Paintings have always been an integral part of Rajasthani culture- a way of life. From humble village huts to the opulent palaces of the Maharajas, from the makeshift homes of wandering minstrels to monumental temples of hoary antiquity, paintings are to be found everywhere in many colors and forms. The Rajasthani painter expressed his creative impulse in embellishing the facades, walls and ceilings of havelies and palaces, backdrops of deities in temples, manuscripts of romance and poetry, religion and history, music and mythology.
Rajasthan has many schools of painting having their own distinct styles, well known among them being Marwar, Mewar, Hadoti, Kishangarh, Dhundhari and Alwar. The miniature paintings of Rajasthan, which flourished under princely patronage, are still reproduced by the descendants of the original craftsmen, retaining their classic elegance. Mythological themes from Hindu epics are commonly used. Hills, valleys, gardens, palaces, fort scenes and religious processions are vividly rendered.
Folk paintings such as Phad (scrolls with tales of Pabuji) and Picwai (cloth paintings hung as backdrop of deities in temples) are popular with tourist.
Almost as colorful as the state’s tradition of festivals are its celebrations of arts, and nowhere is this more manifest than in the variety and artistry of its varying forms of painting. Even this takes on two distinctive hues-the formal school of miniature paintings that flourished in courts all over north India and the Deccan, and the folk traditions that resulted in a style quite unique to Rajasthan.
In Rajasthan, the miniature painter did not lack patronage and, in fact, as many as seven styles developed over a period of time, and in different kingdoms. But to study the development of the miniature, one must first understand its origins.
The miniature is, at its most basic, a portfolio painting that uses techniques similar to wall paintings, cloth paintings or manuscript illustrations from which it may have evolved. Examples of miniature in the Mughal and Rajasthani styles exist from the 16th century on when there was an efflorescence of the art. Just as there is a difference in the romantic Kangra style, so too the Mughal and Rajasthani styles developed separate identities that, though less apparent to the layperson’s eye, nevertheless stand out clearly as far as the connoisseur of art is concerned.
While the Mughal style derived its inspiration from it patrons, and more particularly its emperors, chief among them Akbar, Jehangir and Shah Jehan, the Rajasthani School of miniatures was characterized by a revival based on its increasing contact with the Mughal durbar. However, the Rajasthani miniature was marked through its use of bolder colors, the ornamental depiction of nature, accentuated human forms, all of them designed to reflect the altogether more flamboyant Rajput culture.
From the 16th century through the 18th, the miniature style developed independently in the kingdoms, the differences being marked in the way the painter looked at he countryside, the hills and shrubs, the forts and gardens and dunes of the desert. There is enough evidence to show that miniature style paintings had flourished before the establishment of the 16th century Mughal studios, particularly as illustrations for manuscripts, and that Akbar hired many of his court painters from Hindu kingdoms in north India.
Eventually it was not uncommon to find Muslim artists working in the ateliers of Rajput courts, and Hindu artists seeking similar employment in the Mughal court. Even the atelier in Chittorgarh, in the decades that it spent in defiance of the Mughal badshahi, may have offered employment to the Muslim painter and had a seminal school in the 16th century from where a collection of Gita Govinda paintings may have originated. In the event, the Mewar school (after the Sisodia Rulers of Chittaur and Udaipur) went on to become one of the most important in the state.
From the very start, Rajasthani miniatures were different from the Mughal-The colors, for example, were stronger, the compositions bolder, the range of hues almost passionate in their intensity, and in their response to the life of the people they deemed to reflect in these miniature glimpses. The Mughal miniature, with few deviations, was restricted to court science and portraits of the emperors and the nobles, but the subject of Rajasthani miniature could range over a variety of subject-the kingly, religious, secular-all deferent, shades of life.
Naturally, the ecstatic frolics of Krishna and the gopis formed a favorite subject, one of the most endearing being depictions of Krishna Lela as a body of work. In the Gita Govinda, also developed as a series, the miniature became a lyrical symbol with swaying lotuses, meandering streams, and trees in bloom suggesting the intimate passions of lovers. While epics formed the subject for religious works of art, particularly the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the dalliances of Krishna were of a more romantic mould. Later, shades of royal lifestyle permeated the canvas of the painters, and ranged from scenes of hunts to ladies playing chess, or polo.
Today, miniatures are turned out in almost assembly line in the studios that have been especially developed to cater to the tourist souvenir trade. Even now, the talent available is formidable, and while the best of the artists rarely see their way into the open market (they are commissioned directly, and their work may find its way into collections, of be used to illustrate prestigious art books). Mostly, the works are copies of the earlier paintings, and original subjects would be hard to find. Studios continue to flourish in the Jaipur and Udaipur, and more recently in Kishangarh as well.