While Indian painting traditions go back to the Stone Age, manuscript and miniature paintings begin with illustrated palm leaf manuscripts of the Jain and Pala period (9th-16th century CE). Manuscript paintings became most popular in the time of the Mughal dynasty, and the tradition continues with different patrons, collectors, and art practitioners today.
Miniature paintings are small sized works of art characterised by their meticulous detail. Indian miniature painting may be categorised according to patronage and their geographical centres. Of the various schools, Mughal, Deccan, Rajput, and Pahari are the most popular. Each school has several sub-schools that are divided based on provenance and patronage. Cross-cultural influences from factors such as trade, migration, exchange of items between courts, and travellers are reflected in the painting styles. While many themes are shared, we can identify schools based on conventions of spatial division, stylisation of flora and fauna, facial features, portrayal of architectural elements, and colour palettes. Popular themes include portraiture, court scenes, illustrations of texts, epic stories, hunting and outdoor scenes, and religious themes.
Mughal painting was an amalgamation of significant Indic elements and Central Asian themes and styles. Typical Persian motifs such as animated and colourful rocks dominate the landscapes in the works of this school. Manuscripts such as the Hamzanama, Razmnama, Akbarnama, and nature studies by the master artist Mansur in Jehangir’s court are some of the most notable productions of this school.
In the 17th century, the Mughal atelier had yet another artistic interaction: as European travellers, missionaries, and traders came to the court, they brought with them art from Europe. Miniature painters absorbed European Renaissance idioms in their artworks. The inclusion of a distant landscape and vanishing point perspective to the practice, and worked on Christian sceneries, European motifs of angels quickly became a part of the Mughal visual language.
Perhaps by observing the ateliers of the Mughal court, rulers across the Indian subcontinent set up their own ateliers, many of them employing artists who previously worked in the Mughal courts. Painting ateliers were set up in the royal courts of Rajasthan, Punjab, Himachal, Deccan, and Central Indian states. They flourished between 16th and 19th centuries, Mughal subjects of paintings were given local flavours, made to suit several Hindu courts, and new collections were commissioned.
An important centre of painting from the 17th century onwards is the court of Amber, and later Jaipur. Ancestors of the Jaipur royal family were based in Amber, where this school actually started. Having laid the foundation of Jaipur in 18th century, Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II established the Suratkhana. A workshop of painting that was among the thirty-six karkhanas, or workshops, of the court. A sizeable gamut of art was commissioned by the Jaipur royal family, illustrating Devi Mahatmya and Dasham Skandha of the Bhagvat Purana. They commissioned Ragamala paintings, several portraits, maps, religious paintings, nature studies, and court scenes. The Jaipur school absorbs several stylistic influences from Persian, Mughal, Deccan, and local Rajput schools, yet retains underlying common characteristics such as rounded figures.
Artists received court patronage in the erstwhile royal states of India where the individual ruler’s extent of interest in the arts and his personal agenda differed across generations and courts. Today, royal commissions and the exchange of gifts have largely been replaced by travellers purchasing works of art as souvenirs. This trend is on display at the Friends of Museum establishment at Jaipur’s City Palace. We met with Babulal Marotia, a practicing miniature artist from Jaipur, who effortlessly straddles the styles of the Jodhpur, Kota, Bundi, and Jaipur Schools.
Growing up with art and a father who painted after returning from a demanding day job, Babulal was drawn to colours and painting whenever he got the chance. After forcing himself through school till 10th grade, Babulal devoted himself to painting full time. His guide was his father, and later a Padma Shri recipient, Kripal Singh Shekhawat. His career started with a stint at Nawalgarh House (1980-87). Here, artists learned by copying dozens of miniature paintings on display, a practice that provided them exposure to several styles of painting. Babulal’s training resulted in a vibrant repertoire of miniature paintings, and an expansion of his creative vocabulary.
A French lady, who he doesn’t name, noticed his fine work, bought a few paintings, and facilitated his first exhibition in Paris in 1984. Encouraged and motivated, he continued to work and exhibited the fruits of his labour once again in Bangalore in 1988. Less-than-impressive sales numbers and mounting losses forced Babulal to quit painting. Hard times resulted in resorting to extreme measures: at one point he had to sell coal in his retired father’s shop. This artist also ran a tea shop for two years after his coal stint.
The gap in his artistic pursuits lasted three years, but his creative impulses spurred him to resume painting in his free time. Soon, the tide turned. Awards began pouring in: a District Award in 1992, a State Award in 1993, a National Merit in 1995, and the prestigious National Award in 1997. The National Award brought Babulal to the notice of Jaipur’s Maharaja, Sawai Bhawani Singh. He invited Babulal to be a part of the Friends of Museum, an exhibition and sale space at Jaipur’s City Palace. This was an opportunity to interact with the collectors and talk about miniature paintings, one that he grabbed with both hands. It has been twenty-one years since, and he continues to demonstrate, paint, and sell his work here. In addition to the patronage from the Jaipur royal family, the Indian Government has supported his participation in trade fairs and enabled demonstrations in over twenty countries.
Equipped to paint in Jaipur, Kota, Bundi, Jodhpur, and Mughal styles, Babulal prefers to paint in the Jaipur style for its detailed borders and treatment of figures. He earned the UNESCO award in 2004 and was most recently awarded the Shilp Guru in 2016 for a painting in Jaipur style of Shiv Parivar: a depiction of a family of Hindu deities, with the destroyer god Shiva, his consort Parvati, and children, Kartikeya and Ganesh.
He uses paper made in Sanganer, a satellite town of Jaipur. Three sheets are combined to make wasli, which is ideal for this form of painting. Paints are made from natural minerals, vegetables, and stones. White comes from khadiya, black form kajal, red form hinglu, blue form desi nil, and yellow from pevdi. A bright yellow hue was traditionally created with cow urine after feeding the animal mango leaves. It takes up to ten days to make the colours. They are ground using a mortar and pestle, and then mixed with natural tree gum. Brushes are made from squirrel hair.
Over the years, Babulal has observed interesting trends: foreign and local patrons seem to prefer paintings with flowers, birds, and elephants. Elephants are not only considered auspicious, but also seen as symbolic of India, which is perhaps the reason for their popularity. In certain religions, figural depictions are not favoured, and so floral studies are in high demand. Paintings of gods and goddesses such as Ganesh, Saraswati, and Laxmi are surprisingly bought in large numbers by South American visitors!
While historical miniature paintings are widely housed in prestigious museums across the world, the engagement with contemporary miniature paintings continues to grow. Babulal Marotia’s practice shows that these beautiful artworks continue the centuries-old tradition, but are augmented by the artist’s own distinctive style and taste.
That being said, earning a livelihood as a miniature painting artist is a daunting prospect. Babulal has seen about 25 percent of the artists around him discontinue their practice due to unfavourable economic laws and a lack of institutional support. The government has set up six-month schemes to propagate the traditional guru-shishya format of learning, but such initiatives are only focused on creating new painters. Not much has been done to sustain the practices of existing artists. For him and his brothers, who are also artists and work from City Palace, it’s only been sustainable ever since a large number of interested tourists have started passing through Jaipur and the Museum.
Hanging on the walls of museums or the walls of collectors’ homes, thoughtfully collected as works of fine art or impulsively bought as souvenirs, this historic art form needs patronage and encouragement to sustain itself.
On your next visit to the Pink City visit the City Palace and soak in the art of miniature paintings.
Featured image courtesy: roseberys.co.uk