Timeless appeal of miniatures

Timeless appeal of miniatures

For Indian art collectors, small is indeed beautiful. For no other painting form or style can match the price Indian miniatures command in the international market today, except perhaps Rembrandt’s oils. Ironically though, Rembrandt was a major connoisseur of Indian miniatures!

These little pieces of stylised illustrations from historical legends and religious mythology, owe their popularity to their lasting quality. This is primarily because they were executed in natural acid-free colours on paper or palm leaf manuscripts.

“The timeless appeal of miniatures is due to the use of mineral dyes that were derived from precious and semi-precious stones,” says noted art dealer Virendra Kumar, who is credited with setting up the first art gallery in Delhi.

Indian miniatures fall into four clear categories – Mughal, Rajasthani, Pahari and Deccani. Each is known by its own distinctive style, determined by geographical location and the period in history when the tradition of painting was most popular.

The Mughal style is best represented by the Hamzanama series, dating back to Akbar’s reign in the 16th century. Known for bold brushwork and depiction of dramatic action, these paintings were executed by unknown Hindu artists from Gujarat, Gwalior and Kashmir.

Many of these artists, fearing atrocities from later Mughal emperors, migrated down to the South and settled down on the Deccan plateau. Under the patronage of Maratha kings, the Deccani style of miniature painting developed as book illustrations in the 17th century.

Later, it gave birth to the Tanjavur school with paintings inspired by the scriptures, like the puranas and Krishna Lila, mounted on board with paste. The use of gold leaf and semi-precious stones on the cloth surface created a sort of relief effect.

The third style was the Rajasthani miniatures, which grew out of a large geographical area that extended from Malwa and Bundelkhand to Mewar, Bundi, Kota, Jaipur and Marwar. The earliest available set of Rajasthani paintings is the Ragmala series done by a Muslim artist.

A striking feature of Rajasthani miniatures is the arrangement of figures. “Unlike the Mughal and Deccani styles, the smallest of figures in a Rajasthani painting are not obscured in the composition,” explains Geeta Sharma, a well-known art historian.

“The background, the flora, the fauna and the symbols help the composition to express an intensity of feeling and emotions. Architecture, usually painted in the background, is used to portray a creative perspective and depth,” she adds.

The fourth and the last distinctive style of Indian miniatures is the Pahari paintings, which originated in the Punjab hills. Although these paintings are influenced by the Mughal tradition of Emperor Aurangzeb’s times, the subjects are essentially Hindu.

“The Krishna legend was a very popular subject,” Sharma narrates. “Episodes from Krishna’s life were illustrated against the backdrop of beautiful Pahari landscapes.

The trees are often depicted in circular form… The composition is simple but unique. Significantly, these paintings were never displayed as wall hangings in the old days. One sat down on a mat or carpet and held the painting in one’s hand and lingered over the contents in a leisurely fashion,” Kumar points out. 

The modern practice of using them as “drawing room decorations” is essentially a western import, just as “easy-to-get easy-to-use poster colours” are used by present-day artists who pass off their works as originals. “In the early days, artists used ochre, kaolin, vermillion, terre verde, carbon black and azurite,” narrates Kumar. “Later, they were using dyes made from lead white, lapis lazuli, indigo, litharge and peoria. The brilliant blue of Mughal paintings, for instance, comes from the lapis lazuli.”

An untrained eye cannot, of course, make these fine distinctions. And with the price of vintage miniatures sky-rocketing, fakes are proliferating.  As Virendra Kumar points out, very often ordinary paper is stained with the liquor of tea to create an antique effect. At times, artists get hold of old manuscripts or albums, clear the surface of any written material and then paint over them.

“What those unscrupulous racketeers do not realise is that the paper on which the paintings are done is often more valuable than the works themselves,” says Kumar. “But then, nothing can be done about it so long as there is a demand for miniatures.”

In the 20th century, the practice of miniature painting had fallen out of favour in India where ateliers were in decline. In the 1940s and 1950s, a sudden renewed interest among scholars and art historians led to books and reprints being published, and a revival of the art form.

Starting from heritage painter families, for whom this had been an inherited livelihood, to individual painters newly eager to train, two parallel schools emerged. Workshops began to reopen in Jaipur, New Delhi and cities traditionally known as centres of miniature art, fuelled by tourism.

The second group was a result of formal training in Indian art institutions. An emphasis on art history and mastering the techniques led to academically trained artists whose works belong in art collections and museums. The Department of Fine Arts of Punjabi University Patiala has successfully introduced miniature painting as a new subject.

In 2010, Princess Vaishnavi of Kishangarh  founded Studio Kishangarh. Vaishnavi’s mission was two-fold: one, to preserve the traditional form of miniature painting by giving employment to local artists; two, to revitalise the art form by introducing new themes and colours and diversifying into new product areas such as home and personal accessories and stationery.

In addition there are professional miniature painters like  Painter Lala  in Udaipur is a patient and enthusiastic teacher, who spends a lot of time explaining the techniques and intricacies of the art form. He charges ₹600 for a four-hour class. The price includes the silk cloth, paints, brushes, and other materials required to make one medium-sized miniature.

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