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Stories from the gilded potikhana

Kishore Singh  |  New Delhi 

showcase the narrative art of miniatures.

A miniature painting, for the vast majority, is a miniature painting, but experts can not only tell various schools (Mughal, Rajput, Kangra, Pahari, Deccani) apart, they can even break the schools further into ateliers and identify their artists — not unlike Western art, after all. No wonder periodic tomes on miniature art keep popping up in bookshelves with frequent periodicity — some learned, others merely, well, picture

Roda Ahluwalia’s Painting is a bit of both: an excellent production with fabulous paintings and a great deal of erudition that defines the ateliers as distinct from the (colours, profiles, choice of content), greatly strengthening Anand Coomaraswamy’s 1916 landmark book with the same title.

Few in India know that “these jewel-like paintings were kept in potikhanas (store-rooms) in royal palaces and treasured in the same way as jewellery; indeed both paintings and jewellery formed part of princesses’ dowries…”

The earliest illustrated manuscripts were Jain and Buddhist, but the Rajputs were more influenced by the of the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughals, leading to a “popular Mughal” style that combined elements of both schools, the artists from Rajput ateliers often receiving training under artists.

Unlike miniatures, Rajput paintings were often overtly spiritual, or showed family life, social settings and, of course, royal portraits. There were ragamala paintings too, that “effectively brought music, poetry and painting together, for the paintings are a visual representation of verses that aspire to capture the essence of a musical melody, or raga”.

Ahluwalia captures the romance and the drama of the ateliers of the best of these artists from the courts of Mewar (Udaipur to you and me), Bundi, Kotah, Marwar (that’s Jodhpur), Bikaner and Kishangarh, besides tracking ideas through the Rajput courts of Central India (Malwa and Bundelkhand), and the ateliers in tiny Himalayan kingdoms.

Though material and some illustrations have been sought from private and royal collections and trusts, a majority of them come from the British Museum and the British Library.

Coincidentally, then, the launch of an exhibition and a commemorative book on the illustrated Ramayana manuscripts from the phenomenal Mewar ateliers couldn’t have been better timed. is a tribute not only to medieval miniature artists but to the patronage of the Mewar court and the excellence of one of the largest such collections that has not been split up but can be viewed almost wholly at the British Library.

J P Losty’s book on the Mewar Ramayana recounts Valmiki’s story as it was recounted in seven “books”, what he describes as “among the most important documents of seventeenth-century Indian painting”. Losty notes, “The huge scale of the project, originally with over 400 paintings, allowed the artist to focus on telling an epic story on the grandest scale.”

The rulers of Mewar governed their state as viceregents of Eklingji, so perhaps it was natural it should become “a major centre for the production of such pothi manuscripts with illustrations”, dealing with the devotional aspect.

Though Mewar may not have bowed to Mughal might, an exchange of courtly representatives, and training for princes in each other’s affairs, followed.

“Jagat Singh must have come to know of the illustrated manuscripts glorifying the histories of the ancestors of the Moguls: Genghis Khan, Timur, Babur and Akbar. The germ of the idea of producing a Ramayana manuscript on a similarly epic scale as a kind of family history of his own ancestors may then have been implanted in Jagat Singh’s mind at an early date, as a Rajput rejoinder to their alien overlords invoking Rama’s righteous rule.”

It was Jagat Singh who, on becoming the ruler, took upon himself the task of restocking the royal library, commissioning the Muslim artist Sahib Din (an earlier painter, Nasiruddin, was also Muslim) with his “brilliantly assured rendering of the human form”, laying down “the ground rules for the way that all Mewari artists henceforth drew the human figure”.

His early works were Gitagovinda and the two Rasikapriyas, in which he showed his mastery over the “bird’s eye viewpoint” or perspective, fixing depth for the first time in Rajput miniature painting.

Sahib Din is important for developing what many see as the Mewar style, which gained its primacy through series, written by Mahatama Hirananda, but illustrated in three Mewari styles, of which only the Kiskindhakanda “bears evidence of hasty and erroneous collation” under Jagat Singh’s successor, Raj Singh, who was “much less interested in painting and manuscript production”.

Though Sahib Din is not credited with some of the works, his sense of composition and narration is only too evident, particularly in the Ayodhyakand. “In the hands of Sahib Din, the story of Rama’s suffering, heroism and devotion to duty has been transformed artistically into a sophisticated expression of Rajput ideals and society,” writes Losty.

A similar contemporary and responsible in equal measure for sections of the Ramayana is Manohar, “a competent and sometimes charming artist” who preferred compartmentalisation of the composition to perspective. Later Mewar rulers (and artists) continued the pothi programme to various degrees, but lacked the success of the eponymous Ramayana.

The Mewar Ramayana found itself in England via the great chronicler of Rajput (and particularly Mewar) history, Col James Tod, who was from 1818 to 1823 the first British political agent to the western Rajput courts. Rana Bhim Singh of Mewar gave him the manuscripts painted (and written) over several long years, who in turn pressed them into the possession of the bibliophile Duke of Sussex.

It was from him they were purchased by the British Museum. The current book, in making the works available to personal libraries around the world, has added to the value of arguably the finest composite collection of narrative art from the subcontinent.

Love and Valour in India’s Greatest Epic [The Mewar amayana Manuscripts]

PUBLISHER: British Library/Niyogi Books
PAGES: 160
PRICE: Rs 895

Romantic, Divine and Courtly Art from India
Roda Ahluwalia
PAGES: 176
PRICE: £16.99

First Published: Sun, July 27 2008. 00:00 IST