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: The Paintings of Courtly India


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Artists working in the Muslim and Hindu courts of northern and central India between the 15th and 19th centuries produced a remarkable profusion of miniature paintings. Then, during the last century, disinherited rulers whose wealth had dissipated as India democratized its political system sold enormous collections of these paintings on paper and illustrated manuscripts, once the pride of princely families. Created for personal viewing, few of these sumptuous works were intended for wall display. Instead, they were kept bound in albums or stacked in bundles in palace libraries and storerooms from which they were brought for viewing by the nobility. This educated and cultured audience readily understood the complex religious, mythological, literary, and musical allusions implicit in the subject matter. Fortunately, however, everyone can readily appreciate these largely anonymous paintings, which were created primarily to delight the eye. Their vibrant colors, richly embellished surfaces, refined craftsmanship, and diverse and entertaining subject matter remain engaging today.Beginning August 5, 1995, the Institute will display more than 40 miniature paintings in the Gale Gallery in an exhibition titled "The Paintings of Courtly India." Although the museum began collecting in this area only ten years ago, it will display the work of 20 regional schools in this first overall view of its growing collection. This material will be rotated in the new permanent gallery of Indian art now being planned for reinstallation.For most of the year, the ruling Muslim and Rajput class of India lived in massive citadels—luxurious walled compounds from which they controlled their own principalities. Several of these stone fortresses, such as those of Agra, Jodpur, and Udaipur (fig. 1), still exist. Many of these courts supported schools of painting. The artists, typically of humble origin, had learned their craft as apprentices in the ateliers. They perpetuated a stylistic tradition that was modified during each generation according to the enthusiasms, tastes, and preferences of their royal patronage.Most of these artists used opaque watercolors on paper, a method called gouache. Then colors were typically achieved by mixing mineral, vegetable, and animal products with tree resins. The painters applied the pigments with fine brushes on heavy paper that was sized and sometimes burnished to an eggshell smoothness so they could create meticulous surface detail. Often embellished in gold and silver, the pictures were usually framed in the Muslim courts with highly decorative floral borders, while Rajput pictures tended to have an integral painted—usually in bright red lacquer—border.The earliest paintings in the exhibition include six Jain manuscripts illustrating the Kalpasutra, (The Book of the Ritual), datable to the 15th and early 16th centuries (fig. 2). Jain patronage consisted largely of wealthy merchants living in western India who frequently sought to enhance their own sanctity by commissioning copies of the sacred Jain texts like the Kalpasutra and Kalakacharya-Katha. Jain patrons preserved intact elements of much earlier Indian painting traditions that are now largely lost.During the 15th and 16th centuries, a resurgence of Hinduism occurred throughout northern India; it focused on the Vishnu cult and, more specifically, on that deity's manifestation as Krishna, the youthful blue-skinned cowherd god. The Institute recently acquired a folio from the Sanskrit chronicle, the Bhagavata Purana (The Ancient Story of the Blessed One), datable to 1525, that is among the few surviving pre-Mughal examples of Indian painting made for Hindu patronage (fig. 3). The episode shows the gopies (cowherd wives) desperately searching the forest for the divine Krishna. Bold primary colors dominate the flattened composition of charming profile figures and formalized vegetation in a manner that typifies indigenous Hindu painting before the Mughal conquest of 1526.By the late 16th century, the most influential and prolific court atelier was that of the Mughals, foreign sultans from central Asia. Inspired by the highly accomplished miniature painting traditions of Persia, Mughal artists and their Indian students quickly developed a command of conceptual perspective, refined naturalism, and polished technical execution that surpassed that of earlier Indian painting. These accomplishments are clearly evident in a work executed during the reign of Akbar (1542-1605) (fig. 4). This illustration of a scene described in the Persian poem the Khamsa (Quintet) depicts the hero, Majnun, being rescued and revived by animals during one of his many trials to find his lost love, Laila. The bird's-eye perspective, natural colors, and exquisitely controlled detail exhibited here are in marked contrast to earlier paintings, with their flattened composition and reliance on primary colors. Over time, native taste and subject matter infused the imported style, and Rajput courts throughout northern and central India provided regional patronage similar to the Mughals.Beginning in the 17th century and continuing into the 19th, a great diversity of local styles—often influenced by the Mughal example but more fundamentally indebted to indigenous themes and traditions—flourished in the semi-independent Hindu courts of the Rajputs. Literary epics such as the Ramayana (The Story of Rama) and Gita Govinda (Song of the Herdsman), along with illustrations of classical Indian melodies (ragamalas), figured among the most popular subject matter.From the tiny northern hill states of Mankot and Kangra, across desert-locked Rajasthani citadels like Bikaner and Jodpur, to the lushly forested principalities of Bundi and Kotah in central India, Rajput rulers promoted regional schools of painting with renewed vigor. Their committed patronage gave full reign to the most truly Indian aesthetic preferences in miniature painting (fig. 5).In the northern Punjab Hills, independent courts preserved and developed classical Indian culture. Their relative isolation and strong folk roots account for a certain pictorial naiveté, simplicity of composition, and intensity of feeling found in many of their works. The charming depiction from Mankot of the infant Krishna being carried across the Jumna River is a case in point (see cover).In addition to themes drawn from classical Indian music and literature, Rajput royalty delighted in depictions of itself. Colorful portraits of rajas (fig. 6) and scenes of courtiers allegorizing the heroic exploits of the divine lovers Krishna and Radha are common Rajput subjects. Many of the court ateliers developed certain stylistic traits peculiar to their own schools. Udaipur artists, for instance specialized in large scenes of royal processions and festivals, while Kishangarh figures are usually identifiable by their elongated eyes (fig. 7). These regional variations make it easier to categorize, date, and identify this tremendous artistic legacy.By 1850 continual provincial warfare and the impact of British conquerors had eroded much of the Indian social and economic order. The advent of Western products, education, and political reform further undermined traditional values, and dispossessed descendants of former rulers began to dismiss miniatures as curious mementos of an old-fashioned way of life. The last painting in the exhibition—a realistically rendered picture of a black partridge done for a British resident around 1810—marks the end of an artistic era that, in many ways, has given us our most vivid impressions of a vanished courtly India.Robert D. Jacobsen is chairman of the curatorial division and curator of Asian art.Related ImagesFig. 1. The City Palace at Udaipur, 17th-19th centuries. Typical of the several Rajput courts of North India that patronized regional schools of miniature painting from the 17th to 19th centuries. (Photo credit R. Jacobsen) Fig. 2. Queen Trisala on Her Couch, about 1500. Illustration, from the Kalpasutra, Western India, Jain style. Opaque watercolors and gold on paper. The Helen Winton Jones Asian Art Purchase Fund.This typical late-Jain manuscript leaf with decorative borders incorporates some of the traits of earlier indigenous painting styles that are now lost. Fig. 3. The Gopies Seek Krishna in the Forest, about 1525. Illustration from a Bhagavata Purana series. North India Uttar Pradesh (?). Opaque watercolors on paper. The Margaret McMillan Webber Fund.This early folio is among the few surviving pre-Mughal examples of Indian painting made for Hindu patronage. Fig. 4. Majnun in the Wilderness, about 1600. Illustration from the Khamsa, Mughal school. Opaque watercolors on paper. The Katherine Kittredge McMillan Memorial Fund.This finely finished court painting demonstrates the Persian-inspired conceptual perspective, refined naturalism, and polished techniques that the Mughal sultans introduced to Indian painting during the 16th century. Fig. 5. The Month of Bhadon, about 1810. Illustration from a Baramasa series. Kangra school. Opaque watercolors and gold on paper. The Margaret McMillan Webber Fund.Indian painters often used rain clouds and lightning flashes to symbolize romantic passion; both are clearly evident in this illustration of Bhadon, the month of monsoons. Fig. 6. Portrait of Raja Umed Singh (detail), about 1810. Kotah school. Opaque watercolors and gold on paper. Lent anonymously.Rajput rulers adopted this type of profile portrait from earlier Mughal examples. The use of a halo around the head of a reigning prince was a standard device in court portraiture. Fig. 7. The Bilaval Ragini (detail), about 1780. Illustration from a Ragamala series. Kishangarh school. Opaque watercolors and gold on paper. Gift from Catherine and Ralph BenkaimIndian miniatures are most rewarding when studied in detail. These court attendants display the dignified poses and elongated eyes characteristic of the Kishangarh School.
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Source: Robert D. Jacobsen, "The Paintings of Courtly India: Delicate jewels of Indian art capture several centuries' worth of courtly taste and tradition," <i>Arts</i> 18, no. 8 (August 1995): 8-10.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009