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Visions of Indian Art

Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Harvard Art Museums
Nainsukh of Guler: Balwant Singh’s Elephant Clawed by a Lion, 1752

One morning in 1740, a thin young man could be seen heading down the steep cobbled road leading from the Kashmir Gate of the Punjabi hilltown of Guler, and making for the banks of the fast-running river Ravi far below. Nainsukh was just short of thirty, with a slightly hesitant expression, buckteeth, and a downy mustache. He had just been appointed as court miniature painter at the neighboring Himalayan princedom of Jasrota, and in his baggage were the sketchbooks, albums, boxes of pens, squirrel hair brushes, and stone-based pigments such as lapis-blue and malachite-gray that Indian miniature painters used to create their dazzling colors.

It was in Jasrota that Nainsukh—“Delight of the Eye”—began producing the work that led to him today being generally regarded as the greatest of eighteenth-century Indian painters. Nainsukh brought together all the precision and technically exquisite detail of the Mughal tradition, the bright colors of Rajasthani painting, and the bold beauty of early Pahari art—the art of the Punjab hills. To all this he added a humor and a humanism, a refinement, and above all a precise, sharply observant eye that was entirely his own. He broke free from the formality of so much Indian court art to explore the quirky human reality, stripping down courtly conventions to create miniatures full of living and breathing individuals, portrayed somewhere on the boundary between portraiture and caricature, like an Indian Brueghel, only much more elegant and refined.

Even in his large crowd scenes, there are no stock figures: everyone—each courtier, each village beauty, each gardener—is shown in portrait form as a real person, with all their oddities and quirks. Nainsukh’s art—he first learned in the family atelier at Guler, apprenticed to his father Pandit Seu, and worked alongside his elder brother Manaku, then in Jasrota for his most discerning patron, Raja Balwant Singh—is for many of his admirers a summation and climax of the Indian miniature tradition.

But it was not just that Nainsukh was a brilliant miniaturist. His work gives a unique insight into the relationship between an Indian artist and his patron, between a court and a court painter. Raja Balwant Singh and Nainsukh seem to have had an unusually close relationship and must have been of roughly similar ages. The chronology of Nainsukh’s miniatures leads us from the family sketches and self-portraits of the artist’s own adolescence, through the move to Jasrota, his first commissions for Balwant’s father, Mian Zorawar Singh, and on to his first images of Balwant, his future patron. We see Balwant as a good-looking dandy of a young prince in all his silken finery, sitting back on a bolster in a gorgeously striped robe as he puffs away at his water pipe, his falcon glaring from his wrist. Sometimes he is shown as a handsome youth standing regally on a terrace, a sword in one hand, a sweet-smelling narcissus in the other.

Then Balwant succeeds to the throne and we follow the young men of the court on winter evening rides through mustard fields, serenaded by lovely singers; on hawking and lion- and tiger-hunting trips (see illustration on page 75); and to music evenings and dance performances. There are occasional images of quiet evenings where the raja, wrapped in a shawl, sits in front of a blazing fire with a glass of some warming beverage. We also see the painter standing, bowed in reverence behind his enthroned patron, as the connoisseur-prince carefully examines a new devotional painting; the court musicians and attendants look on to gauge his reaction. We even see such everyday yet oddly intimate scenes as Balwant Singh’s visit to the palace barber to have his beard trimmed.

Then, slowly, the story darkens. A group of villagers assemble, led by an aggressive-looking Brahmin. There is some sort of palace coup; the raja is seen standing alone on his battlements, isolated from all. Years of exile follow as Balwant Singh travels the hill country, sheltering in villages, as his court artist, his last confidant, shares his exile. Nainsukh paints him at night, warming his hands on a rustic bonfire among a group of villagers, or writing letters in his tent, careworn and half-naked in the summer heat of his day, with only one attendant left to him. Finally Nainsukh shows himself escorting his patron’s pot of ashes for immersion in the Ganges at Hardwar. It is a uniquely sad and intimate sequence that has no parallel in Indian art.

Yet for all his singularity, Nainsukh was not unique: he was instead painting at a time when the Punjab hill states of the Himalayan foothills in the late eighteenth century were going through a period of astonishing creativity. This great blossoming took place soon after the puritanical Mughal emperor Aurangzeb had withdrawn his patronage from the great Mughal atelier in Delhi toward the end of his reign, on the grounds that depicting the human form was forbidden in Islamic law. As the spirit of austere orthodoxy took root across the Mughal dominions, some of the finest painters, dancers, and musicians in the capital were forced to migrate, looking for patronage in the regional courts that had sprung up to fill the void left by the declining empire. Many of the greatest Mughal painters seem to have come originally from Kashmir and the Punjab hills; as work ran out in Delhi, they returned home to courts like Guler and Jasrota in search of employment. As a result, small remote mountain fortresses suddenly blossomed with artists trained with metropolitan skills, each family of painters competing with and inspiring each other in a manner comparable to the rival city-states of Renaissance Italy. In this scenario Guler and Jasrota can be compared to San Gimignano and Urbino, small but wealthy hill towns ruled by a court with an unusual interest in the arts.

Yet while the greatest artists of Italy had their lives recorded by Vasari, and the biographies of even the most minor ones have long been the subject of research by art historians, the situation in India is much more obscure. The simple fact is that most Indian paintings are still anonymous. Nainsukh remains today the only Indian miniature painter to be the subject of a full-length study. The reconstruction of his life, and those of other Indian masters, has taken place surprisingly recently.

Over the last forty years, a small group of scholars of Indian art has been closely analyzing signatures and inscriptions on miniatures, as well as other sources such as palace archives and land registers. In this way they have recovered the names and in some cases tantalizing fragments of biography for dozens of painters, many of whom formed dynasties of artists working for successive generations of sultans, rajas, and emperors—the human story behind the stylistic history of Indian painting.

The difficulty of such art-historical sleuthing is compounded by the fact that many Indian painters came from the relatively humble carpenter’s caste and seem to have regarded their work as part of a long craft tradition; indeed in ancient India painters were ranked alongside lowly musicians and dancing girls. Few perceived themselves as great artists, though from the seventeenth century onward there is evidence that the greatest masters were highly mobile and the subject of bidding wars between rival patrons in competing courts across the region.

The man who has probably done more than anyone to bring the Indian masters back from anonymity is India’s preeminent art historian, Professor B.N. Goswamy of the University of Chandigarh. In 1968, he wrote a groundbreaking article, “Pahari Paint- ing: The Family as the Basis of Style.” Employing a combination of remarkable detective work, intuition, and connoisseurship, Goswamy managed to bring together the evidence from inscriptions on miniatures with innovative new sources.

Inspired by the picture of Nainsukh escorting the ashes of Raja Balwant Singh to Hardwar, he looked into the eighteenth-century pilgrim records kept at the holy town where the Ganges leaves the Himalayas and flows into the plains. There he found vital details of genealogy that allowed him to reconstruct the entire family network of Pandit Seu, Nainsukh, and Manaku, and their many miniaturist grandchildren and cousins. He showed how the family shared a common artistic style, but their mobility between different centers of patronage effectively made nonsense of the existing system of categorizing miniatures by schools or workshops and centers of production. What was important, Goswamy showed, was not where a particular miniature painting was produced, or even who the patron was, but instead which artist, or family of artists, was holding the brush. Court styles could vary hugely, depending on who was at work; but different families shared common training and techniques and stylistic idiosyncrasies.

By 1990 Goswamy had extended his research techniques to include all the other masters of Pahari painting—the great artists of the Punjab hills. Along with the Swiss art historian Eberhardt Fischer, the director of the Rietberg in Zurich, he produced a major show that completely rewrote the history of the art of the Punjab hills, recategorizing it by family and individuals, rather than courts. Finally, last year, Goswamy and Fischer, aided by the former director of the Freer Gallery in Washington and great specialist in Mughal painting Milo Beach, extended their work to encompass the entire history of the Indian miniature tradition.

This epic project culminated in “Wonder of the Age,” one of the largest and most spectacular exhibitions of Indian painting ever put on show, which traveled from Zurich to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, along with which was published an extensive two-volume catalog, the work of thirty scholars, entitled Masters of Indian Painting. The result was a complete revelation, and a dramatic and encyclopedic reevaluation of the human reality behind Indian painting. What Nainsukh had done for the patrons of his day, Masters does for the painters. Suddenly a gallery opens up before us that is filled with real living individuals, each rendered in silhouette, yet full of life and vitality, and each capable of independent thought and action.

From literary sources it is clear that ancient India had a highly developed tradition of painting and portraiture, which continued to flourish until the end of the first millennium AD; indeed an entire manual survives holding forth on the art of landscape painting. But with the exception of the Ajanta caves frescoes, inland from modern Bombay, dating from the sixth century, and the wall paintings of the remote thirteenth-century Buddhist monastery of Alchi in Ladakh, on the borders of Tibet, and a few other fragments—at Sigriya, in Sri Lanka, and at Ellora, Bagh, and Tanjore—almost nothing of these riches has survived.

Yet these scattered fragments are more than enough to indicate the quality and sophistication of what has been lost. The paintings at Ajanta—telling the Jataka stories of the Lives of the Buddha, painted onto the walls of a chain of Buddhist caves excavated in a remote horseshoe of cliffs—are of such supreme elegance and grace that they clearly represent a last fragment of a lost golden age. They use chiaroscuro and foreshortening, and are fresh and spontaneous, yet full of grace, beauty, and equilibrium. They show a mastery of composition, bodily modeling, and color harmony, while reveling in action and drama. They also subtly explore a wide variety of human emotions.

Although the images were presumably intended for a monastic audience, interspersed with the occasional passing pilgrim, what is striking to the modern viewer is the unexpected yet heady mixture of the sacred with the sensual. The Buddha tends to be shown not just in his monastic milieu, after his Enlightenment, but in the courtly environment in which he grew up. Here among handsome princes and nobles, dark-skinned princesses languish lovelorn, while heavy-breasted dancing girls and courtesans are shown nude but for their jewels and girdles, draped temptingly amid palace gardens and court buildings. These women conform closely to the ideas of feminine beauty propagated by the great fifth-century Gupta-era playwright Kalidasa, who writes of men pining over portraits of their lovers, while straining to find the correct metaphors to describe them:

I recognize…your expression in the eyes of a frightened gazelle; the beauty of your face in that of the moon, your tresses in the plumage of peacocks; and the play of your eyebrows in the faint ripple of flowing water…alas! Timid friend—no one object compares to you.

The astonishing beauty of the Ajanta frescoes makes the losses all the more tragic. The great Buddhist monasteries of India were renowned for their multistoried libraries, with their vast holdings of illustrated manuscripts; today not only is the name of every single painter forgotten, but almost every last fragment of Indian painting on bark and palm-leaf manuscripts dating from this period has been destroyed. Practically everything was eradicated in the cultural holocaust that accompanied the first Turkic invasions of northern India in the thirteenth century. In these conquests an enormous corpus of Buddhist knowledge was lost through Islamic iconoclasm in an orgy of wreckage comparable to the burning of the Alexandrian Library, or the destruction of the centers of learning in Persia by Genghis Khan’s Mongol hordes.

Russian Academy of Sciences, St. Petersburg
Farrukh Beg: Ibrahim Adil Shah II Hawking (detail), circa 1590–1595
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