The Royal Portraits of Dhundar



Fourth and last part of our series on Rajasthan’s miniature art

The image of Raja Sawai Madho Singh I with arms crossed sitting straight against a large bolster commands respect. Evoking respect and deference was a significant marker of kingship; often it was projected through portraits and it was the Dhundar school of art that mastered this typology. This and many other portraits of the kings of Jaipur are some of the most significant contributions of the Dhundar school to Indian art.

Dhundar is one of the smaller schools of Rajput art with three sub-schools – Jaipur, Alwar and Ajmer. Of these, only Jaipur was particularly industrious. In fact, the name ‘Dhundar’ comes from the original name of the Jaipur state. The State of Jaipur was one of the most powerful in medieval Rajputana. Alwar and Ajmer, though much smaller, gave great examples of art.

Kakubha Ragini, Jaipur, 1610 
Kakubha Ragini, Jaipur, 1610 |British Museum

Jaipur

Arguably the most prolific and significant schools in Dhundar, Jaipur is also the oldest state, with its origins in the 11th century CE. Originally, the state was called ‘Dhundar’ after the fort of Dausa with which the state’s foundation was laid. Later, it was known as Amber till 1727, when Sawai Jai Singh I laid the foundation of present-day Jaipur.

Although Jaipur had an artistic tradition, it is with Jai Singh that it reached new heights. The state was always close to the Mughals, thus one can see a much deeper impact of Mughal art on it. During his time, artists Muhammad Shah and Sahibram initiated a style of painting which blended local folk art compositions with Mughal and Rajput elements. Sahibram served six Jaipur rulers and was unparalleled in his portraiture.

Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II, Jaipur, ca. 1725
Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II, Jaipur, ca. 1725|British Museum

The school was extremely productive in the 18th century and it was during the time of Jai Singh that an extremely important Ragamala set was created. Although the Jaipur ateliers created manuscripts of epics and legends and poems, they were most prolific in royal portraits.

Prince entertained by ladies in a garden, Jaipur, ca. 1750
Prince entertained by ladies in a garden, Jaipur, ca. 1750|British Museum

Some of the most superb garden paintings and life-size portraits of medieval India have their origins in Jaipur. The highly panoramic miniatures are magnificently composed with ornate backgrounds and deep red borders. Their depiction of the human form is also distinct, with the men usually having large yet dull eyes, scarred or injured faces with long hair and moustaches, while the women usually have large and attractive eyes, loose, long hair, oval faces, sharp noses and crimson lips.

Maharaja Pratap Singh by Sahibram, c. 1793
Maharaja Pratap Singh by Sahibram, c. 1793| Cleveland Museum of Art

Alwar

The princely state of Alwar came into being in the late 18th century, when Pratap Singh, a Rajput of the Kachwaha clan took Alwar Fort from the Raja of Bharatpur on an agreement. Enclosed by the Aravalli Hills, the art from the state is of relatively recent vintage compared to the other Rajasthani states.

The two most significant artists were Shiva Kumar and Daluram who had migrated from Jaipur and worked during the time of the state’s founder Pratap Singh himself. Thus the art from Alwar had a distinct Jaipur influence along with Mughal elements. The artists also created copies of some of the great masterpieces of Mughal and Rajasthani paintings but in their own artistic style, which shows their great skill.

Bakhtawat Singh conquers a lion, Alwar, ca. 1800
Bakhtawat Singh conquers a lion, Alwar, ca. 1800|San Diego Museum of Art

Religious themes and epics were depicted in the miniature style like the Dasavatara and Durga Sapt Sati. Some interesting erotic paintings also emerged from the ateliers of Alwar. The paintings are outstanding for their judicious use of colours and their balance with white.

Dasavatara- Varaha, Alwar
Dasavatara- Varaha, Alwar|Wikimedia Commons

Ajmer

The city of Ajmer is an interesting study in syncretic culture. It is home to the Dargah of Hazrat Moinuddin Chisti, one of the most revered saints of Sufi Islam, and in the nearby town of Pushkar is the temple of Lord Brahma. The town was extremely significant for the Mughals and was their administrative capital in Rajasthan.

Ajmer was never a kingdom but was under the direct control of the Mughals and later the Marathas, due to which it had a great number of extraneous elements. It derived its inspiration from the same sources as Jodhpur and Bikaner and went on to influence the development of the Kishangarh School.

Princess enjoying wine, Ajmer, 17th Century
Princess enjoying wine, Ajmer, 17th Century|Rajasthani Miniatures: The Magic of Strokes and Colours by Dr Daljeet (Niyogi Books)

Ajmer also figures prominently in Mughal miniatures due to the significance of the Dargah for the Mughal Emperors and their frequent visits. Situated in the heart of Rajasthan but free of the conservative values of the Rajputs, some remarkable art emerged here. A prime example of it is a depiction of women consuming alcohol in the harem, a risqué depiction for the time and place.

Raja Pratap Singh of Sawar hunting Lions, mid-18th century
Raja Pratap Singh of Sawar hunting Lions, mid-18th century|Rajasthani Miniatures: The Magic of Strokes and Colours by Dr Daljeet (Niyogi Books)

Sawar, a subordinate principality of Ajmer, was home to an excellent atelier which produced simple, uncluttered, childlike compositions influenced by folk traditions. Although small in number, the paintings which depict scenes of great activity are unmatched in their fluidity, depiction of emotion and lively character.


Known for its cool precision, the art from Dhundar is a perfect balance of Mughal sobriety and Rajput visual poetics.

As we can see from the schools of art discussed over the last four weeks, political power or importance was no guarantee of the originality or vitality of a local style of painting. Artistic excellence was instead completely the result of the personal interest of a patron, of the availability of good artists, and of the chemistry between painter and patron – often combined with the strength of a continuing local tradition.

All the schools of miniature art which emerged from Rajasthan have their own space in the pantheon of Indian art. The medieval phase of miniature art in Rajasthan is one of the most significant for the growth of India’s artistic tradition. Each has its own distinct stylistic traditions and subjects, which gives an identity to the works it produced.

From the sinuous lines of Kishangarh, the devotion of Nathdwara, the spirited scenes of Bundi to the regal postures of Jaipur, all of them have something exceptional to offer.

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