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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Poetic Allusions in the Rajput and Pahari Painting of India

A girl with curving hips, bending to whisper in his ear,
Cherishes her kiss on her lover’s tingling cheek
Hari [Krishna] revels here as the crowd of charming girls
Revels in seducing him to play
Gita Govinda, canto 1, verse 41

Steeped in the poetic traditions that were so popular from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, the Indian ruling classes focused their patronage on paintings that emphasized themes of love and longing, especially when these concepts could be framed as the actions of the gods. For these elites, subtle allusions to literary conventions were paramount (2003.165).

Across northern India, rulers patronized regional schools of painting associated with various courts. Featured in this essay are works from the important Rajasthani kingdoms of Bikaner, Udaipur (Mewar), Kota, Bundi, Jodhpur (Marwar), Kishangarh, Jaipur, and further south from Malwa. In the foothills of the Himalayas are the smaller Pahari courts, where again numerous paintings were produced at courts that include Kangra, Guler, Basohli, Mankot, Mandi, and Jasrota. In each of the Rajasthani and Pahari centers, artists purposely employed remarkably distinct and contrasting stylistic vocabularies.

Grounded in earlier traditions, rulers often commissioned paintings in an effort to present themselves as powerful leaders who possessed military might. Historically, the Rajasthani kings vied for power and control of territory, but by the sixteenth century, these principalities had become vassal states within the powerful Mughal empire. When Jagat Singh, the maharaja of Jaipur, commissioned a topographic view of the immense Ranthambhor Fort, he was clearly positioning himself within a longstanding European tradition of showing military fortifications from above that he would have known from prints (1996.100.6). Ranthambhor, with its twenty-four miles of walls, effectively emphasized his claim to military standing, but in fact, during his reign, it primarily served as a hunting lodge.

Equestrian portraiture was another way to express royal standing, as seen in an image of Maharana Sangram Singh of Mewar (2004.403). He sits on a rearing horse flanked by attendants holding fly whisks, following a long-standing convention of dynastic portraiture. A radiant halo further aggrandizes the king and references his dynastic descent from the sun god.

The arts of music, dance, and poetry, especially as they related to courtly life, began to take center stage, as military exploits had little place during this time of peace. Great fortifications gave way to luxurious gardens and palaces, as in a painting showing the Jagniwas Water Palace (1994.116), in which the Maharana Ari Singh II, together with his chiefs, looks on with appreciation at a festival performance of dance and music. Ari Singh appears again in the lower left, next to a pool filled with fish. Surrounding him are tiny wall paintings populated with erotic scenes and the ten avatars (appearances) of Vishnu. The painting reflects the luxurious pursuit of refined culture rather than an expression of military might.

Fitting themselves into the poetic discourse, rulers often took the place of the protagonist and actually participated in the narratives. In a work by the important artist Chokha (2006.451), a nobleman ascends a rope to visit his lover, who reclines within the palace’s defended walls. The clandestine tryst is a theme that runs through the poetry, and certainly the tension of this forbidden act would have appealed to royal tastes.

Ragamala paintings representing the essence or mood of a musical composition were another popular genre that often also had devotional significance. In a work that gives pictorial form to the music of the Vasant Ragini, a central dancing nobleman plays the role of Krishna in celebration of the coming of spring (1999.148). He holds a vina (stringed instrument) over his shoulder and lifts up a pot out of which a flowering plant emerges. His skirt of peacock feathers makes his association with Krishna clear, while the surrounding female musicians recall Krishna’s raslila dance with the gopis (cowherdesses).

Equally, courtly life can be seen as reflecting the realm of the gods. In one image, a woman—the personification of the ideal of feminine beauty (a nayika, or heroine) as conceptualized in Indian devotional poetry—strums a tambura (1996.100.1). Her elaborate jewelry and sheer textiles clearly place her as a member of the court. At the same time, there is the allusion that she is Radha, the divine consort of Krishna, who was so important to the Kishangarh elite.

Royal patrons also had artists give form and context to their relationship with the gods, such as when Krishna and Radha appear as Raja Balwant Singh’s devotional vision (1994.377). Subtly, the artist Nainsukh creates two contrasting worlds, one occupied by the gods and the other by their devotee, who stands at the threshold. Balwant Singh looks into Krishna’s eyes and in turn receives his Lord’s grace (darshan). The setting is a terrace of the raja’s court framed by a landscape, and the orange canopy draws the viewer into the divine space of the gods. Nainsukh gives tremendous power to this work by omitting embellishing design and thereby focusing on the protagonists.

At this time on the plains of Rajasthan, it was primarily Krishna, in all his varied roles, that fueled the pious devotional imagination of patron and artist alike. The stories associated with Krishna’s life formed the basis for a major pilgrimage tradition that especially focused on the region of Braj. In one image, Krishna appears as the auspicious seven-year old Shri Nathji in the act of lifting up Mount Govardhan to protect his devotees from a violent storm invoked by the god Indra (2005.342). He is dressed to mark a specific festival, and his physical form is based on one of the self-manifest stone sculptural images (svyambhu) that stood at the center of this devotional tradition.

At these pilgrimage centers, large painted cloths (pichhwais) were hung behind the primary stone images of Shri Nathji in accordance with the festival calendar (2003.177). This textile was produced for the Festival of Cows (Gopashtami) that takes place in the late autumn to celebrate Krishna’s elevation from a herder of calves to a cowherd. Note the range of cows and frolicking calves that populate the flower-strewn field. The indigo ground and extensive use of gold and silver are typical of pichhwais that were made for a community of Shri Nathji devotees who moved to the Deccan during this period. Emphasized is the idea of natural abundance central to the Shri Nathji tradition: the word shri actually carries the meaning of prosperity.

Krishna’s love for Radha came to be expressed using these same ideas. In many paintings (2003.178a), the divine couple is presented within a fertile, flowering landscape filled with pairs of birds. While the exact poetic source for this painting is not known, similar metaphors run through the erotically charged poetry popular at this time, such as this passage from the Gita Govinda (canto 3, verse 36):

Crying sounds of cuckoos, mating on mango shoots
Shaken as bees seek honey scents of opening buds . . .
By tasting the mood of lovers’ union

The Ramayana, which tells of Rama’s quest to save his beloved Sita from the demon Ravana, is an epic recounted in poetic verse that also had tremendous appeal at both the Rajasthani and Pahari courts. In one work (2004.367), smoke rises from the funerary pyre of the monkey king Vali, who was murdered by his brother and rival Sugriva, with the help of Rama. At the upper left, Sugriva approaches Rama, shown seated in a cave, who affirms his standing as king of the monkeys. A small scene set within the mountains to the right shows Sugriva, Hanuman, Lakshmana, and the monkey army returning to their vast and impenetrable golden capital to crown the new king.

Equally dramatic, and the subject of many paintings, is the Devi Mahatmya, a devotional text that recounts how Durga rid the world of demons. In a preparatory drawing (1995.132.2), Durga manifests as the fierce, emaciated goddess Kali. At the center of the frenzied battle, Kali beheads the demons Chanda and Munda. She appears again in the upper right presenting their heads to a benign form of Durga, who stands with many arms holding a trident. In recognition of slaying these demons, Durga bestows the name Chamunda on her terrible manifestation.

The goddess also appears in her universal form as Mahadevi (literally Great Goddess) (1996.100.2). In this twenty-armed form, Mahadevi holds an array of weapons affiliating her with all the male gods and aligning this manifestation with Durga, the slayer of the buffalo demon Mahisha. Ultimately powerful and creative, Mahadevi is understood as the totality of all the goddesses and as the true reality by her devotees. As she was protector deity of the ruling household of Bikaner, this representation would have had a special significance for the court.

This selection of paintings hints at the tastes and interests of the royal patrons from Rajasthan and the Punjab Hills, but it is just the tip of the iceberg. Over the course of nearly three centuries, a great many court styles, workshops, and individual artists thrived producing one of the great world painting traditions. The additional readings attached to this essay provide the reader a path into the rich and varied landscape of Indian painting.