Book House The Lead

How the court culture of the Rajput hill states influenced Kangra painting

Plate A
  • The book “Painting in the Kangra Valley” by Vijay Sharma is a detailed survey of the painting styles of Guler and Kangra in the 18th and 19th centuries.


  • The book also analyses the impact of the Bhakti movement and of Mughal painting on the painting traditions of the region.


  • Featuring more than 160 images of paintings, this book is a significant read for researchers as well as connoisseurs.


  • Read an excerpt from Vijay Sharma’s book “Painting in the Kangra Valley” below.


The Rajput rulers of the hill states played a significant role in the origin and development of Kangra painting. It would perhaps have been impossible for this delightful visual art to ascend to such great heights without royal patronage, just like it is impossible for a creeper to grow without support and nourishment. Conversely, without the Pahari painters and their art, people might have forgotten these hill chieftains. It was thus a sort of symbiotic relationship between the artists and the art-loving rulers of the hill states, with the king of each state dictating its courtly culture and his taste in art, setting the tone for the courtiers and others to follow.

Born mostly into the lower middle class, poets, musicians, sculptors, and painters lived under the patronage of the kings, their ministers, the elites, and the nobles. It was then but natural for these poets and artists to create works that were soaked in the sensual lifestyles of their patrons, attuning their themes to reflect whatever pleased the ones they were created for.

Plate B

Besides the raja, who set the tone for the patronage of painters, the wazirs, amirs, landlords, and elites were also fond of the arts and fostered painters, musicians, writers, and poets. Most artists and artisans of the time were completely dependent on their favours. Influenced by the Mughal court, artists of the hill courts often composed paintings based on significant events in the lives of the hill rulers and chieftains.

Pahari painting was, in fact, primarily a court art patronised by royalty. Artists would jointly work in their family workshops on fixed monthly wages. When particularly pleased with a painter or his work, patrons would bestow the artist with fertile tracts of land as reward. Recently discovered documents show that Raja Raj Singh of Chamba awarded a jagir to Nikka , son of the celebrated painter Nainsukh. Generous grants of lands were also made by the Basohli ruler Raja Amrit Pal to the artist Ranjha, and by Maharaja Sansar Chand of Kangra to the painters Gaudhu and Siba. There was also a custom of awarding jewellery to master painters for their pioneering works so that the artists could work free of worry and give their creativity and skill full rein. An inscription on a Guler painting bears evidence to the fact that the artist Manaku was awarded an invaluable emerald-studded ring as reward for an extraordinary piece of art. The ruling class thus ensured that artists and artisans were afforded a harmonious environment and fulfilled their other material requirements to ensure they could concentrate on creating original work without having to toil for livelihood.

The Pahari rulers were very fond of having had themselves portrayed. They not only commissioned their own portraits (shabih) but also portraits of their ancestors as well as those of rulers of the neighbouring states to create a unique album (muraqqa). A good number of shabih paintings portraying Rajas Kirpal Pal and Amrit Pal of Basohli, Rajas Chhatar Singh and Raj Singh of Chamba, Raja Sidh Sen of Mandi, Rajas Dalip Singh, Bishan Singh, and Govardhan Chand of Guler, Raja Balwant Singh of Jasrota, Maharaja Sansar Chand of Kangra, and Raja Devi Chand of Kahlur (Bilaspur) have come to light. Many of these now feature in various public and private collections spread across the world. In most of these portraits, the hill chiefs are shown either riding a horse, relishing a hookah in their pleasure gardens, hunting wild animals in the company of other hunters, enjoying music and dance sessions, venerating the chief deity, sitting in the seclusion of the royal zenana with their queen and children, holding discussions with courtiers in the royal court, or other similar activities. Several paintings are also available where the rulers are absorbed in a game of chaugan (polo), chess, pachisi (Indian ludo), or ganjifa (playing cards).

According to the customs of the court, the standard of the ruling class was concordant to their interest in painting, literature, and music. Poets, artists, and musicians of great calibre and talent were duly rewarded— the Pahari rulers and chieftains would perhaps even compete with each other in granting patronage to the arts. Consequently, royal bards would compose grand verses in the praise of their royal patrons, recounting exaggerated anecdotes of the bravery, romantic dalliances, and heroic deeds of their patrons. The painting tradition followed the same path, capturing beautifully the splendour, pomp, and show of the brave Rajput rulers and the bewitching beauty of their beloveds. Artists even captured the myriad moods of love in Pahari paintings.

Plate C

According to Jaipur’s famous art critic Ramgopal Vijayavargiya:

A connoisseur must have adequate knowledge to appreciate paintings, swords, horses, Ragas and gems. And one who possesses such knowledge was held in high esteem in the noble class. It was also necessary for the courtiers to have these characteristics in them. Poetry and feminine beauty from the toe to top knot (nakha-shikh) were fondly discussed in the court.

The artistes (poets, painters, and musicians) also imbibed the environment of the court and used to conduct themselves in accordance with its trends, lifestyle, and customs. This romantic atmosphere is apparent in their creations as well. As was the necessity of the times, artists used to accommodate for the likes and dislikes of their patrons. Consequently, even erotic paintings were produced on request of the romantic hill chieftains. The sensuous Pahari rulers were fond of arts and objects of pleasure that could romantically enliven the atmosphere. They would embellish themselves in regal attire—in richly embroidered jamas with flower patterns, headgear, and brocade (zari) waistbands and patkas with studded precious gems, gold, and silver. In Kangra painting, the amorous chieftains are shown in the love-pavilions of their palaces, romancing their favourite queens or concubines and lost in sexual pleasures. There are many paintings available where the womenfolk are shown in the inner apartments of the palaces while engaged in ablutions and cosmetic decorations. A large variety of ornaments studded with emeralds, like earrings and necklaces, and interesting costumes formed the focal point of the splendour of the court. Women are often depicted examining their well-proportioned physiques in the mirror, the delicate nayikas seemingly hypnotised by their own beauty, or looking at their hands that are adorned with henna paste, invariably flanked by companions and ladies-in-waiting. The pursuit of beauty and aesthetics then seems to have been the main preoccupation of the royal ladies, such that poets would take inspiration from the romantic atmosphere associated with the chambers of these nayikas.

Scenes such as the indulgent chieftains strolling in pleasure groves replete with creepers, or in gardens filled with flower beds, or sitting in close embrace with beautiful damsels under an awning, or in scented bathing ponds (hauz) are not figments of the painters’ imagination but serve as significant testimonials to the contemporary romanticism of the time. The hill chieftains, in palatial mansions studded with different types of running fountains and cisterns, would seek indulgence in sensual pleasures and seek gratification in intimate unions with the bewitching maidens.

Plate D

As mentioned earlier, the art of painting was solely dependent on court and royal patronage at the time. The king, as also the courtiers, would find great pleasure in often viewing and scrutinising paintings. Of course, besides creating art for the purposes of entertainment, painters also helped their patrons in fulfilling their religious requirements. It is for this reason that beautifully painted illustrated manuscripts, wooden panels, metal plates, and wall murals depicting the various aspects of gods and goddesses feature in many temples and palaces of this hilly region.

*(All images featured are from the book).

*Plate A. A hill prince in his inner apartment, Guler, ca. 1790, Habighorst collection, Koblenz (Germany)

*Plate B. Raja Govardhan Chand of Guler holding the court, Guler, ca. 1750, Government Museum and Art Gallery, Chandigarh

*Plate C. A hill prince in the inner apartment, Guler, ca. 1820, Dogra Art Museum, Jammu

*Plate D. Raja Raj Singh of Chamba with his queen in Rajnagar palace, Guler, ca. 1785, Louvre Museum, Paris

Excerpted with permission from Painting in the Kangra Valley, Vijay Sharma, Niyogi Books. Read more about the book here and buy it here.

 

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