Indian Miniature Paintings: The Punjab and Sikh Schools

Academy of Fine Arts and Literature

The tradition of Indian Miniature Painting
The tradition of Indian miniature painting can be traced from the 9th-10th century in the Buddhist Pala period palm leaf manuscript of eastern India and in the western India in the Jaina palm leaf manuscript. With the introduction of paper in 12th century in India, illustrations on paper manuscript of larger format than the narrow palm leaf, began to come into vogue. But apart from such manuscripts still there were no schools of Miniature Paintings in India. There came into existence in the Lodi period (1451-1526 AD) a Sultanate bourgeois school of manuscript. The Sultanate illustrated manuscript represented the court style. The full flowering of miniature painting began when India came into direct contact with the civilization of Islam. With Mughal Empire, (1526-1757 AD) the studios were established at the Imperial court and Indian painting began a new phase in its evolution. It was from there that illustrated manuscripts, album miniatures, portraits, celebratory or genre scenes and various other paintings made their way allover India. Indian miniature painting was subjected to a strong initial Persian influence, but it was short lived since the Indian artists soon recovered their own independence and originality. 
The new patrons of paintings with the decline of the Mughal Empire were the provincial governors of Rajasthan and Pahari kingdom (c. 1700-1900 AD). Unlike Mughal artists, Rajput artists were anonymous and did not enjoy the high status of their Mughal counterparts. Thus while the stylistic evolution of the Mughal School is traced by the patronage of the respective emperors, geographical categories are used to explain the evolution of styles of Rajput painting. Miniatures were profoundly influenced by Indian literature and were executed as illustrations to texts or as individual paintings. They were small-scale, highly detailed pictorial compositions, often providing a true record of the social and cultural life of the time. As the Renaissance masters turned to the Bible, Indian painters turned to our epics, and saw as their task bringing these stories into visual reality for those who may not be able to read. They flourished only under generous and sensitive patrons.

Punjab and Sikh Painting
Even though people think of Punjab painting as 19th century work done in 'Sikh Punjab' there is little doubt that painting in these parts goes back at least to the 16th century, when the 'Suba' of Lahore flourished under the Mughals.

In the beginning of the 19th century, it was the powerful Maharaja Ranjit Singh who defeated the last ruler of Kangra and captured the Punjab hills. Quite a number of Pahari artists accepted the patronage of the Sikh master. In the plains of Punjab in Lahore, Patiala and Amritsar several sets of paintings were produced which obviously had the signs of continuation of Pahari paintings.

After Ranjit Singh, Patiala became a great center of patronage. We have evidence of Pahari painters, like Nainsukh's great grandson, migrating to Patiala, as did painters from Alwar and Jaipur. In Patiala, apart from Sikh subjects, Hindu mythology was extensively painted as the whole approach was liberal.

A number of religious manuscripts were painted and the most famous amongst them is the Janam-Sakhi. Janamsakhi is the compilation of episodes of life of Guru Nanak, written in simple prose in response to the popular demand and need of the common man. “A quiet dignity, restraint mixed with deeply felt emotion, shines through them” (Dr. B.N Goswamy). In some, Guru Nanak dressed in his simple 'chola' (cloak) with a 'Seli topi' (cap) with Bala and Mardana (the rababi). For any painter it was a great task to envision a great being, like Nanak, to capture his essence, or that of the other Gurus.

Other subjects were from the life of the ten Sikh Gurus especially the tenth guru, Gobind Singh, who left a deep impression on the adherents of the new faith because of his bravery and unparalleled sacrifices.

A number of folios from the Janam Sakhi set and a few idealized portraits of the great Gurus, are a prized part of this collection, which is on display.

Guru Nanak Dev is standing in the middle of an open courtyard of Sultanpur Lodi Mosque where everyone bends to do Namaz.

When Guru Nanak was asked why he had not joined them, he mentioned there is no point in only doing the ritual as the ruler was thinking of his horse bought in Kabul and the Quazi was concerned about his newly born calf.

Guru Nanak converted the murderer and robber Sajjan who would cheat wayfarers.

Sajjan then built the first Gurudwara after his change of heart.

Guru Nanak Dev seated in a balustrade balcony against a bolster. He is shown in his familiar aspect and stance of an aged spiritual teacher- full grey beard, saintly expression, wearing a typical headgear.

His spiritual status is marked by a golden nimbus and rosary in his right hand. The blue in the background gives a feeling of eternal sky. The folded curtain indicates the European influence but the painting gives an impression of being from Bikaner or Rajasthan - Deccan border area.

It is a fine portrait, and the 'tilak' (caste mark) on the forehead is rather unusual.

Seated next to Guru Nanak are Mardana and other holy men mourning Bala's death.

Stylized hillocks and sky form the background and the cremation is happening at some distance from the group in the foreground.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh is dressed in his regalia, riding on his favourite horse.

A very unusual composition in which the two great emperors are shown in drop shaped forms in minuscule scale with intricate detailing.

Guru Gobind Singh is seated on an oval-shaped green carpet with black border. Two Sikh warriors, one waving a fly-whisk, and other taking from the Master some direction in regard to the food he has brought in the platter, or otherwise, are in attendance.

His favorite falcon is seated on the balustrade.

Guru Nanak and his two constant companions are sitting in a row in front of the large fish, which overpowers the composition. The architecture and trees in the far background give a feeling of distance.

A very unusual sword-wielding Nanak.

He rejected the discriminatory caste system and initiated the tradition ot community eating (langar) to counter it.

Inscribed in Gurumukhi on the top margin indicating the three persons.

Bhai Bala and Bhai Ajit have come to the cottage of Bhai Lalu who is seen sitting outside his humble domain working on a log of wood.

Guru Teg Bahadur, the ninth Guru in succession, is seated in the open against a big bolster of elaborate design and fine texture, on a carpet with polka dots.

The white nimbus stands in contrast with the black in the background. The contemplative character is captured successfully in the portrait. The Guru's favorite hawk is in conversation with him. The plain red background has a patch of black suggesting a hillock.

The inscription in Gurumukhi on the top border reads: Guru Teg Bahadur Ji-9 Guru

Maharaja Ranjit Singh is dressed in his regalia, riding on his favourite horse.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh is dressed in his regalia, riding on his favourite horse.

Guru Nanak seated under a tree with his inseparable companions Bola and Mardana on either side of him. There are a number of khakhas (stencil) available of miniature paintings. They were used for the drawing and that is the reason that more than one identical paintings are available.

There are a number of khakhas (stencil) available of miniature paintings. They were used for the drawing.

Guru Nanak is sealed in the shop. Slightly damaged painting depicts the shop in a rather stylized manner (Story of giving as saying tera tera - everything belongs to God).

Guru Nanak is sealed in the shop. (Story of giving as saying tera tera - everything belongs to God).

Guru Nanak seated under a tree with his inseparable companions Bala and Mardana on either side of him. There are a number of khakhas (stencil) available of miniature paintings. They were used for the drawing and that is the reason that more than one identical paintings are available.

There are a number of khakhas (stencil) available of miniature paintings. They were used for the drawing and that is the reason that more than one identical paintings are available.

The standing figure of the Sadhu with a long beard is carrying his jhola on his shoulder and the long patka is folded around his arm. There are no details on the face or garment and yet the drawing is very clear and bold.

The standing figure of the Sadhu with a long beard is carrying his jhola

A rather stylized portrait of Maharaja Ranjit Singh with on expressive face with large eyes, twisted moustaches and long beard which falls to his chest, and a nimbus behind the head. A lotus flower on the right side of the face and the snake with multi hoods form a kind of oval frame around his figure.

A lotus flower on the right side of the face and the snake with multi hoods form a kind of oval frame around his figure.

The robust Sikh nobleman holds and pulls the string of the Garment of the woman who very timidly averts her glance from him. With folded curtain on the top it seems as if a theatrical act is being performed. The folk touch has raw vitality enhanced in the use of sharp and pure cobalt blue and use of intoxicating elements.

With folded curtain on the top it seems as if a theatrical act is being performed. The folk touch has raw vitality enhanced in the use of sharp and pure cobalt blue and use of intoxicating elements.

Maharaja of Nabha: a photograph.

Maharaja of Nabha

Guru Nanak seated on a throne under a tree surrounded by three visitors and in the foreground are a tiger and other animals. Earnest conversation seems to be in progress, where Guru Nanak is giving a discourse to the rovoltv. The four column Persian text
appears both on the top and in the bottom whereas the center occupies the painted area.

The four column Persian text appears both on the top and in the bottom

The four column Persian text appears both on the top and in the bottom

The Academy's Collection of Sikh Miniatures
The Miniature Paintings Museums of the Academy of Fine Arts and Literature have a wide range of Indian miniature paintings and other artifacts, line-drawings, stencils, photographs, litho and prints of antique value - all registered with the Archaeological Survey of India - representing some form or other of Indian painting.In addition, the museums also have a very rich collection of miniature paintings from the Pahari, Kashmir, Rajasthani, Mughal, Deccani, Paithan, and Company Schools, and also a section of Popular Prints. Most of this collection once belonged to Dr. Makhan Singh Bajaj, a man of great intellectual calibre and spiritual bent of mind. Endowed with great aesthetic taste and ability to judge the worth of an antiquity, or work of art, Dr. Bajaj could pick a gem from debris, and this massive and rich collection is its example. Most of these artifacts were collected by Dr. Makhan Singh Bajaj in pre-independent India during his stay and travel in western Punjab (now part of Pakistan.)The collection was later passed on to Ajeet Cour, eminent Punjabi writer and a great benefactor of culture. She had the custody of the collection till her daughter Arpana Caur set up a museum at the Academy of Fine Arts and Literature, believing in this invaluable treasure and its ability to inspire, benefit and delight many artists, art connoisseurs and scholars, and hence deserved to be displayed. Not many private collectors, individuals or institutions, are known to have such unique treasure in their collection, on display or documented.
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