05 Dec The Pahari School of Paintings: The Beautiful Indian Art
The history of painting in India goes back 2000 years, something that many do not realize, starting with the beautiful murals of Ajanta, which are interesting too because they show people wearing craft still extant. The 11th century saw the illustrated Pala manuscripts, painted on palm leaves, and the earliest example of miniature painting in India. The next development was the Jain school of Gujarat, which eventually lead to the Rajput tradition of miniature art. As it grew and developed, the Rajput tradition divided into two distinct schools, Rajput and the Pahari school, based in Himachal Pradesh, the hilly state in the north-west of India.
The Pahari school of miniatures has broadly three distinct styles, based on towns where it flourished under royal patronage:
Basohli school of Pahari India Art
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Basohli school is the earliest noteworthy trend of the genre and is distinct from the others in its simplicity of composition and its bold flat colors. Backgrounds tend to be monochromatic and facial features are stylized, with long almond-shaped eyes. The Basohli school is the least developed and sophisticated of the Pahari school, understandably so.
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Kangra School of Pahari Indian Art
The Kangra School benefitted hugely from one particular ruler, Maharaja Sansar Chand, who provided the patronage that took this school to the sophistication it achieved. The school also shows a heavy Mughal influence, with the migration of several artists to Kangra from Mughal ateliers.
Kangra art shows court scenes far more than the other schools. It also includes fantastic flora and fauna, architecture, and beautiful female physiognomy. It is remarkable in its depiction of court costume in delightful detail.
The prominent artist of the Kangra school is Purkhu, whose paintings are full of human figures, in court and subjects like the Gita Govinda, yet never crowding the canvas. His depictions of nature based on the beauty of Himachal Pradesh are remarkable, too, as are his precise details of the apparel worn at the time.
Kangra painting declined after the death of Sansar Chand when the court painters migrated to Punjab in search of new patrons.
Guler school of Pahari Indian Art
The Guler school is arguably the most sophisticated in Pahari art, aided by the proximity of several rulers to the Mughals. The rulers took the Mughals as their role models, giving patronage to art as the prominent Mughal rulers did.
This school, far more than the others, shows the remarkable beauty of the hilly terrain of Guler, with its mountains, rippling brooks, and flora/fauna. It is also more naturalistic than the other schools, using soft colors and realism to depict human faces.
Though there are several prominent painters from the school, I particularly love Nainsukh, considered by many to be the greatest Indian painter. His soft pastel colors have been inspirational to many contemporary Indian designers of apparel, and his portraits are highly sophisticated
Guler art began declining in the middle of the 19th century, like Kangra art, with painters migrating to Punjab. Those who remained – painted far more crudely than their predecessors, often using chemical paints instead of the mineral ones used by the earlier ones, losing the softness of tone, which is the main character of Guler.
Essential themes in Pahari School of Indian Art
Portraiture was an important theme, obviously because the patron rulers wanted to hand their images down to posterity.
Baramasa or the seasons.
These are some of the most beautiful of the genre, showing the various months of the year.
The epics and love poetry
Many scholars say that it is impossible to understand the Pahari school without understanding Indian Sringara Rasa or love poetry. This is probably the only art tradition where art and poetry are entirely intertwined, particularly the tales relating to Krishna and Radha.
The Nayikas or heroines in the Pahari School of Indian Art
This is absolutely my favorite theme of all, with its classification of women under different heads, based on their age, attitude to sexuality, and marital status. The details are surprisingly modern, such as the Praudha, who loves and is skilled in lovemaking with her husband. Another is the Mughda, an adolescent girl, tender and inexperienced.
The Pahari school all but disappeared in the late 19th century, to be revived in recent times with several scholars interested in it. There are now brilliant artists such as Vijay Sharma and others painting in the genre, such a good development for one of the great schools of miniature art.
My recent interview with Pahari School Artist Vijay Sharma
Mira Gupta is a well-known curator and designer in craft-based luxury. She has had working stints with Fabindia, Good Earth, and Ogaan to promote the cause of craft. She is deeply interested in art, travel, architecture, and culture.