Reviving Pahadi Miniature Art

Art, painting and aesthetics have always been a tradition of India – the elaborate architecture works, sculptures and paintings from the various schools of Hindu, Buddhist and Jain traditions. Royal patronage and well as community-sponsored works of art were a common phenomenon, as art was a form of collective expression and a means of preserving our heritage for posterity.

Miniature paintings were a common form of art and artists were always encouraged. With the coming of the Islamic rule, new forms and styles were introduced as artists from Persia were brought to India. However, under the rule of Aurangzeb, all forms of patronage to arts of any kind stopped. As a result, the late 17th century saw a steady and large-scale exodus of painters and artists from Delhi, who went to the different princely courts of Rajasthan and some came to the foothills of present-day Jammu and Himachal Pradesh for survival. It was here that they re-established themselves under the benevolence of smaller Rajas and courts and set the nuances and styles of their miniature paintings.

The beginning of Pahari miniature paintings can be traced to the court of Raja Kripal Pal of Basohli (1678 to 1731 AD). Before the coming of the Mughal court artists, the style of painting was very simple and mainly depicting scenes from the surrounding hills. A shift was experienced in the mid-17th century, with the arrival of new artists and the love of Radha –Krishna becoming the dominant theme. The literary compositions of the Geet Govinda by Jayadeva and Rasmanjiri became major inspirations for miniature artists.

Consequently, Pahari artists not only attained fame but also received huge patronage, mostly from the local kings. They were commissioned to paint lives of the royal families – the kings and their courts, fight scenes, armies on horses and elephants, shikar (hunting), love and other scenes. The great ruler of Kangra, Maharajah Sansar Chand (1765–1823 AD) is recognized as one of the greatest patrons of this form of art and is credited with making the Kangra School an eminent branch of Indian art.

Barely three centuries after its peak, the Pahari miniature school of painting now faces an existential challenge. Without immediate and significant governmental support or patronage by the new Maharajas – the doyens of Indian businesses, this form could fade from the Indian canvas.

Vijay Sharma, a Padma Shri awardee and a painter from Chamba district who has held several exhibitions in India and overseas, was recently quoted as saying that there was no government policy in place to preserve the Pahari style of paintings. He further added that the very few teachers of Pahari paintings left were also not in a position to pass on their legacy to the next generation due to lack of public support and financing. Today, the few families still engaged in practicing the art have been reduced to making decorative panels for doors or windows and drawing rooms.

While the beginnings of the Pahari School were started in Basohli in Jammu district, today it has almost disappeared from the cultural fabric.  On a chance visit to Basohli around eight years ago, I enquired about miniature artists as I was very keen to work with them, but despite extensive search in Jammu, there were no answers. There was an artist who had no knowledge about the natural pigments and was doing mediocre copy work in poster colours. There seemed to be no patronage and encouragement at all by the State Government of that time. It was very disheartening to see that. Great examples of Basohli art can now be seen only in the museums in Jammu.

Similarly, on a visit to Kangra, I discovered that the art had practically died out due to the lack of patronage. I still went around asking people but in vain. Raja Aditya Katoch, the then king of Kangra told me that there is a beautiful collection in the fort museum. But he was not aware of any artist who was still doing that style of paintings anymore. There was a school started by the local government but it was only copying older works and was using modern colours and paints. There was not much of a possibility to work with Pahari paintings and so I continued my interest in the miniatures of Rajasthan.

My Discovery of Miniature Paintings.

Art has been an important aspect of my life. Like all small children, I too loved drawing and colouring. In school, my favorite classes were the art classes and I opted for Batik, Tie and Dye, Oil painting and watercolors in the final years of my schooling.  Museums and art galleries were my favorite outings, though, the appreciation of contemporary art styles was lacking in me. Later in life, hours were spent admiring the works of the masters wherever I went.

My love for miniature paintings started post my university graduation. The fascination for the traditional schools of miniature paintings had me in their grip. I made multiple trips to the National Museum in Delhi to admire the different schools of Indian miniature art. On my trips overseas, I started visiting the Indian section of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the famous “India room” in the Schoenbrunn Palace of Vienna or the gallery of miniature paintings in the Rietburg Museum in Zurich. These visits only reinforced the need to preserve and promote Indian miniature art in me, as they appeared magical to me. I started purchasing miniature paintings from different award-winning artists, whom I met on visits to art and craft expositions and began trading in their work. I never had a chance to see any work of Pahari artists.

In late 2009, I met a person from Kangra who told me about his neighbour being an artist working a lot with oil paintings, sculptures, etc. This was not my interest. Then he conveyed that his neighbour, Mr. Pankaj Kumar, has also been making paintings in the Kangra style using natural colours. My curiosity was aroused once again and soon, I was connected to Mr. Kumar who showed me some of his work. The work was nice but not too fine. He promised to do better in case I commissioned something. A set of three traditional paintings was commissioned which he completed in a few months. The work in them was quite good, and I commissioned two more such paintings which were great!

Paintings were commissioned in the traditional method but not copies of older paintings. So, we did the “Last Supper” of Christ in the Kangra shaili! It is a unique piece. This felt very encouraging and we did some paintings from the Hindu epics like the complete story of Maa Vaishno Devi, Lakshman Rekha and Lord Ram going after Mareech, the golden deer, the return of the Abhisarika the next morning, Ma Kaali slaying rakshasas, and a lot more. All these paintings are unique and single pieces done in the finest manner. The crown of these is the Bharat Mata and Lord Krishna’s Geeta Saar to Arjuna, before the battle of Kurukshetra began.

It has been ten years now and we have been creating wonderful paintings in Kangra style. Each is a work of art and does not have a duplicate or copy work. Pankaj made the “Barah Maash” series depicting Lord Krishna with Radha over twelve months in pure Kangra style, The story of Narad Muni, The marriage of Lord Shiva, the Shiva family, Lord Ganesha, Lord Hanuman and some single paintings of our Devtas. The latest series is the Dasavtar of Lord Vishnu and now a handwritten Bhagwad Geeta with illustrations is in the making. Mr. Kumar’s paintings rest in various museums and adorn many sophisticated homes in India and abroad.

Some years after my visit to Basohli, I also met Ms. Jyoti Singh, daughter of Dr. Karan Singh, former Yuvaraj of erstwhile J&K. She introduced me to an artist from Basohli who was working with the local government, and painting was a part-time hobby for him. He also told me that doesn't do pure gold leaf work due to the expense and all his colours are not natural pigments. Earlier this year, I came in touch with two artists from Basohli through him, who are both great artists. One of them has been commissioned by the national government to represent miniature paintings and Indian art traditions globally at various exhibits and India shows and he is frightfully expensive.  I have been working with the second artist, Mr. Dheeraj Kumar, who along with his wife specializes in traditional Basohli style. The bold colours and the use of a shiny beetle wing are unique to Basohli style painting. Dheeraj and I are keen to innovate on the traditional paintings with yet unpainted scenes from our Hindu heritage in this style These paintings can be a centre for attraction in any room they are placed.

Through our minuscule efforts, we have been instrumental in preserving a small portion of Kangra art and Basohli art. The purpose is to bring these unique paintings to the notice of more and more people who would appreciate the beauty and adorn their homes with miniature paintings. It is a hope that Pahadi miniatures, an invaluable form of Indian aesthetics and tradition, are revived once again to reach its former glory, and people are able to appreciate this priceless works of Indian traditions and art.

Deepak Badhwar is an art revivalist and an expert in Pashmina weaves. He has revived and supported several Pahadi miniatures in the Kangra and Basohli style. He uses the traditional methods using natural pigments and pure gold leaf depicting Hindu Gods and Goddesses as well as contemporary themes. He also specializes in Pashmina weaving and in 2015, he created the first Pashmina shawl in kaani with pure zari from Varanasi.

References:

Pahari Paintings: Famed Art of the Hills
https://www.livehistoryindia.com/snapshort-histories/2017/06/21/pahari-paintings-famed-art-of-the-hills

A Chronicle of Pahari Miniature Paintings
https://mediaindia.eu/culture/a-chronicle-of-pahari-miniature-paintings/