Rajput Painting, India
Rajput Painting (16th-19th Century)
Art Under the
For a short guide to the art of
the Indian sub-continent,
For more detailed articles, see: Classical Indian Painting (Up to 1150 CE), Post-Classical Indian Painting (14th-16th century), Mughal (Mogul) Painting (16th-19th century) and Indian Sculpture (3300 BCE - 1850).
"Mughal painting is academic, dramatic, objective, eclectic; Rajput painting is an art which is essentially both popular and princely, static, lyrical and inconceivable outside of the way of life it reflects."
Coomaraswamy, the real "discoverer" of Rajput painting, nicely points out the intrinsic qualities of this art, emphasising the fact that it should be viewed within its historical and cultural contexts. Rajput painting is an exact expression of the society it sprang from: a feudal society, aristocratic and warlike, made up of "clans" which were constantly at loggerheads with one another, the head of the clan combining the roles of all-powerful prince, general and father of his people. The artistic works of each principality are closely interconnected with the personality of its ruler. This is the reason for the variety of Rajput schools of painting, and explains why they were short-lived.
The Rajputs ("king's sons") were formerly nomads, probably of Scythian origin, who settled in India in the distant past. Some clans trace their origins back to the 5th or 6th century. They now occupy part of northern and central India and have become entirely Hinduised, to the extent of being admitted to the kshatriya class of warriors. They claim to be descended from the mythical heroes of the Hindu epic Ramayana. Their assimilation into the Indian way of life was cultural as well as social; it is to the Chandela princes, a powerful Rajput dynasty, ruling from the 10th to the 12th centuries in Bundelkand, that we owe the famous Kandariya Mahadeva Temple of Khajuraho, and others. With the Turco-Afghan invasions the Rajputs were restricted to the north-west of India, in Rajastan and the Upper Punjab. There they fought valiantly to retain their independence and sent out wild war-parties against the Turco-Mongol invaders. The skilful policies of Akbar brought this struggle to an end, and they agreed to join the empire in return for a degree of autonomy and freedom to continue their way of life and beliefs. The ruling princes sent their sons as hostages to the Mughal court and they were given important official posts. Certainly the Rajputs did not entirely scorn the luxury and culture of the Imperial court, but their pride, their patriotism and their utter conviction of the superiority of their beliefs over those of the foreigner meant that Mughal influence was limited with regard to the arts, although it acted as a stimulant, and, in a way, a kind of revelation to the Rajputs. Rajput painting, encouraged by the introduction of new techniques, experienced a sudden and prolific brilliance and, while there is no proof apart from the early Mewar paintings, it is possible that there existed in Rajputana an old tradition of painting, a local style which was sufficiently developed to resist the Mughal impact and remain intrinsically Indian. Rajput painting is not alien to the classical Indian tradition as one might at first suppose. In this style of miniature painting there is the same suave charm, the same attention to naturalism, nobility and sensuality, the same recreation of man and society as we have already found at Ajanta. But it was an art born during the struggles against the invader, and exhibits a violence, a vigour and a movement which were unknown in the Gupta period.
Rajput culture was feudal and martial; but it was also religious and popular. With the wave of invasions went the decline of Brahman influence in Northern India and the resurgence of native cults and also local languages. Sanskrit was replaced by Hindi and the old Indian epics as well as literary treasures and poems were translated. This cultural popularisation greatly encouraged a relatively new branch of Vishnuism, known as Krishnaism. The Bhagavata-Purana and above all the Gita-Govinda, which were devoted to the life and loves of the god Krishna, had an enormous success with the people and also inspired the majority of the themes in Rajput religious art, along with the Ramayana and the Mahabhavata.
Rajputana is divided into two distinct zones: Rajastan in the south and the Upper Punjab. Each region developed local schools of painting within the individual principalities; both shared certain aesthetics but each style is stamped by their geographical position, local history and the personality of the sovereign.
Rajastan is an extension of the Ganges Valley. Known as the "Home of Kings", the eastern part has a temperate climate with fertile soil watered by the majestic Chambal River. The abundant water has given the Rajput princes admirable opportunities for combining architecture and water. Everywhere there are palaces and fortresses, lakes and gardens, with their stories of war and love.
By the time Akbar's peace had been generally accepted by the Rajastan state the Sisodiya clan presented a lone front to the foreigners. It finally succumbed in 1614 but their defence gained the esteem and sympathy of Shah Jahan, who allowed the Sisodiya to recover from the defeat without losing their pride. During the beginning of the 16th century the Mewar school had known a precocious but short-lived brilliance which was ended by the severe defeats inflicted by the empire. However, with their submission to the Mughals the Sisodiya forsook the clash of arms for the delights of pleasure-making. From this first half of the 17th century appeared a series of paintings which - keeping in mind the historical context - remained practically untouched by Mughal influence, although they are closely linked to the contemporary work of their neighbours in Malva. Colour pigments are extremely brilliant and used in their pure state: red, saffron-yellow, blue and green. Each scene stands out with wonderful luminosity against the monochrome background. Linear perspective is not employed, the effect of different places being achieved by the juxtaposition of colours. Elegant, stylised buildings provide levels for the different scenes, as in Malva, but here they have the added embellishment of luxurious plant ornamentation, treated fully and vigorously, and later copied by other schools. Countless details of folk life and the courtly, chivalrous atmosphere of the palace are introduced into the mythical subjects of the Bhagavata-Purana and the Ramayana.
With the second half of the 17th century we have the beginning of a new period in the development of the Rajput style. The new-found peace encouraged a revival of the arts: Udaipur was extended, marvellous palaces being built on the outskirts of the city. Painting became very popular and even began to suffer from over-production. The compositions grew more complex and more subtle, but at the same time the paintings lost their charm and their strength. In the beginning of the 18th century the summer palace, at some distance from the capital, was decorated with mural-paintings which still exhibited a sureness and nobility. The general lines are cleaner and the scenes are bathed in an aura of sweet serenity from which all superfluous detail is banished. The Galta temple has some remarkable frescoes, with scenes of religious and local interest. One depicts an extraordinary young man playing the flute and seated by a lake; it is a harmony of greys and blues, of inexpressible purity and magical charm. It is as if Mewar, on the eve of a permanent artistic decadence, had suddenly returned to the poetic simplicity of its first paintings.
We have already discussed the Moslem sultanate of Malva, which, in the 15th and 16th centuries, encouraged local artists to produce works of great originality, and, in the case of the Nimat-Nameh, to fuse both Persian and Indian traditions. At the beginning of the 17th century, Malva, which is included here not as a state but as a region comprising both Bundelkand and south-eastern Rajastan, continued to produce paintings which shared the same inspiration as Mewar but which retained traces of the style of the illuminated works painted in the preceding century. A series of ragmalas (paintings inspired by music), among many qualities, show a command of technique and an astonishing inventiveness. The forceful drawing, the clarity of the figure painting, the absolute simplicity of the composition, detract in no way from the ardent expressiveness of the painting.
With this total starkness the artist obtains maximum dramatic tension. This style provided inspiration for painters until the end of the century, with illustrations for the Ramayana and the Bhagavata Purana, and, while they may have lost something of their emotional shock, they remain alive and seductive.
One of the greatest of the Rajput dynasties, the Hara, ruled over Bundi. They were at first vassals of the Sisodiyas, but they obtained their independence in 1554 and hastily made a separate peace with the Mughals. From this alliance a school of painting grew up which merged harmoniously the realistic and elaborate styles of the Mughal with the intense expression and luxuriant plant life of the Mewar school. A series of ragmalas, dating from the first decades of the 17th century, perfectly demonstrates the assimilation of these two styles. Figures, of a Mewar type, disport themselves in buildings which are entirely Mughal in spirit, surrounded by animal and plant life which are essentially Indian. Colour in painting is intense like Mewar paintings but used with subtlety like the Mughals. The works reveal a nervous charm and an austerity which seems quite foreign to Bundi. About 1640 the school developed a greater freedom of expression, as if the artists had made a conscious effort to free themselves from their models. The colours became clearer, more brilliant and the classical themes of the Bhagavata-Purana are treated in a new and original manner, with the addition of humorous episodes. The women are all of the same curious type, with smallish, rounded faces, plump cheeks and pouting lips. At the end of the 17th century intimate scenes in dwellings surrounded by gardens were composed in a geometrical style. Here we have signs of a growing aridity, but, right till the end, the paintings retain their nobility, particularly those seductive female nudes which appear to have been the favourite subject of 18th-century painters.
The town of Bundi is hidden in a narrow, picturesque gorge and has a palace with 18th-century fresco-paintings. The designs are unimaginative but they are beautifully executed. Episodes taken from the life of Krishna have a humour and vivacity which recall the early Bundi paintings but they have a more formal structure and a hint of academicism. A procession leaving the palace calls to mind the Ajanta frescoes, and there is a marvellously lyrical scene of courtly love executed with a masterly touch. These paintings are all in a first-storey patio. In an interior room of the palace, inside a deep niche, there is a wonderful portrait of the divine couple, Krishna and Radha, being carried off by a whirlwind, literally submerged in the ubiquitous vegetation of the Brindaban forest. This example of portrait art is possibly the most intense surviving example of mystical Krishnaism.
Kotah, to the south-east of Bundi, once formed an integral part of the latter state but gained its independence at the beginning of the 17th century. The two principalities even fought a war a hundred years later. In the second half of the 18th century, at a time when the schools of Rajastan were undergoing a decline, Kotah had two sovereigns whose passion for hunting resulted in a series of paintings primarily depicting hunting scenes which were of a style all of their own. There is a clear Mughal influence in the fine detail and the sure use of perspective, but the initial inspiration must be sought elsewhere. In these works nature takes pride of place, even enveloping the hunter, who sometimes disappears almost completely from view behind a clump of bushes. Wild animals slink through the landscape with great ease, supple and powerful. Kotah is the only Indian school which has produced landscape painting in the European sense of the word. W.C. Archer, to whom we owe the discovery of these works, has compared them to the paintings of Henri Rousseau (1844-1910). But the great French primitive always depicts nature in a threatening fashion, expressing man's profound trepidation when confronted by creation, while the nemrods of Kotah knew the jungle intimately and reveal a tender complicity towards its teeming life.
Kishangar, a small state to the north of Rajastan, produced during the first half of the 18th century one of the most attractive of the many Indian schools of painting. The state was founded with the support of the Mughals in the 17th century. It had close links with the capital and might easily have remained a provincial branch of the Delhi school had it not been for the existence of three interconnected factors: a great king, Singh; a great painter, whose name, Nihal Chand, is known to us this once; and a great love affair. In the years between 1730 and 1760 these factors produced a style of painting remarkable for its grave beauty and extreme stylisation.
Singh was a fervent follower of Krishna, and renowned as a poet under the pseudonym of Nagari Das. He maintained a retinue of writers, musicians and painters but only one of them was an artist sensitive enough to express the king's thoughts. Nihal Chand was a man of exceptional talent and great culture, but the determining factor in the birth of these paintings was Singh's fierce passion for a young dancer from the queen's suite who became his concubine. She was given the name of Bani Tani (" Magical Lady "), and her special kind of beauty provided the model for all the figures in Chand's paintings. Both men and women are tall and slim; their attitudes are noble. Their faces are long and fine, grave, with huge eyes slanting towards the temples, giving the whole an enigmatic expression. In these paintings vegetation takes second place. In French-style gardens, mysterious young maidens give their lovers secret rendezvous beside spraying fountains. Radha and Krishna meet in the woods at night-time; above the forest a long, silent barque floats with the lovers down a black river and on the other bank a rose-coloured city disappears under a glowing sky lit by the moon. Probably the most beautiful of all these paintings, the one which expresses most perfectly Singh's spirituality, is another nocturnal scene: Radha and Krishna are separated, seated on two white marble terraces, a grey stretch of water between them; they are gazing at each other from a distance. Each composition is executed with restrained, fine colouring; their format, which is larger than usual for miniatures, gives a feeling of infinite space.
After a disturbed reign the king abdicated and ended his days in the forest of Brindaban, the country of his god, accompanied by Bani Tani. "The state is the source of warfare and that is the reason why I fear to be at its head," he writes in a poem. "It keeps my spirit away from Brindaban. Why bear the burdens of the world if it cannot bring about the kind of happiness which men gain through devotion to God? Now I am facing new horizons. My place is near my Lord and it cannot matter now if the whole universe is against me." Singh died in 1764 and his faithful mistress a year later. Nihal Chad remained at the Kishangar court but his works soon lost their noble, spiritual character without the great inspiration of the poet-king.
There are other Rajastan schools, such as those of Jaipur, Bikaner and Jaisalmer, which have much of interest to offer, but they lack the originality of the paintings we have been considering.
The Upper Punjab is formed by the western foothills of the Himalayas and is cut across with deep valleys separating high mountain chains. This region is difficult of access but has been occupied since ancient times. There are lovely classical remains at Kashmir, Kangra and in the Kulu and Jammu valleys. Moslem invasions in the 11th century were checked and the small Rajput principalities continued their local struggles in the shelter of the mountains. Under the Emperor Akbar the whole region came under Mughal rule with an exchange of hostages and gifts and the sharing of administrative expenses. In spite of their allegiance to the empire the states were to all intents and purposes independent and continued their internecine fighting. In the field of the arts the Mughal contribution was negligible until the 18th century, when the collapse of the empire and the sack of Delhi encouraged Delhi artists to seek refuge in the mountain courts of the Rajput princes.
Rajastan influence was uppermost in the 17th century. The first school of painting to develop in the Upper Punjab, the Basohli school, was directly derived from Mewar, although there were original elements which presuppose the existence of a popular Himalayan tradition before this period. The Basohli style is distinctive, due mainly to an extraordinary tension. The figures are quite unique, with their huge eyes taking up a large part of the face, and their wild gestures expressive of a continuous vehemence.
There is something both barbarous and refined, alive and hieratic, insolent and ferocious in these paintings, which are among the most original to be found in Rajput art. The earliest known works date from the end of the 17th century and are pages out of the Rasamanjari, an erotic treatise on love-making, written by the Sanskrit poet, Bhanudatta. The colours reflect the violent passions of the heroes: red-brown, red ochre, blue-green, olive green and yellow-orange. The figures are given pride of place in a composition which is kept very simple in order not to distract attention from the human being. Natural objects are extremely stylised and only carpets and jewels are given luxurious detail. After these astonishing early pieces, the later paintings do not give one the same emotional thrill, but they are nevertheless imbued with a sensual passion, a virile joy which may become a kind of lewd gaiety, not often met with in Indian art. The subjects include a young prince hugging two young maidens, Radha feverishly preparing Krishna's couch, and a delightful scene depicting the child Krishna stealing some butter with the help of his friends while his nurse has her back turned.
When, in 1752, the Mughal empire was officially dismembered the Upper Punjab came under the rule of the Afghans. But it was a rule which was entirely nominal, and the insecurity of the times led to the development of new trading routes from Delhi to Kashmir which now passed through the territory of the small, modest mountain states of Guler, Jammu and Kangra. Painters and merchants settled there, and there grew up almost overnight new schools of painting of a distinctly successful style.
Guler was founded in 1405 when the Kangra state split up. It is situated on the River Beas and has easy access to the plain. This was the region which first felt the Mughal influx and between 1740 and 1770, before it was re-absorbed by Kangra, Guler became the centre of a second Upper Punjab style, which combined the ideas of the Delhi artists and the characteristics of the second Himalayan schoollyricism, naturalism and romanticism. Guler no doubt was aware of the Basohli paintings but the first works, illustrations of the Ramayana dating from 1720, reveal a style which is direct and naive, individual in conception and, apparently, purely local. One is immediately struck by the audacity and size of the battle scenes which take place at the foot of curious fortresses.
Conceptions of such grandeur were unknown to Rajput miniaturists who, on the whole, gave pride of place to people rather than to action. This was an isolated series of paintings, however, and in 1740 a second style was to appear which was much more refined, inspired by Mughal art. They are a series of beautiful portraits of local notables. Finally, between 1760 and 1780 we have the Guler style proper, with the Mughal contribution completely assimilated. The miniatures often include several figures, court scenes and episodes from the life of Krishna, the backgrounds composed of delightful landscapes executed with a well-balanced perspective. The painter's palette grew gayer and the colours attain a certain variety. In sharp contrast with the intensity of the Basohli paintings these works demonstrate a serenity which we shall also find with the Jammu and Garual schools.
Jammu in about 1600 became the strongest of all these mountain states and in the 18th century, due to the new commercial route opened in the direction of Kashmir, it grew even more important. The court was wealthy and patronised artists, so that painting made steady progress from 1730 to 1785. The subjects at first were exclusively princes, accompanied by their children or their retainers, portrayed in an atmosphere of aristocratic refinement, full of nobility and sweetness. The colours are pale but clear and bring out the beauty of the design. Whatever the subject - a royal audience, a street scene, the choosing of a horse, a peaceful evening outside a tent - all these paintings exude a peaceful, gentle calm. From mid-century onwards, however, paralleling developments in Guler, painters began to concentrate on more romantic themes, such as a group of maidens in graceful attitudes, listening to evening concerts on white terraces replete with ponds and copses. This tendency towards melancholy finally took over completely from the pallid serenity of the early works and is found again, with an added lyricism, in the works of the Kangra school.
Tucked away in the south-eastern part of the Punjab the state of Garual maintained its independence for a long time. But its isolation, which allowed this autonomy, was an obstacle to any artistic development. Nevertheless between 1770 and 1800, coinciding with the period in which they were conquered by the Gurkhas, Garual produced its own school of painting. They are romantic pictures, though restrained, and executed with a grace which was somewhat hieratic; their formality is softened by the suavity of the colouring. Many explanations have been offered for the sudden appearance of these paintings. One school of thought suggests that it was the arrival of a group of Guler artists about 1760. However, despite some similarities between the two styles, the theory remains unproven and the mystery remains intact; and in a sense this mystery adds to their charm. Garual painting does not enjoy the same prestige as that of neighbouring states, but for thirty years the work of its artists shone with a clear brilliance. Superb illustrations for the Ramayana marvellously express this art, with its modest lyricism and its marked taste for symbolism.
From the end of the 18th century until the first part of the 19th the Kangra state was one of the most important of the mountain powers and had a prosperous and cultivated court which attracted many artists who were victims of the insecurity of the times. In 1775, Sansar Chand, who was both a collector and an aesthete, came to the throne and his personality helped in no small way towards this last great Rajput school attaining its rapid maturity. The brilliance of the Kangra school did not fade before the end of the 19th century, but its golden age covers a much more limited period, between 1770 and 1820. The influence of the last Guler period is obvious, but the cool lightness of this style is replaced by a passionate lyricism which accompanies the elegant representation of classical themes. The loves of Krishna and the anguish of Radha are painted in dramatic terms, with the setting (the "climate" of the painting) playing an important role.
Kangra paintings, like those from Garual, are full of symbolism. Their landscapes lack the innocent charm of their Guler counterparts: here nature is closely linked with human passions. Many nocturnal scenes show the heroine caught in a forest trap while looking for her lover: surely the very image of blind passion and jealous anguish. The seasons serve as well as pretexts for digressions about love, while even the weather expresses the doubts and the hopes of lovers. In these romantic paintings woman reigns supreme. Kangra women are beautiful in the same way as the Guler women, but they are not restrained by their sense of dignity; they love wholeheartedly, although not without sophistication, and even while suffering they seek to please. The paintings of Kangra exalt the complex personality of womankind, stressing her fragility and her mystery to such an extent that she is always the focal point of their painting. During the 19th century this school produced still more works which have a certain elegance but the composition lacks inspiration, and portraits of conventional figures have only an academic life in over-skilful landscapes. (We should point out that the Chamba, Bilaspur and popular Kulu schools are included in the Kangra group.)
In Rajastan as well as the Upper Punjab, the 19th century brought a new wave of conquests and finally the English occupation. This sounded the knell of the mystical and chivalrous society which had been the basis of the flourishing Rajput culture. The artist, isolated from the noble ideals of their earlier inspiration, could do no more than place their talents in the hands of the foreign invaders, or repeat, indefinitely, the old themes.
More about Art in Asia
For more information about Asian art, please see the following articles:
Carving (c.4900 BCE onwards)
(c.3,000 BCE onwards)
Dynasty Art (1368-1644)
For more about arts and crafts in Rajput India and Sri Lanka, see: Homepage.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF EAST ASIAN ART