Marwar Art: Of Maharajas & Miniatures



Second of our four part series on Rajasthan’s miniature art

Marwar is the dry desert land on the edge of the Thar Desert and it even derives its name from the harsh terrain and difficult life in the region. The Rathores of Marwar, known for their valour and courage, came to Marwar from Kannauj, from where they had earlier controlled Eastern and Central India.

They set down roots in Marwar in the 13th century, and made Pali and Mandore their capitals. In 1459, one of the Rathore rulers, Rao Jodha, established the city of Jodhpur near Mandore, and many smaller kingdoms were set up by his descendants in the vicinity of the Marwar capital of Jodhpur.

Rajasthani art is both prolific and diverse, and the way in which it evolved depended largely on the patronage of the rulers of the many kingdoms and states that populated the region. Based on geography, it is classified into four broad categories – Mewar, Marwar, Haroti and Dhundar.

Here, we will explore the Marwar subset of Rajasthani art, which includes the miniatures of Jodhpur, Nagaur, Bikaner, Kishangarh and Sirohi. The earliest paintings from this region were an illustrated Ragmala set painted in Pali by Virji. These paintings are in pure folk idiom, before Mughal elements appear.

Ragini Khambavati Pali Ragamala
Ragini Khambavati Pali Ragamala|Rajasthani Miniatures: The Magic of Strokes and Colours by Dr Daljeet (Niyogi Books)

Jodhpur & Nagaur

Jodhpur was the principal seat of the Marwar Rathores, home to their principal fort Mehrangarh, and their courts. The Jodhpur Maharajas were significant patrons of art and we find significant artwork from their ateliers in the course of the 600-odd years that they ruled the Marwar region. The Jodhpur court was one of the most prolific in the creation of miniatures.

The first truly productive period for Jodhpur miniatures came during the time of Maharaja Jaswant Singh in the mid-17th century. In earlier periods, Jodhpur miniatures were far more indigenous but by his time many Mughal conventions had filtered in, and Jaswant Singh had spent considerable time in Kabul bringing a Persian touch to Marwar’s art. He also nurtured a number of artists in his court, which also resulted in many portraits of the Maharaja.

Jaswant Singh in Mughal style
Jaswant Singh in Mughal style|Rajasthani Miniatures: The Magic of Strokes and Colours by Dr Daljeet (Niyogi Books)

His successor, Ajit Singh, was raised by Veer Durgadas, who had captured a part of Marwar from the Mughals for Ajit Singh. These events were celebrated in paintings and poems. Equestrian portraits were a favourite in the court.

Equestrian portrait of a nobleman, Jodhpur (1720-30)
Equestrian portrait of a nobleman, Jodhpur (1720-30)|Wikimedia Commons

Bakhat Singh, a son of Ajit Singh, was given Nagaur in the early 18th century, and during his time, painting in Marwar came into its own and developed its own idioms.

Besides these court scenes, festivals, legends and tales, religious texts and epics were illustrated in the Marwar court and many such albums and folios are displayed in museums across the world.

Heer Ranjha, two women, Tokyo National Museum
Heer Ranjha, two women, Tokyo National Museum|Wikimedia Commons

Bikaner

Bikaner was founded in 1489 by Bika Rathore, son of Rao Jodha, who had established Jodhpur. The rulers of Bikaner were close to the Mughals since the time of Akbar and enjoyed high positions in his court.

The patronage of art in Bikaner started with Raja Rai Singh in 1573 and further expanded under Raja Karan Singh and his son Maharaja Anup Singh, from 1631.

Under Karan Singh, Ali Raza, who had migrated from the Mughal court, created some exceptional paintings, mixing the local Bikaner style with Mughal idioms and thus creating a new approach.

Krishna and Balaram Conversing, Folio from a Bhagavata Purana
Krishna and Balaram Conversing, Folio from a Bhagavata Purana|Wikimedia Commons

Anup Singh stayed in Hyderabad for a substantial period of time after the siege of Golconda in 1687. During this time, he established a library in Bikaner, which became a repository of medieval manuscripts and paintings. During this period, his chief painter was Ruknuddin, who mixed indigenous Rajasthani styles with Deccani and Mughal conventions. He painted many significant texts like the Ramayana, Rasikapriya and Durga Sapt Sati.

Besides Ali Raza and Ruknuddin, Ustad Nuruddin, Murad, Ustad Abdulla Qayamji, Shah Muhammed, Ustad Hasim and Bahaudin were patronised by the Bikaner court. Mostly Muslim, these artists painted Hindu themes exceptionally well. Bikaner’s miniatures, with their softness, delicate lines, subdued colour palate, exceptional composition and stylistic sophistication, is very close to Mughal art.

Folio From Rasikapriya by Ustad Nuruddin
Folio From Rasikapriya by Ustad Nuruddin|Wikimedia Commons

Kishangarh

The small state of Kishangarh is primarily known for its miniatures, arguably some of the best known and aesthetically gratifying ones from Rajasthan. The state of Kishangarh was founded by Kishan Singh, son of the Maharaja of Jodhpur, in 1609. The Kishangarh school of art primarily evolved during the reign of Raj Singh and his son Sawant Singh, at the end of the 17th century. Both were talented artists and writers, and their atelier was home to artists like Bhawani Das, Surat Ram and Nihal Chand.

During Sawant Singh’s time, the art of Kishangarh reached great heights of aesthetic refinement. The artist Nihalchand, who was active during their rule, painted some of the most exquisite and noted paintings of the Kishangarh School.

The rulers of this kingdom were devotees of Krishna, with Raj Singh being a follower of Vallabhacharya Pushtimarg. Krishna lila and texts associated with Krishna like Gita-Govinda were thus a major part of Kishangarh art. One finds many regular themes in Kishangarh art, like the depiction of classic medieval texts, durbar scenes, festivities and religious epics.

Radha Krishna On A Boat, National Museum, New Delhi
Radha Krishna On A Boat, National Museum, New Delhi|Wikimedia Commons

One theme which sets Kishangarh apart is the depiction of Bani-Thani, an attendant of Raj Singh’s wife who caught Sawant Singh’s fancy and became his companion. He wrote about her in the poem Bihari Jas Chandrika, which became the basis of Nihal Chand’s famous painting. Sawant Singh and Bani Thani were depicted in many of the Krishna lila miniatures as Radha and Krishna. It is these paintings that make Kishangarh art incomparable.

 Bani Thani (ca. 1750), National Museum, New Delhi
Bani Thani (ca. 1750), National Museum, New Delhi|Wikimedia Commons

Miniatures from Kishangarh are known for the blend of poetry and art, exceptional compositions, brilliant colour schemes, dynamic lines, panoramic landscapes and individualistic faces with pointed noses and chins, deeply curved eyes, and serpentine locks of hair, which became the ideal for all Rajasthani miniatures subsequently, especially for women.

Sirohi

Sirohi was a small kingdom near the present-day Rajasthan-Gujarat border. The state was founded by Runmal of the Deora clan in 1347. It maintained a degree of independence from both the Mughals and the Marathas for much of its existence; it was also once a centre of Jainism. This is why one can see great similarities between miniatures from Sirohi and that of Gujarat.

The rulers of Sirohi were able administrators along with being patrons of art. Sirohi was known for the manufacture of double-edged swords from the mid-15th century till the mid-20th century. In the art of Sirohi, one finds little representation of the rulers and their lives.

Miniatures from Sirohi reflect two major themes. One of these themes is the representation of Jain themes like the depiction of Tirthankaras, illustrations of Jain texts and other such artworks done under Jain patronage. The Gurosan community was devoted to this and were known for their illustrations of Jain texts, which were mostly done under the supervision of Jain monks.

 A Jain Monk Preaching, LACMA
A Jain Monk Preaching, LACMA|Wikimedia Commons

Another major theme in miniatures from Sirohi is illustrations of relatively non-religious texts and legends like the Ragamala, Baramasa, Nayika-bhed, Krishna-lila as well as legends like Laila-Majnu and Rukmini-harana.

Hindola Raga From Ragamala
Hindola Raga From Ragamala|Wikimedia Commons

The figures in Sirohi paintings tend to have flat features, round features and heavy bodies. The paintings use basic colours, the structures are usually flat and nature is neither too vibrant nor too formal. Many of the paintings have a distinctive red border.

The art of Marwar is full of details, references, allusions influences and history, and one can easily loose oneself in its diversity.

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