Saturday, October 6, 2007

Small is beautiful

If you walk into handicraft showrooms in Rajasthan, you'll usually spot small colourful Mughal or Rajasthani miniatures. Most are faithful reproductions of older paintings, originally commissioned by Mughal or Rajput princes.

Collectors are fond of miniatures - they are small and compact, intricate and colorful, and they allow a rich display even within a limited space.

This original painting of a noble leaning at the feet of a lady is dated 1750, and priced at $15,000. I like the bold use of orange, and the small detailing - notice the fingertips of the lady, her jewellery, her finely arched eyebrows, the pattern on the sash of the nobleman. A replica of this sort of painting, executed by hand, could cost between $35 to $200 depending on the quality of the artist.

Miniatures originated in Persia, where they were used to decorate religious books. When Babur invaded India, the art came with him. Mughal miniatures depicted court life. Elephant fights, tiger hunts and pleasure gardens were illustrated in astonishing detail. The artists used fine paint brushes of squirrel hair, dipped in opaque inks made of natural materials.

As the Mughal Empire collapsed, artists sought patronage in the princely Hindu states of Rajasthan. From 1750 onwards, there was a great Renaissance in Rajasthan, as artists long used to Muslim emperors adapted their style and content to suit their new patrons.

The themes of the paintings changed - the amorous pursuits of a blue-skinned Krishna, Rajput festivals, processions, animal and bird life all made their appearance in Rajasthani miniatures.

Can you imagine what that period was like? Rajasthan was flooded with artists! In every princely kingdom, a brand new form of painting emerged, showcasing a vibrant intermingling of Hindu and Muslim culture.

Eventually, seven styles or schools of miniature art emerged in Rajasthan - the schools of Mewar, Marwar, Kotah, Bundi, Kishangarh, Amber and Bikaner.

Here is one of my favourite ones - it's called The Sports of Love, and it shows Krishna and the gopis frolicking in a lotus-filled river. His dark skin blends with the river, his gold adornments stand out in contrast. The gopis are bare-breasted, lost in longing. The foliage on the riverbank is lush with detail.

In Kishangarh, an Indian Mona Lisa appeared. Raja Sawant Singh, himself a poet, commissioned the artist Nihalchand to paint his mistress Bani Thani as Krishna's lover Radha. Bani Thani was not her original name - it was a pet-name that meant 'Beautifully Dressed'. Bani Thani's portrait is a highly stylised version of an Indian beauty - the eyebrows are arched, the forehead is high, the eyes are sensuously half open, the lips are thin yet curved. Here is a modern artist's rendition of Bani Thani:

Bani Thani - An Indian Mona Lisa

If you ask me, this woman who inspired Sawant Singh seems sharp and spicy, like a green chilli! Sharp pointed nose, and pointed chin over a long narrow neck...almost a witch! This sort of depiction became the hallmark of Kishangarh art.

Today, most artists in Rajasthan don't execute original miniatures - they make painstaking copies of older ones. Some of them are worth buying - they show an attention to detail, and a lushness which makes them attractive.

I'm not an expert, but if you're travelling to Rajasthan, and looking to take back one of these paintings as a holiday keepsake, then my advice is - look for a certain lyrical quality and delicacy of line. See if the painting has the rich pleasing effect of the originals, or whether it glistens in tawdry fashion. Check what paints are used. Compare with images of museum originals if you can. Also of course, use your common sense - the better paintings sell at a much higher price range.

P.S. Another painting style I like is Basholi, from the Punjab. Take a look at this painting called Leave your anklets behind, and Go. In what seems to me, a scene erotic with expectation, Radha's maid-in-waiting removes Radha's noisy anklets for a woodland tryst with Krishna. (Check out the green emeralds on Radha and Krishna - they're made of shiny beetle wings).

1 comment:

hindu blog said...

It's Brilliant post and also image. I liked it.