The Creative Process of Manaku and the Pahari Painters: Layers of Memory
Three artworks now on view in the exhibition Seeing the Divine: Pahari Painting of North India provide an extraordinary glimpse into the creative process of the Pahari school of painting, especially that of the enigmatic painter Manaku, who was active at the Guler court of Northern India from around 1725 to 1760.
These impressive large folios were part of an important commission that Manaku never finished—a series on the "Siege of Lanka" episode from the Ramayana. Because the three paintings were left at different stages of completion (see details above), they serve as invaluable time capsules of studio practice. Each artwork represents a specific stage within an elaborate painting method that transformed the narrative scenes of the Ramayana from bold sketches into exquisitely detailed color renderings.
The first of the three paintings, Rama and Lakshmana Overwhelmed by Arrows, was abandoned in the early phases before color had been applied (see detail 1 above). Close examination places this unfinished painting within the context of the traditional practices of the Pahari school. Original compositions could go through several stages of refinement that allowed the painter to move elements around and create more unified compositions. As the composition progressively became more fixed, details were added.
The initial placement of figures and landscape elements was usually done with charcoal. A more precise drawing would then be brushed in, swiftly, in pale red. A final underdrawing would be drafted in detail with black ink and a thin brush (as in detail 1). In between these versions, the artist added a coat of white wash, as if to erase the current idea and start all over again, with only a faint ghost of the sketch beneath as a reference. The figure depicted in the final, soon-to-be-obscured underdrawing are remarkable for their naturalism and individual expressiveness.
Manaku seems to have skipped the second, red-line step to produce the "Siege of Lanka" series, but all of the distinct steps are displayed in another work in the exhibition, Durga Confronts the Buffalo Demon Mahisha (above). Scientific analysis of the materials in this unfinished painting confirms that the pale red is made with a mixture of minium and vermilion, and that the white wash is lead white, a pigment also used to make corrections during this phase of creation.
The coloring stage of Pahari painting can be seen in The Monkey Leader Angada Steals Ravana's Crown from His Fortress, the second in the three-painting set. This painting testifies to another fundamental aspect of the Pahari technique. The artist perfected the image through a practice of erasure—first creating, then letting go. In subsequent stages of the color-layering process, he had to paint the details from memory.
The detail above, which shows the monkey hero flying through the air to steal the crown from the twelve-headed demon king, reveals the various stages. In the painting stage (a), blocks of opaque watercolor were applied for each figure and background element, making the underdrawings disappear for the last time. An infrared reflectogram (b) confirms the presence of two stages of underdrawing buried beneath the opaque colors: an energetic compositional sketch in charcoal (c) and a detailed outline in black ink (d).
Both these stages of underdrawing are very similar to those we saw in the first painting, Rama and Lakshmana Overwhelmed by Arrows.
The third painting, Rama Releases the Demon Spies Shuka and Sarana, is an example of a finished work as envisioned by the artist. In a corner of the painting, two aquatic creatures swim in a body of water, evoking the sea that Rama and his army of monkeys traversed to reach the island of Lanka (above). This detail, and the painting as a whole, display all of the elements that characterize Manaku's highly praised style—the relaxed, realistic approach, the sharp observation of nature, the stylized treatment of trees and plants, the richness of detail, and the precision of workmanship.
Viewed together, the three folios of The "Siege of Lanka" series are a remarkable guide to the artistic practice of the Pahari painters that brought the Hindu gods from literary epic onto polished paper.
Seeing the Divine: Pahari Painting of North India is on view at The Met Fifth Avenue through July 21, 2019.
View the other artworks in the exhibition.
Learn more about Pahari painting on the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.