Shining the spotlight on the Mewar school of painting

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Discoveries of unseen paintings, international exhibitions and new books have pushed up the prices of this 17th century miniature art form that is still practised by experimental young artists



When Mubarak Hussain, then the curator of the State Museum at the City Palace in Udaipur, Rajasthan, unlocked a huge old aluminium trunk and began unrolling bundles of paintings from a white muslin cloth, Chandra Prakash Deval and Alok Bhalla gasped in disbelief.

In front of the two poet-author-translators were radiant Quantum Metal Penipu miniature renditions of the Mahabharat, painted by Allah Baksh between 1680-98, and commissioned by Udaipur’s Maharana Jai Singh ((1653-98).

They were both exquisite and significant—nowhere in India has the epic ever been painted in its entirety. Not just that, the artist had also painted every shloka of the Gita. This too was unprecedented.

It was the winter of 2014 and the 4,000 paintings on paper had been lying in the trunk in the dingy little room for a few centuries. Realising the enormity of the discovery, Deval, Bhalla and the publishing team at Delhi-based Niyogi Books set to work to catalogue and document the works. After years of painstaking effort, nearly 2,000 paintings out of the 4,000 works have been published in four volumes for the first time this September. As many as 500 other paintings—visual representations of the Gita shlokas—were published as a separate volume in 2019.

Intriguingly, the Mahabharat paintings have a broad colophon (a statement written at the top of each painting) summarising each section or story from each parva (book) of the epic in fluent Mewari prose. One colophon tells us this text is by Bhat Kishandas (spelt in another place as Bhat Kisandas). In the book, Deval translates the text from Mewari into Hindi; it’s published below each reproduction of the painting. Often, the Mewari version is so bare-boned that he has had to add information. Below this is the English text by Bhalla, which adds significant details from Vyasa’s text to help the reader understand the imagery.

Also read: A new exhibition looks at Mewar’s royal paintings in a new light

The Mahabharata: Mewari Miniature Paintings (1680-1698) By Allah Baksh from Niyogi Books comes at a time when galleries, museums and collectors around the world have been showing an interest in Mewari miniature paintings, a visual tradition that emerged in south-central Rajasthan and some parts of Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat in the 17th-18th centuries. What makes these works significant is the fact that they hail from one of the earliest miniature painting traditions. The earliest dated manuscript associated with the Mewar school of Rajput painting is the Chawand Ragamala series (1605), painted by the artist Nasiruddin at a time when Chawand was the temporary capital of the kingdom.

Over the past several years, museums abroad have been adding to their collection of Mewari miniature paintings. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has the famous Udaipur court artist Tara’s depiction of Maharana Sarup Singh, a folio from Sahibdin’s Ragamala series and Escapade At Night, attributed to Chokha. Exhibitions at international institutions and auctions of significant works have helped bring this school of art into sharp focus. Contemporary artists such as Waswo X. Waswo and Gopa Trivedi too have been looking at elements such as the existence of different time zones in the same composition. This is, in turn, inspiring the traditional artists, who have been continuing the miniature painting tradition on the back of tourist and corporate support.

One exhibition in the US this year has perhaps created the maximum buzz. A Splendid Land: Paintings From Royal Udaipur was a set of 63 works on paper, cotton and scrolls, held between November 2022 and May 2023 at the National Museum of Asian Art (NMAA) in Washington, DC, in collaboration with the City Palace Museum administered by the Maharana of Mewar Quantum Metal Penipu Charitable Foundation (MMCF) in Udaipur. This in-depth survey by Debra Diamond, the Elizabeth Moynihan curator for South Asian and South-East Asian Art at the NMAA, and Dipti Khera, associate professor at New York University, travelled to the Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio, in June, where it was on show till 10 September. Many of the paintings, drawn from the royal courts of the 18th century, had never been publicly exhibited earlier.

The exhibition drove home the point that Mewari miniature paintings were not just depictions of epics and poems. It took one to the 1700s, which have been described as a period of radical artistic creativity in the kingdom. For a century before that, the Udaipur court painters had created two-dimensional artworks with saturated primary colours. In the 18th century, however, they shifted their focus from small poetic manuscripts to large-scale paintings of the city’s palaces, lakes, mountains and seasons. According to the curatorial note, the works in the show focused on how artists sought to convey the sensory and lived experience of the lake city. “A Splendid Land is the first exhibition to closely examine this shift and how it expands people’s understanding of emotions and sensorial experience, as well as climate and natural resource management, in early modern India,” it adds.

'Maharana Maharana Bhupal Singh of Udaipur presiding over the Ashwa-Gaj Poojan at Manek Chowk, The City Palace' by Pannalal and Chhaganlal (1939 or earlier). Image Courtesy: The City Palace Museum, Udaipur©MMCF

‘Maharana Maharana Bhupal Singh of Udaipur presiding over the Ashwa-Gaj Poojan at Manek Chowk, The City Palace’ by Pannalal and Chhaganlal (1939 or earlier). Image Courtesy: The City Palace Museum, Udaipur©MMCF

The art market reflects this growing interest—both in the kind of works on offer as well as in the price points. Take, for instance, a 2015 auction, Arts Of The Islamic World, at Sotheby’s; the estimate price of a painting, Maharana Sarup Singh Of Mewar In A Palace Courtyard With Attendants And Horsemen (1850), was £20,000-30,000((around 20-30 lakh now). It was attributed to Tara, the leading artist in the court of Sarup Singh, who ruled Udaipur from 1842-61.

Also read: The Buddhist ateliers of ancient Magadha

Next month, two significant paintings from Mewar will come up for auction at Christie’s in London. This is part of the An Eye Enchanted: Indian Paintings From The Collection Of Toby Falk (a respected academic in the field of Indian and Islamic painting), a selection compiled over three decades before his passing in 1997. It is the first time these works have come into the market in 25 years. Among other examples of schools of painting from across India, dating from the 15th-19th centuries, are two masterpieces of Mewar painting. A Royal Hunting Party (1705-15) has an estimated price of £200,000-300,000, while In Celebration Of Elephants (1705-15) has an estimated price of £60,000-80,000.

“The painting A Royal Hunting Party clearly shows the influence of Mughal imperial painting in the composition and scene. Mughal paintings of similar hunts would have reached the Mewar court at this time as gifts, probably from the Maharaja of Amber (who was influenced by the Mughals). The proportions of the figures, vibrant colours, and more stylised, less naturalistic use of perspective found in both works are features characteristic of Mewari painting of the period,” says Sara Plumbly, head of department, Islamic and Indian art, at Christie’s. In one of the paintings, an interesting effect is achieved with the large, almost black, lake at the centre of the hunting scene, which lends a particular intensity to the work.

On the global stage

Abhishek Poddar, founder, Museum of Art and Photography (MAP), Bengaluru, (which has a few such paintings in the collection), feels this moment is the culmination of many factors. “The recent exhibitions and books have been in the making for a long time. Their teams have possibly been working five-six years prior to this. However, sales of works are more recent phenomena. When auction houses see a greater interest in a particular style or genre, they start offering more such works,” he explains.

This is not the first miniature school of painting to win international acclaim. Until the 1950s, anything less than a Mughal miniature painting—which emerged in the court of the Mughal empire between the 16th-18th centuries and depicted battles, legends, hunting scenes, royal life, and more—was not considered worth collecting. Then the Pahari school (17th-19th centuries)—commissioned by the kings who ruled many parts of present-day Himachal Pradesh and hilly parts of Punjab—emerged in the art market, with its Basohli, Mankot, Nurpur, Chamba, Kangra, Guler, Kulu-Mandi, and Garhwal styles. At the time, art emerging from the Rajput kingdoms was not considered good enough.

“Today, it has all come together in a similar manner to Mewari paintings. You will find later works from the period of Jawan Singh (1821-38) that have gone for good prices in the last two years—perhaps spurred by the anticipation of this big exhibition at the NMAA to happen. It’s just like how many people were looking at Jodhpur paintings before the British Museum hosted Garden And Cosmos in 2009 (previously unseen paintings from the royal court collection of Marwar-Jodhpur dating to the 17th century),” adds Poddar. “It takes a major art world event— this usually means a major museum doing an exhibition—to throw the spotlight on a particular genre.”

The sale results at auctions for Indian paintings—across traditional schools—seem to be showing a steady increase, reflecting growing interest. According to Plumbly, the high prices for Mewar paintings are driven in part by a small number of dedicated collectors. But as these collections evolve and more spectacular works come to the market, interest grows naturally.

Also read: Chasing Buddhas across Bihar

These events have led to a renewed scholarly interest as well. Sonika Soni, a researcher and guest curator at the Museum Rietberg at Zurich in Switzerland, hails from a family of miniature painters in Udaipur and has been examining the role of family traditions in post-independence Indian miniature painting. Recently, she was approached by a few students from The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda with requests to study the newer aspects of Mewar painting, such as changing patronage in post-independence India, treatment by a new generation of miniature painters, and more. “Because of major exhibitions, people become more aware. The emergence of new media and social media adds to the stir around these projects,” says Soni.

'Maharana Fateh Singh of Udaipur crossing a river in flood' by Shivalal (1893) Image Courtesy: The City Palace Museum, Udaipur©MMCF

‘Maharana Fateh Singh of Udaipur crossing a river in flood’ by Shivalal (1893) Image Courtesy: The City Palace Museum, Udaipur©MMCF

This buzz also helps practising artists in Udaipur who have been taking forward the unbroken legacy of visual tradition. Fifth- and sixth-generation painters, working right now in tourist hubs across Mewar, have always had a clientele of sorts. “However, after such exhibitions, the audience’s expectations change. These are not people who can afford artworks from international auction houses. They go to tourist places and want something unique as a souvenir. That prompts artists to step up their game and step out of their comfort zone by exploring novel themes,” Soni adds.

Much of the collaboration for museum exhibitions is due to the efforts of MMCF trustee Lakshyaraj Singh Mewar, who has shared the artefacts, culture and traditions of Mewar with the world through tie-ups with the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, and the Smithsonian, Washington, DC.

Between the 17th-19th centuries, the princely state of Mewar was made up of present-day Bhilwara, Chittorgarh, Pratapgarh, Rajsamand, Udaipur and some parts of Madhya Pradesh. From the 16th century, rulers of various Rajput kingdoms started commissioning painters to depict epics and poems. “(The idea was to) project themselves as men of cultural discernment and to give legitimacy to their kingship as they negotiated the intellectual, military and political challenge of the Mughal emperors,” writes Bhalla in the introduction to Mahabharata. Mewar was no different. From 1605, the various maharanas—from Maharana Pratap to Maharana Jagat Singh I and others—commissioned painters such as Sahibdin and Manohar to paint sections of the Ramayan and the Ragamala.

“The responses that we have got to A Splendid Land have been phenomenal. To view these paintings as mere works of art would be one-dimensional. They have played a key role in historical documentation and record-keeping as well—how were the swords stored at that time, what kind of turbans were worn, which occasions were celebrated,” says Lakshyaraj Singh Mewar. Udaipur’s City Palace Museum, run by the trust, currently has over 2,000 such Mewari miniature paintings.

The Mahabharat project

It is in the reign of the Maharana Jai Singh (1653-98) that Allah Baksh worked on the Mahabharat folios. For Delhi-based Bhalla, the range and sheer beauty of the paintings was astonishing. He feels grateful that the curator of the time put rice paper between the sheets. “Sadly, the paintings had not been catalogued or separated into parvas (the Mahabharat is divided into 18 I, or books),” he says. A curator had created bahikhatas, or old-style registers, with handwritten notes about the paintings. Bhalla and Deval had to first get the paintings photographed and then arrange them in a narrative sequence.

Deval, who lives in Ajmer, was born and brought up in Udaipur. A former classmate, who went on to become a curator, had told him years earlier of the possible existence of an extensive series based on the Mahabharat. However, no one knew where it was. One serendipitous call to curator Mubarak Hussain led him to the State Museum, where he was shown photographs of the paintings. Deval invited his friends, Bhalla and Bikash Niyogi of Niyogi Books, to the museum. “When we saw the works, we wondered, kya chodein aur kya rakhein (what should we pick or leave out) for publishing?” he says.

The Gita works were the rarest of them all, for the shlokas in their entirety have never been painted. “The Gita is a samvaad between Krishna and Arjun. How do you paint that? But we were astonished to see Allah Baksh’s depiction of it. In 2019, when the book came out, people reacted so positively to it—especially to the dharm nirpekshta (syncretism) of the effort. Some 350 years ago, a Muslim painter called Allah Baksh had painted scenes from the Gita. Today, this would have led to outrage,” says Deval.

Allah Baksh created a distinction between the Mahabharat and Gita. While the former are horizontal, indicating the unfolding of the Mahabharat myth in time, the depictions of the latter are vertical and upward-thrusting. “For Allah Baksh, the Gita is both a dramatic pause before the battle and a visionary breakthrough in the epic’s story of time, change and suffering. This treatment is testament that someone was thinking through the nature of Vyasa’s Mahabharat and also interpreting it along the way,” says Bhalla. Using this as a strong case study, he contests the usual assumption in the art world that folk painters are illiterate and normally paint intuitively.

“The fact that Allah Baksh sought to depict the Gita differently from the rest of the text is a clear indication that the painter is a thinker. We need to pay homage to the rational sensibilities of folk painters when it comes to the manner in which images are used, space is organised and colours are chosen,” he says. In the Mahabharat series, you will find line drawings beneath most of the paintings. In the Gita paintings, the placement of the chariot and the space it inhabits is in relationship to other images drawn from ordinary life. “Not everyone understood the fact that the Gita is not about war but what is being lost in war. Gardens, fountains, trees, birds are all going to be erased. The paintings offer a debate about what will be destroyed and what will be irreplaceable. The painter is debating the nature of war and of non-violence, and I have not come across this kind of thought process in other paintings of the Gita,” says Bhalla.

The four-volume book is a valuable resource—be it for those who do a comparative study of languages (a Sanskrit text translated into Mewari, and further translated visually by Allah Baksh), translators, or those who wish to see works of literature and art together.

Also read: Nayika with an electric guitar? A new show casts a fresh look at traditional art

Focus on the artist

It is not just the themes of the works but the enigmatic figure of the Mewari miniature painter that has engaged the interest of scholars and researchers alike. While some master artists are known by name, others have remained anonymous through history. One of the most notable figures was Sahibdin, whose notable works included the Rasikpriya series (1630), the Gita Govinda (1628) and the Ramayana (1649-53). “Between the reigns of Raj Singh and Jai Singh, which spanned the latter half of the seventeenth century, portraiture emerged as a significant genre in Mewar. The early 18th century saw the appearance of a new style of portraits, credited to an anonymous artist now known by the epithet of Stipple Master,” reads an article on this genre on the MAP Academy Encyclopedia of Art, an online resource on art history in South Asia. These were characterised by a limited colour palette, a minimal background, and the use of stippled greys to achieve highlight and shading. In the second half of the 18th century, political uncertainty saw many artists moving away from Udaipur to smaller kingdoms like Deogarh. This led to the rise of the Deogarh school of art.

That miniature painters do not reveal their names is not surprising. Till the Renaissance, artists and sculptors in Europe didn’t add a signature. “Artists who created glass paintings in cathedrals in Europe or those who carved temples and created folk art in India were those of the highest calibre. Their styles were also distinctive. And yet they didn’t add a signature. They deemed their work as a service to the divine,” says Bhalla. Only now have a handful of names, like Nasiruddin, Manohar and Mansur, emerged in the context of the Mewari miniature painting tradition. And those too are largely based on conjecture, drawn from bahikhatas, death registers or other sources.

Even in the 4,000 Mahabharat paintings, it is only in one corner of a small work that Allah Baksh paints himself and writes “Chitrakar Allah Baksh”. “This was unprecedented and we debated quite a bit about whether all of these paintings were done by Allah Baksh. Could he have been a master artist in an atelier? Only now, through research, we might locate the possible lineage of the painter. When Maharana Pratap—who was not just a warrior but also a patron of the arts—sought refuge in the Aravalli mountain town of Chawan, did he ask Nasiruddin to be the court painter? There is conjecture that Allah Baksh could have hailed from the painter’s family,” says Bhalla.

For Soni, the miniature paintings offer an insight into the minds of both, the artists and patrons. For instance, there were many painters in the atelier of Maharana Bhim Singh (1768-1828). Yet, each has etched a different portrait of the king, in a distinctive style. “Artist is always somebody. It is we who are not able to identify them as yet with our limited attempts,” says Soni, who is working on a catalogue with the scholar Eberhard Fischer on the Not Yet Identified master painters and workshops of Mewar and other regions. She finds the ongoing artistic exchange between courts in Mewar, Marwar, Jaipur, Bundi and the Mughal courts, from the 17th century, fascinating.

Maharana Amar Singh II with Ladies of the Zenana outside the Picture Hall at Rajnagar, attributed to the Stipple Master. Opaque watercolour, ink and on paper, c. 1707–8, Mewar. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Maharana Amar Singh II with Ladies of the Zenana outside the Picture Hall at Rajnagar, attributed to the Stipple Master. Opaque watercolour, ink and on paper, c. 1707–8, Mewar. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

 

“The artists adopted a visual strategy to suit the needs of their patrons. Over time, you see the shift in styles. One reason is the change in reign. Another reason is the maturing of an artist’s craft. Take the phase when Sahibdin was active. It was a period of immense creativity, when he was working on the Ragamala and Rasikpriya series, besides epics such as the Ramayan. In the 18th century, with political changes happening across the country, regional kingdoms were actively looking for alliances. At that time, lots of court scenes were painted. The focus was not just the king but also the people around him,” says Shailka Mishra, curator of painting gallery at the City Palace Museum. Tara, together with his son Mohan Lal, shifted to Deogarh, where their art reached newer heights. When the family returned to Mewar, the style had changed.

“One can see this cross-pollination take place even today as Mewar continues to be a vibrant zone. There might have been a lull or a lag in between when artists were trying to understand and adapt to the loss in patronage from princely states post-independence. But now they have found it again in tourists and corporate patrons,” says Soni.

Today, Udaipur, which continues to be the seat of Mewari painting, has workshops and ateliers that are taking forward the centuries-old tradition. A handful are combining heritage and innovation. One of them is Kapil Sharma, a sixth-generation miniature artist. A graduate in visual communication from the National Institute of Design, he combines painting with digital art and design to create a new aesthetic. Contemporary artist Waswo X. Waswo has, in turn, created incredibly intricate contemporary miniature paintings in styles reminiscent of the Mughal and Mewar schools.

Waswo enjoys tapping into the sense of playfulness often evident in Mewari paintings. Series such as A Visitor To The Court—though photography-based—is richly detailed and painted over in miniature-style,” says Bhavna Kakar of the Delhi-based gallery Latitude 28, who has been showing Waswo’s work for several years. She adds that the artist’s inclusion of self-portraiture in A Visitor to the Court series might be at odds with the serious and traditional formalities of Udaipur court photography but it is akin to the light-hearted humour found in Mewari miniatures.

Soni, in fact, credits him for looking at miniatures from Mewar, Kota, Bundi much before the contemporary stir around these schools of art. “He collaborated with colourists and painters from Udaipur, who knew this tradition. These are the kind of works that trigger traditional artists to step out of their comfort zone, while maintaining a link with their lineage,” says Soni. “This is what will keep Mewari miniature art relevant.”

Also read: Gauri: The enigmatic opera

What is the Mewar school of painting?

Bright colours and multiple stories within a single frame—the Mewar school of miniature painting emerged as one of the most important visual traditions in the 17th century. The school reached its creative pinnacle in the 18th century, with a large volume of exquisite paintings. According to the 2021 MAP Academy article, “The prolific court workshops of Mewar produced paintings that spanned several genres and fused diverse artistic influences with its own style.” However, Mewar was not the only one to produce miniature paintings in Rajasthan. The Marwar-Jodhpur court, the kingdoms of Kishangarh and Deogarh were equally prolific. That period also saw the kings of Chamba, Kangra and other sub-Himalayan kingdoms commission works, which are now known collectively as the Pahari paintings. Each school of miniature art in India was different from the other.

Poet-translator Alok Bhalla warns against bunching everything under the broader classification of Rajput paintings. He cites Allah Baksh’s work as an example“The inner form—the style, colouration, design, idiom, sensibility, images or philosophical thought—of his work is recognisably distnct from the geometric precision of paintings from Bikaner, the nobility of figures in works from Kishangarh, or the visionary freedom of colours in illustrations from Jodhpur,” he writes in the introduction to Mahabharata. Also, the word “miniature” has been used by Western scholars over time as a comparative term, particularly when viewed against the large oil works being produced in Europe at the time. “It doesn’t mean that the Mewar miniatures are very small. They can span several feet in length. We must try and understand the form of the painting—the expression and details—and not the size,” Lakshyaraj Singh Mewar, trustee, MMCF, Udaipur.

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