What is Indian Miniature painting and its origins?

Miniature painting derived its name from its diminutive size and intricate designs. The earliest Indian Miniature are found painted on palm-leaves, which by themselves restricted the canvas size to a miniature. Their themes related to Jainism and Buddhism, and their purpose was ritual for they were rendered for merchants trading across the subcontinent and the central part of Asia and using them as votive images.  The palm-leaf paintings have their origin in the 10th and 12th century period, though their reported bulk usage belong to the 14th and 15th centuries, when paper as a new art medium almost completely replaced palm-leaf. Paper, endowed with numerous attributes, almost revolutionized the art of painting. Being tougher, it was easy to handle. It had no color of its own but rather had a pigments absorbing surface giving to colors better brilliance and sharpness.

An Indian Miniature is a painting with an altogether different temperament. It is not always the diction of the lines and colors that allows interpretation of an Indian miniature, as it does most other classes of paintings.
Indian Miniatures are intricate handmade illuminations executed flawlessly with subtle brushwork. The colors used in the miniatures were extracted from minerals, vegetables, precious stones, indigo, conch shells, pure gold and silver. The illustrated manuscripts of Jains and Buddhists, and the Mughal, Rajput, and Deccan Miniatures are noted for their meticulous execution and artistic skills.

The fine stroke of brushes conveyed the themes from the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Bhagvata Purana, Rasikpriya, Rasamanjiri, etc. These masterpieces of yore have a universal appeal which still touches the right chord of the audience. A kind of distinctiveness, a unique power to emotionally move, something very special that belongs to them alone, distinguish them from other classes of paintings.

The complete strength of an Indian Miniature lies within the directness of its expression, a kind of transparency concealing behind its lines, forms and colors nothing which the artist seeks to expose.

The Indian artist stayed little bothered about geometry-based dimensions and perspectives, as for him the essence of his rendering lied in its power to generate transcendental delight and thereby to elevate the view from material plane to spiritual and aesthetic vision.

India’s great past, her spiritualism and aestheticism, outside influences, and the ever changing political, social and religious scenario greatly diversified the theme and the style of Indian miniatures. In its inches length and width the canvas of a miniature translated into its lines and colors the legends of ages, faith of generations, yearnings of love, glow of youthful vigor, sublimation of temporal aspirations, dimensions of tiny human efforts and all that books took volumes to cover.

Also, there has always been a relation between fresco and miniature painting that originates from the Buddhist temple shrines of Ajanta, as the techniques follow similar lines. The former is really the parent craft of the latter; a finished miniature painting on paper still resembles a highly polished fresco (wall) painting.

In the earlier times, miniature painting was learnt through the guild system, teacher-pupil relationship in which the teacher (Guru) accepts a pupil (Shishya) under himself and transfers all his learning over a period of many years as teaching process. The relationship of teacher-pupil remains life-long.

However, in the recent times, the extraordinary brilliance and significant art of miniature has lost its importance. It is unfortunate that the people indulged in the art of Miniature don’t get much appreciation for their superb talent and craftsmanship. In the current generation of miniature artists in northern India, the guild system is at complete loss. At present, the range of miniature painters is very broad, ranging from the sincere and dedicated practitioners to the simple commercial ones who produce for trade. Jaipur is the center of the craft of miniature with plentiful home grown studios and art galleries, but very few are able to produce any quality work. Also, sales of good work is very limited, most of the work being sold is very commercial and focuses mostly on foreign tourists.

The preservation of traditional arts and crafts in our ever-changing and fast growing modern world is a vital means of providing the timeless values that bring stability to human life and promote peace of mind. Change that occurs, too quickly results in the destruction of these cultural values, which bind together countries, societies and people. In order to prevent further loss, it is essential that we document the traditional arts that are still in existence and to interview and learn from anyone who is still “in-line” with the continuance of this tradition. Maukaa Art foundation is working towards it.


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