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Kishangarh Miniatures - In Quest Of Divine Love

Kishangarh Miniatures - In Quest Of Divine Love

Flawless artistry, rare zeal, spiritual yearning and eternal love and devotion combine in the sublime mysticism of the Kishangarh school of art.

It was by sheer chance that is 1952 Prof. Eric Dickinson discovered the Kishangarh miniatures, wrapped in a dusty basta and dumped in an inconspicuous place in the fort of this small state capital. Instinctively Dickinson realized that he had hit the virtual eldorado of the most magnificent miniatures. The similarity of their style – elongated figures, lavish green landscape topped by a glorious horizon aglow in crimson hues of the setting sun evidenced a concentrated period of artistic production. These were the divine lovers – Radha and Krishna. Dickinson wrote: “The world of everyday was blotted out as deeper and still more deep I was drawn into that strange exotic paradise of the followers of Vallabha, the devotees of the Radha-Krishna cult.” Art lovers and connoisseurs acclaimed the unique charm of Kishangarh miniatures and their inimitable perfection.

During the brief span of twenty years between 1737-1757 the Kishangarh art was at its zenith. Crown prince Savant Singh (1699-1764) was the guiding force behind the strong devotional fervour at the court and a rejuvenation of painting suffuse with the spiritual yearning of a soul in quest of the Lord. His father Raj Singh was an enlightened ruler and patronized arts and music but only within limits of the royal etiquette. With Savant Singh, however, bhakti became an increasing obsession till he became completely indifferent to his princely status. He wrote devotional poetry under the name of Nagari Das. His hero was Krishna. Not that Savant Singh was not a brave Rajput. He had controlled a mad elephant at the tender age of 10. At 13 he had rallied his forces in support of the Mughal King Farrukhsiyar in Delhi. At 20 he single handedly killed a lion. But his heart was not in it.

This brave Rajput prince, with aesthetic and religious inclinations, fell in love with his step mother’s slave girl, a gayana (singer) called Bani Thani known for her exquisite elegance and enchanting youth. She reciprocated his love. She also wrote verse. Savant Singh eulogized Radha in thinly veiled allusions to Bani Thani, celebrating “her queenly smile, lips red as poppy flowers growing, in the scorching sun of June’s long stagnant afternoon.” Their mutual attraction overcame the difference of 18 years between the poet-prince and his beloved

During the early stages of his fondness for Bani Thani, Savant Singh had drawn her face from memory as a rough sketch for his favourite painter Nihal Chand to paint. When completed, this face became the legendary face of the Kishangarh Radha, the quintessence of Indian woman-hood and grace, inaugurating a new style in Kishangarh miniatures. It is an elongated face with a high forehead, arched eye brows, half-open lotus eyes, sharp pointed nose, thin curved but extremely sensuous lips and a pointed chin over a long narrow neck. The grandeur of jewellery adds to the magnificence of a transparent odhni (head covering). The curl of the hair around the ear contributes mystique to the enthralling charm of the portrait. The modelling of the two hands – beautifully lacquered finger tips, left hand holding two lotus buds and the right hand holding the border of the dress for a perfect framing of the profile. The rows of pearls on the swelling breast, the saucy nose ring, tikka and the splendid pearl and diamond pendant on the ear bespeak of the royal lineage. The long, dark flowing tresses provide the truly oriental touch of eternal feminine grace. This portrait of Radha vies for comparison with Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece ‘Mona Lisa’. Doubtless Bani Thani was the living inspiration for this portrait which is the most remarkable gem of the Kishangarh miniatures. It has, as Benjamin Rowland observes “the fragile elegance and a wan, neurasthenic refinement that echo the beauty of the ancient Egyptian queen.”

In due course the inevitable followed. Savant Singh withdrew himself completely from the affairs of the state and his whole life centered around love of the Lord, writing and singing bhajans, a whole-hearted pursuit of spiritual values. Bani Thani supported him with no qualms. Nihal Chand painted with a rare zeal, acumen and flawless artistry, the loves of Radha and Krishna reflecting his royal master and his consort.

Kishangarh atelier had functioned since the founding of the state in 1609 by Kishan Singh, a Jodhpur prince. It attained a certain identity of its own under Man Singh (1658-1709) and later Raj Singh (1706-1748) though mostly the subjects painted were hunting scenes, darbar and portraits – favourite themes of the royalty. The Mughal influence on miniatures was thwarted by the growing bhakti cult which now emphasized the love of Radha and Krishna. Savant Singh’s introduction to the Mughal magnificence appeared in the new feature-elongation of human figures and long flowing jama. Musavir Bhawani Das was a well known painter at the court in 1722 but Nihal Chand eclipsed all his contemporaries at Kishangarh. Occasionally one finds the names of later artists mentioned – Amar Chand and his son Megh Raj, Kalyan Das, Amru, Suraj Mal, Nanag Ram and Surat Ram. None, however, could match the perfection of Nihal Chand’s work under Savant Singh’s guidance done during the years 1737-1757. Though Kishangarh patronized miniature painters for a hundred years after Savant Singh’s death in 1764, the magic and transcendental fervour of these great years could never be recaptured. Even Nihal Chand’s later work, illustrations to Shahnama look laboured and jaded. The visionary gleam and glory had deserted the scene. The forces of decline had set in.

‘Boat of Love’ is the most representative of the great Kishangarh miniatures. It illustrates a verse from Bihari Chandrika by the poet prince: “And when the sun was setting in the west, the lovers sailed along the Jamuna stream/To music form the sakhis mingling with the murmuring of each wavelet’s crest/And the dipping of a single oar. By lotus banks the canoe its burden bore/Past marble palaces and temples gleaming white and low green hills athwart a crimson sky/Betimes its keel caressed the shore where rose a kunj of beauty unsurpassed/Half clad with lengthening shadows of the night. And as he aided her alight/He held her deep into the darkling grove where love alone can find its way/And naught can mar this bliss till dawn of beauteous limbs entwined.” The gorgeous crimson sky of the evening provided the most magnificent and dramatic backdrop to the enactment of a divine romance. In the upper part of the painting the Lord sits in company of his consort and attendant maidens. The majestic river flows below the majestic white palaces and city. Then the boat carrying Radha and Krishna and the eight sakhis along the banks lined with lotus flowers in the full bloom. In the lowest portion of the painting the divine lovers stand under a tree. Krishna holds aloft a garland of flowers and Radha is coy. It is a moment of eternal love. The time lag suggested in the three portions has been ingeniously depicted! ‘Boat of Love’ is the greatest of the famous Kishangarh miniatures, an example of rarest perfection in the minutest details. The jeweled turban of the Lord, the jama, the marble pavilions, foliage, lush green vegetation, the red boat and the crimson sky. The garland of flowers is, in fact the garland of desire, and quite symbolically, the divine lover appears sans the halo around his head.

The portrait of the young prince at worship establishes the identity of his consort beyond doubt. It is the same face of Radha, the elegant walk of loveliness. It also provides the fleeting view of the zenana. Playful monkeys on the wall add a charm of domestic realism. ‘The Red Canoe’ depicts Radha and Krishna. Krishna appears a bit to regal in his magnificent ropes of pearls around his neck and the jewel turban. As he offers attar (perfume) to his beloved, the shield and the sword lying at hand reveal his true identity. The red canoe and the two idle boatmen are in waiting but the tryst has already been discovered by two older women as they watch from behind the bushes. ‘The Pavilion in the Grove’ is another exquisite miniature. It captures a precious moment of love, watched by the eight maidens in attendance. The marble pavilion, however, shows an explicit Mughal influence. It is more of Shahjahan’s palace garden than a Rajput setting. ‘Krishna Holding Radha’s Scarf’ depicts a lover’s unabashed invitation to bed on a hot summer evening under a star studded sky and half moon. This picture illustrates a verse by Bani Thani – ‘Rasika Bihari ke Bada’, done by Sita Ram, a direct descendant of Nihal Chand.

The two most beautiful compositions of Nihal Chand are ‘Sanjh Lila’ and ‘Dipavalika’. The former depicts Krishna disguised as Radha enjoying a game with his lovely playmates. The crimson sky over the lush foliage looks most spectacular. ‘Dipavalika’ shows the celebration of Diwali, the divine lovers sitting on a terrace projecting over water. Adding a touch of festivity to the scene are rows of hand held sparklers and a dancing maiden at the centre. It is a grand picture accomplished by the genius strokes of Nihal Chand.

Amongst the better known miniatures belonging to the pre-Nihal Chand era, the best known is the portrait of Raja Bahas Mal, famous for his skill at falconry. He stands erect in his majestic stateliness, surrounded by his men displaying the day’s gains – wild duck, geese and bustard. The city and the vagrant water courses add charm to the composition and the lovely miniature ‘A Kishangarh Printing Riding a Spirited Horse’, circa 1740. The white horses have red painted legs in all miniatures just as certainly as the red boat for the divine lovers. The post-Nihal Chand era also produced some brilliant miniatures. ‘A Moonlit Music Party’, painted by Amar Chand in C. 1760-66 shows Sardar Singh at his Roop Nagar Palace and also figures Nihal Chand, the portly person sitting next to the blue turbaned falconer. However, Nihal Chand’s ‘The Moonlit Party’ depicting Radha-Krishna is a much better composition. ‘Rukmini Haran’ C. 1760 is a high key composition, reminiscent of the court paintings of Shahjahan. Only prominent faces have been colored. Krishna, dressed as a Rajput prince rides a white horse of the Marwar breed with its curiously upright ears. The architectural details have been meticulously done in lines. The Gita Govinda illustration done in C. 1820 shows a mellowing of facial features which are no longer I profiles and elongated, the sharp pointed noses and chins have disappeared. The emerald coloured mound shows a Persian and Mughal influence and rows of stylized trees add to seclusion essential for the mood.

Some other better known pictures illustrating the characteristic features of Kishangarh miniatures are: ‘Toilet of Radha’ C. 1755, ‘Radha Seated on a Terrace’ C. 750, ‘A Kishangarh Prince Hunting a Black Buck’ C. 1760, and ‘Krishna with his Magic Flute’ (late 18th century). The city of white pavilions painted in the background in most of these miniatures is an imaginary reconstruction of Brindavan, the playground for Radha and Krishna.

The post-Nihal Chand era miniatures are still brilliant but clearly the magical effect of the lotus-filled Gundalao lake lying below the Kishangarh fort, featuring in most of the great pictures drawn by Nihal Chand is absent. Maybe it had a lot to do with the decline of the devotional fervour since “if one withdraws the mystical element hovering alike: over silent forest groves and marble palaces, there is left only a lover and his lass; for the divine bridegroom and his bride would have vanished from our ken.” The sublime mysticism of the divine lovers has slipped into an erotic playacting.

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