8 Themes in Miniature Paintings

Our upcoming exhibition, Living and Inspired Traditions, features works by contemporary artists that draw from the various schools of Rajput and Mughal miniature painting, and portray iconic themes and subjects including the Ragamalas, Baramasa, Gita Govinda, royal portraiture, mythology and more.

Several of these award-winning artists are continuing the artistic legacy of their families, who have practised these traditions for generations. While they prefer older techniques such as the use of natural pigments, they are adept at diverse painting styles, which lend their work an interesting eclecticism. Here, we explore eight themes that appear in the paintings featured in the exhibition, which will take place from 25 July – 2 August 2019 in Mumbai.

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Lot 33: Dhani Ram, Radha Krishna in the Rain, natural pigments on paper, 8.25 x 11 inches

1. Gita Govinda 

The Gita Govinda  an epic 12th century Sanskrit poem by Jayadeva that narrated Krishna’s romance with Radha, and his relationship with the gopis of Vrindavana – was a favourite theme among Indian miniaturists.

In this illustration, Radha and Krishna meet in the forests of Vrindavana, on the banks of the river Yamuna. The trees with delicately intertwined flowering creepers in the background, and the lotus-filled river in the foreground, set the atmosphere of romance for their rendezvous. They are enacting Lila Hawa, where they exchange their clothes and each adapts the other’s persona – Radha acts as Krishna and Krishna is depicted as shy Radha.


Lot 31: Vijay Sharma, Lakshmana pulling out a Thorn from Rama’s Foot, gouache on paper, 8 x 11.5 inches

2. Epics and Mythology

Indian literature and the Hindu pantheon were often referenced in miniatures. Artists depicted scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, and Lord Vishnu’s avatars, all of which offered imagery that could be rendered as stunning illustrations.

Born in Himachal Pradesh in 1962, Vijay Sharma is an artist, scholar and art historian who excels in the Pahari school of miniature painting, especially the Basohli and Kangra styles. He has won several accolades for his craft, including the Kalidas Samman in 2011 and the Padma Shri in 2012. He is the founder and president of Shilpa Parishad, an organisation promoting miniature painting in India, and a founding member of the Kangra Arts Promotion Society.


Lot 10: Vijay Sharma, Ragini Todi, gouache on paper, 9.25 x 6 inches

3. Ragamalas

A ragamala literally, a ‘garland of ragasdescribes a gamut of ragas or musical forms. Each raga embodies a sentiment and is associated with a certain time in the day, or a particular season. The miniaturists who created the first Pahari ragamalas turned these into visuals by depicting the animals whose sounds and voices were associated with the time or season. 

This is an illustration of the musical mode Gujari ragini, wife of Dipaka raga, depicted here as a young woman playing a veena, while deer, enchanted by her melodious music, come running to her.

In the contemporary revival of the Ragamala series in this exhibition, the artist has painted the personified raginis – which are the derivatives of ragas, and are referred to as the ‘wives’ or female aspects of the male raga in miniature paintings – as beautiful women from the hills, with delicate features and gestures. The flora and fauna, depicting the terrain of the Kangra valley with smooth, flowing rivers, is captured with exactitude and refinement. The overall palette is soft but resilient.


Lot 61: Vijay Mukesh, Folio from the Rasamanjari, natural pigments on paper, 6.5 x 9.75 inches

4. Rasamanjari

The representation of love in its many forms was a significant theme in Rajasthani and Pahari miniatures. Devotional and romantic love was deeply intertwined. Among the favourite texts referenced for the portrayal of romance was the Rasamanjari by Bhanudatta, a 16th century AD poem containing 163 stanzas, each describing the conduct of lovers. The Rasamanjari adapts the nine rasas or sentiments of traditional Indian mythology, drawing on these to further classify its nayaks (heroes) and nayikas (heroines) according to their temperament and behaviour – which formed the basis of the subject matter in these Indian miniatures.


Lot 55: Mukesh Kumar Dhiman, Nala captures Swan, mineral colours and gold on handmade paper, 8.5 x 12.75 inches

5. Naladamayanti

A frequent literary and mythological inspiration among Indian miniaturists was the Naishadha Charita, a 12th century AD Sanskrit poem written by Sriharsha. Considered one of the five great epic poems or mahakavyas in Sanskrit literature, it details the lives of Nala, ruler of the kingdom of Nishadha, and his consort, Damayanti – both characters from the Mahabharata. The dominant emotion in this epic poem is that of love.

The artist illustrates the figures of Nala and Damayanti with great imagination, and the hamsa (swan) plays a pivotal role as a messenger in the entire story. Each painting in this series depicts a narrative aspect of the royal couple’s marriage and household, with careful attention paid to the details of their immediate surroundings, including the interior of the palace pavilions, the sprawling courtyards and the pools flush with lotuses. A striking feature of these paintings is the vibrant palette, which is rich yet soft. 


Lot 23: Vijay Sharma, Balwant Singh smoking Hookah, gouache on paper, 8 x 11.5 inches

6. Khaka

Khakas are essentially fine line drawings practised by miniature artists in their process of perfecting an illustration. This exhibition offers a selection of 20 contemporary khakas, including ones depicting Raja Balwant Singh who ruled Jammu in mid-18th century AD and enjoyed being portrayed, conducting his day-to-day activities, by the artist Nainsukh, his contemporary chronicler.

Common images included depicting the Raja as a young prince smoking a hookah, seated on an ornate carpet against a bolster; inspecting a construction site; or watching a dance performance. Such illustrations were striking for their delineation, as Nainsukh excelled in rendering the figures with unbroken, flawless lines.


Lot 41: Vijay Mukesh, Equestrian with Attendants, gouache on paper, 5.75 x 9.5 inches

7. Portraiture

Indian miniaturists painted portraits in distinctive styles as a celebration of the local ruler. Portraits of Rajas and Maharajas were mediums for extolling their power and status. In the contemporary revival of the portrait category, the artist depicts a ruler engaging in various day-to-day courtly and equestrian activities. 


Lot 67: Vijay Sharma, Month of Shravan, gouache on paper, 9.75 x 6 inches

8. Baramasa

The baramasa, or “songs of the twelve months,” are classical texts based on each month of the Indian calendar. Classical poets employed metaphors extolling the attributes of deities, or of a nayika (heroine) longing for the return of the nayak (hero), to represent each month.

In a contemporary revival of this tradition, the artist skilfully captures the minutest details of a well-known set of baramasa created in the 18th century. The natural surroundings and atmosphere depicted in the painting indicate the season, while the elegantly garbed women and men in typical local attires adhere to the historical fashion of that era. 

The exhibition will take place from 25 July – 2 August 2019 at Saffronart’s Mumbai gallery.

Cover image: Vijay Sharma, Raga Bengali, gouache on paper, 7 x 7 inches

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