her round breasts.
Excepting two, all the paintings of the Sat Sal are designed in an oval with an arabesque in the border.
Apart from forty paintings, out of which twenty-seven have been reproduced in this book, there are about twenty drawings or unfinished paintings. This suggests that the artist who had taken up the project of illustrating the seven hundred verses of Bihari may have died, leaving his work unfinished. It seems that the inscriptions on the back of the paintings were written later on. Out of the paintings reproduced in this book hardly ten bear correct inscriptions. The remainder have no inscriptions or have wrong ones, the situation shown in the painting being entirely different from that described in the poem. Out of the drawings ten are reproduced in this chapter.
The Nayika sits under a leafless tree, immersed in grief, while her companions show deep concern. The love-sick Nayika is sitting in the courtyard reclining against a pillow. Her sakhi thus addresses her: "O deceitful girl! you cannot conceal your feeling of love, even if you make a million efforts. Your simulated indifference is itself disclosing that your heart is saturated with love."
In the Nayika is sitting behind the trellis and is looking at Krishna, who is standing below. The poet says, "Although slanderous talk surrounds them, the lovers do not give up the joy of exchanged glances." The anxiety of the Nayika to have a glimpse of Krishna is great. The sakhis are standing on the stairs. Commenting on the eagerness of the Nayika, one says to the other, "Look hither a while, if you wish to see a marvel. Having torn the fence with her fingers, she has been looking at him with unblinking eyes for a long time."
Both the poetry and painting have a spirit of closeness to life, and in Radha, Krishna and their friends and playmates, we find farmers and herdsmen of the Kangra Valley, in their familiar surroundings of thatched cottages, nestling on the spurs of mountains, against the background of lakes and rivers.
Though it depicts the life of the rustics in the villages of the valley, Kangra painting is not a folk art. It is essentially an aristocratic art, the patrons of which were the Rajas who had fine sensibility and good taste. Thus, like the best art of Europe, Kangra painting is the art of an elite.
The Gita Govinda is a forest idyll, and in its Kangra paintings, the drama of the loves of Radha and Krishna is played in the forest, or along the river-bank. In the paintings of the Bhagavata Purana, the incidents in the life of the boy Krishna are depicted against the background of the forests of Vrindavana and the river Yamuna. It is the trees of the forest, and the current of the river which are most prominent in these paintings. On the other hand, in the paintings of the Sat Sal-the background of architecture provides the setting for the love drama of Radha and Krishna. It is against the background of straight lines of walls, windows and balconies that the games of love are carried on by Radha and Krishna, watched by the sakhis.
The parallel straight lines and right angles create a compositional pattern of restfulness and calm, illustrating Kafka's observation that 'closed areas are more stable.' Here we find the beauty of geometry in harmony with the beauty of the female form. Against the repose of the static architectural compositions, we feel the restlessness of love. While the architectural setting has precision, the human figures have a fluid grace matching the elegance of a waterfall against the straight vertical lines of a mountain. With what gliding grace lovely female forms flit across courtyards! And always there is a pair of confidantes discussing the course of love of the divine couple. They are unhappy and have an expression of serious concern on their faces, when there is dissension or misunderstanding among the lovers, and they are never tired of coaxing, cajoling, or giving advice. When the course of love runs smoothly, they are unrestrainedly happy.
The knitting together of form and colour into a coordinated harmony is the essential of great art. In these Kangra paintings, form and colour are so blended that the effect is musical. To achieve such a harmony, the artist made use of both line and colour in these paintings. The line which he used is the musical, rhythmical line, which expresses both movement and mass. The type of line which Blake admired, and regarded as the golden rule of art as well as life, is this: "The more distinct, sharp and wiry the bounding line, the more perfect the work of art, and the less keen and sharp, the greater is the evidence of weak imagination." And what a rhythm the dancing line creates, a pure limpid harmony! That is why these pictures are so comforting and so soothing, like the concertos of great Western composers of music such as Bach and Mozart. This line was effectively supplemented by colours the blues, yellows, greens, and reds, the pure colours of earth and minerals, which shine like jewels and have not been dimmed by the passage of time. The combination of fluid line and glowing colours ultimately produced an art which combines the beauty of figure with dignity of pose, set against the calm of the hills.
Writer Name: M.S. Randhawa