Five Great Masters of Indian Miniature Painting

By Google Arts & Culture

Parul Singh

Self-Portrait of Mir Sayyid Ali (1555-1556) by Mir Sayyid AliLos Angeles County Museum of Art

Miniature painting styles are often imagined as static..

On the contrary: the artists used 'traditional’ formulae, but distinguished themselves by a nuanced quoting of the work of previous artists, and subverting or tweaking the established systems.

Setubandha - Rama and Lakshmana crossing the Bridge to Lanka with the Monkey Army (c.1770 CE) by UnknownNational Museum - New Delhi

Let's examine art by five Indian Miniature Painting masters

Though working within established parameters of their traditional field, they nonetheless charted out new trajectories through their art.

Self-Portrait of Mir Sayyid Ali (1555-1556) by Mir Sayyid AliLos Angeles County Museum of Art

1. Mir Sayyid Ali, who worked in ateliers of four monarchs

Beginning his career in Persia, in the ateliers of the Safavid monarchs Shah Ismail and Shah Tahmasp, Mir Sayyid Ali joined the Mughal Emperor Humayun’s temporary court in Kabul, Afghanistan in 1549. He accompanied the Emperor to Delhi in 1555, and became the supervisor of the royal atelier. 

After Humayun’s accidental death the following year, Mir Sayyid Ali continued to supervise the atelier for Humayun’s son, Akbar, who succeeded him to the throne.

Mir Sayyid Ali was trained by his master artist father..

He worked in the  Safavid style, characterized by intricate detail, a rhythmic weaving of arabesques and geometric patterns, and the use of brilliant colours that blaze in their jewel-like intensity.

Mir Sayyid Ali's self-portrait marks a distinct new style

Seen here, the self-portrait demonstrates a new boldness of execution, more vigorous and animated lines, and the artist’s taste for playful touches, noticeable in the distinctive Deccani turban and the casually draped gossamer scarf. 

Absorbed in his books, the scholar is oblivious to his surroundings, where his belongings lie scattered about in careless abandon. The portrait is full of liveliness and personality.

The World of Animals (ca. 1590) by Artist: Miskin Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

2. Miskin, trained with Mir Sayyid Ali in Akbar's atelier

This work by Miskin, The World of Animals, demonstrates Persian influences, seen here in the stylized dragons, simurghs and horses, and the fantastic rock formations. 

However, the spatial depth and the strong contrasts in illumination derive from the European art encountered by the Mughal artists during this period.

A sense of fresh liveliness..

The painting's spatial depth entices us to move alongside the flowing brook behind the tree, contemplate every nook and cranny of the rocks rendered in such fascinating detail, or meander along the softly rolling hillsides. The drawing is fluid and refined.

Miskin's workmanship and acute observation were exemplary...

It's a busy picture showing the whole animal kingdom, but peace and tranquility prevails. The lion and antelope, ostrich and dragon, elephant and crocodile coexist in perfect harmony - a metaphor for the peace that prevails in the reign of a just and courageous emperor.  

Despite depicting nearly 100 creatures in this study, Miskin gives each one his meticulous attention.

Drawing Drawing (ca. 1725) by ManakuThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

3. Pandit Seu, Manaku and Nainsukh

In the small state of Guler in the Punjab Hills, the artist Pandit Seu together with his two sons Manaku and Nainsukh, dominated one of the most fascinating periods of Pahari painting. 

Manaku, the older of the two brothers remained more indebted to his father’s style, working in Guler, while the younger Nainsukh, who left the court of Guler to work for other patrons, studied and borrowed contemporary Mughal stylistic idioms of 18th century, bringing freshness to the traditional visual vocabulary that he was familiar with.

Manaku's Siege of the Lanka Series

In 1725, Manaku produced a series of illustrations to the last part of the Ramayana, the so-called Siege of the Lanka Series, a crucial turning point in his work. At first continuing the large format of the series that his father had begun, he developed new compositional solutions for depicting complex narrative scenes.

Seen in this unfinished preparatory drawing for a folio of the series, Rama and Lakshmana Overwhelmed by Arrows, Manaku brilliantly conveys the essence of the narrative.

Snakes and Arrows

The drawing depicts a scene from the epic Ramayana, when the heroes Rama and his devoted brother Lakshmana are inflicted by the Naga Pasha - magical arrows as venomous and deathly as the bind of serpents - rained upon them by the mighty Indrajit, the son of the demon king Ravana. 

Manaku interprets the snake-like arrows as writhing serpents themselves, coiling around the two hapless heroes, almost covering their bodies and sending them into a deathly stupor.

The bear and monkey army sit huddled around them in quiet agitation. Not knowing what to do to revive the fallen heroes, they surround them in solemn sympathy.

One marvels at Manaku’s assured hand, as he captures the complicated narrative with such economy of strokes. Despite the repetition of elements, such as the sea of bears and monkeys, there is a freshness and verve that demands close scrutiny from the viewer.

Manaku holds on to certain traditional compositional elements, such as the curved horizon line and the half submerged fish and sea creatures in water, both devices derived from the vocabulary of his father, Pandit Seu.

Painting Painting (ca. 1745–50) by NainsukhThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

4. Nainsukh

One of the most exceptional figures in Pahari painting, Nainsukh was schooled in the stylistic idiom developed by his father, Pandit Seu. However, he forged a distinct stylistic path inspired by the works of Mughal painters, interpreting their compositions and style in his work.

Although influenced by contemporary Mughal works, Nainsukh’s work is subtle, with a natural grace and charm, unlike the formal quality that pervades much 18th century Mughal court style.

In this work, Raja Balwant Singh’s Vision of Krishna and Radha, Nainsukh paints a personal version of Singh as a devotee. He depicts the Raja standing in veneration of the Gods Krishna and Radha who appear before him on a golden throne.

Nainsukh weaves together two opposing worlds, the real and the celestial, giving the scene a gentle, dreamlike air. The two realms - one occupied by the deities and the other by the devotee - face each other.

Balwant Singh, depicted with an individualism that seems to belong to the world of the mortals, gazes on the idealised figures of the Gods. 

Balwant Singh’s portrait is in itself a masterpiece. His personality is well grasped, cleanly drawn, conveying a true sense and presence of the person.

The terrace and the facade of the pavilion is enlivened by a beautiful, arched niche with  intertwining arabesques. An orange-colored canopy cuts diagonally into the composition, contrasting the delicacy of the facade. 

The artist keeps the remaining space, occupied by the devotee, clean and devoid of decorative details; only a vista of softly rolling hills and a gently flowing river suggest the space beyond.

Setubandha - Rama and Lakshmana crossing the Bridge to Lanka with the Monkey Army (c.1770 CE) by UnknownNational Museum - New Delhi

5. Master from the First generation after Manaku/Nainsukh

The artistic legacy of Manaku and Nainsukh was taken up by their sons. Combining the experiences and strengths of the previous generation, the master artists from the First generation are credited with the most lyrical works of the Guler style.

This folio, Rama and Lakshmana Traversing the Ocean with Their Army, shows the debt owed to the early masters, Manaku and Nainsukh, as well as the innovation undertaken by a master from the first generation after Nainsukh and Manaku.

The drawing is clearly inspired by Manaku’s dense grouping of figures, but is also balanced by Nainsukh’s love of space. The artist knits the two attributes together by envisaging an oblique view: the viewer can survey the stream of monkeys weaving their way into the far distance, enveloped by the vast expanse of the ocean. 

Strong diagonals, a suggestion of receding planes, and a dense crowding of figures diminishing into the far horizon impart a wonderful dynamism to the drawing.

Inherited from Nainsukh is the observation and understanding of animals, evident in the skilful and precise rendering of their forms.

They are depicted in every conceivable stance, their strength and agility convincingly expressed through their musculature and poses of their bodies as they crouch and spring, their movements rendered with an easy grace. 

The animals are not depicted with a clinical and cold detached hand, but with warmth and compassionate understanding, giving them almost human emotions, evident in their animated gestures, intense expressions and the fierce determination that plays on their faces.

While a conservative ethos that encouraged a repetition of established forms did govern the artists’ repertoire, tradition and innovation went hand in hand. 

Miniature painting styles were not static systems but actively responded to other styles, idioms, and pervading conditions of their times. Influences on the style of the artists were fluid, traversing time and geographical spaces.

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