A simple look at miniature paintings shows their beautiful composition and immaculate craftsmanship. I carried the impression that they are nothing more than well-made colorful illustrations. But as I listened this week to a wonderful lecture by Dr. B. N. Goswamy, and saw the slides presented by him, I quickly discovered I that there is much more to them than meets the eye. The paintings had been made with technology far ahead of its time, with time-consuming patience and with a mastery which comes only with years of rigorous training and rigid discipline.
Miniature paintings in India are about the size of letter paper. They were created mainly under the patronage of Maharajas and Mogul Emperors from about 500 years ago to about the middle of the nineteenth century. The royalty created these paintings to pictorially document events and stories. They were made with native paints which have retained their beautiful colors unfaded through the centuries and the locally produced papers on which they were made have not even yellowed. Dr. Goswamy projected the scanned images of the paintings on a ten-foot screen. It was amazing to see that even the large blown-up images of the few inches of interesting parts of the painting kept their integrity and showed their perfectly detailed hairline strokes. Many a painting had nearly a hundred faces, each no bigger than a grain of wheat but when projected on the large screen, we could clearly see that every face had a different expression superbly portrayed by the artist! The craftsmanship of painting in such marvelous minute detail was truly remarkable. In one of the screen projections, there was a picture of a part of river flowing where the artist had rendered the reflection of sunlight on the moving water in a very beautiful way. I thought the rendering was as good as the work of some of the best French painters that I had seen. But the finely painted minute strokes of subtle shades on an area of the size of a thumbnail pushed the miniature painting higher by a few notches over the European canvases.
Dr. Goswamy mentioned that the artists were mainly commissioned to produce a series of miniature paintings as the Emperor’s pictorial biography and significant Royal events. But a few of the accomplished painters produced series of paintings portraying the mega-epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata, with the individual artists bringing out somewhat different renditions of these mythical tales. He went on to discourse on miniatures on Ramayana as produced by some of these prominent artists and presented a few slides of their exquisite work. Each of these paintings presented the happenings of a specific occasion and surprisingly contained the whole sequence of events in it. The encapsulation of the entire time frame on one sheet was an innovation in pictorial depiction, a major departure from the usual snapshot of a single moment. This made the painting literally worth more than a thousand words. The composition was pleasing to the eye, well balanced in the space. As we looked at the enlarged projection on the screen we could feel that the portrayed characters enacting the emotional drama of the occasion. They were harmoniously and intricately integrated into the painting. The expressions on their faces and their gestures showed poignant reactions. Some were shown questioning, some staring in disbelief, some confused, and some grieved or pleased as the occasion demanded. For instance, one of the paintings depicting the death of King Dasharatha showed all the related events: his grief-stricken sons standing with their heads down at his deathbed, the procession of priests carrying his body on a stretcher on their shoulders, the funeral pyre burning with somber-faced relatives gathered around the flames, and finally the ritualistic immersion of the ashes in the river. The painting brought out not only the start-to-finish narrative of the passing away of the great patriarch but also the sadness pervading the episode. It was more than an illustration on a sheet of paper. It was a stunning exposition seeping with emotion. The soft voice of Dr. Goswamy then gently broke our trance and took us away from the content of the painting to discuss what the painter might have been thinking at the time of creating this work; what he wanted to convey and how well he had succeeded in his delivery. It was clear to all of us that the artist had engaged in creative mental exercises to conceive the pictorial composition of the story and thereafter he had arduously toiled with delicate precision to flawlessly render it on the paper with his skilled fingers. Considering that during the 4 centuries in which this art thrived, a total of ten thousand or more artists produced more than a million pieces of miniature paintings, more highly skilled man hours have been spent on this traditional art than those spent for building the Taj Mahal! Besides, their artistic imagery documented our history with passion. With this revelation, there was no doubt in our minds that the miniature paintings really constitute a valuable National heritage and forms a part of the history of civilization of our planet.
The Maharajas and the Mogul Emperors have gone but the art of painting miniatures has not died. It still lives on with the artisan families, handed down from father to son, from generation to generation. In Jaipur there are a number of such artists producing beautiful copies of some of the masterpieces with the same method and with the same materials by which they were made centuries ago. They are making a living by selling these copies. They do not have a royal patronage that their forefathers enjoyed in their time. But this art could find new patronage. I wish the Govt. could sponsor them to create a series of miniatures to narrate the saga of India’s freedom struggle and the woes of partition, with Mahatma Gandhi seen in many of them.
Miniature painting has functioned as a unique communication medium in our history. It is a distinguished form of art, which stands apart in its own class. And it is indeed ethnic in character. We need not only to preserve this National heritage it but also move it with the times. While the technique of producing the miniature painting is still alive in making copies of the old work, what seems to be lost is the art of conceptualization of new miniature content. This can only be revived by introducing this traditional medium as a subject of instruction, research and exploration in the Art curricula of academic institutions. This will enable the Art Schools to effectively turn the India’s cultural heritage of miniature paintings into new visible ethnic art adorning the walls of our buildings. The new avatar of miniature paintings with modern themes could definitely find a market for their display in homes, offices and hotel rooms. We will thus succeed in bringing this ethnic heritage to the forefront, giving it a larger exposure in the Art World, and proliferating it as an impressive symbol of our National identity.