What is Indian Miniature painting and its origins?

Paintings created in India from as early as from 12th century and onwards, mostly on palm leafs to illustrate manuscripts and religious texts are called miniature paintings as they were very small in size and later the style continued to grow in length and style with arrival of paper and pigments from Iran in mid 1300s.

There has always been a relationship 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. However, the more refined technique of miniature painting was born of the book arts.

It was the initial contact, influence and eventual fusion with Persian techniques of painting that spurred a mature north Indian (including Pakistan) style of painting, a style which represented not only technical advancement – the introduction of new methods and materials to the craft – but also philosophical change in the guise of Islam and its esoteric Sufi doctrine of devotional love to God as a means of salvation. This had much in common with the Bhakti tradition of India.

In 12th century, the Jain religion had established a manuscript tradition in Gujarat, a centre of Jainism and was patronised by wealthy traders eager for religious merits. However, In 1300s and later, the art and craft revived heavily further with the advent of Moghul period in India.

In 1700s, the fortunes of north Indian painting further changed as the Moghul rulers of late 1600s did not embrace the aristocratic imperial art studios. In the exodus, craftsmen found themselves free of rigour and they looked back to the Indian poems of the Mahabharata and the Bhagavata Gita for inspiration. As a result, the Himalayan (Pahari, Gharwal, Basholi and Kangra) and Mewar (Jaipur, Kota, Bundi, Kishangarh, Nathdwara, Udaipur and Jodhpur) schools of art were born.

Also, In Rajasthan, travelling storytellers used phad-chitra (story painting) and patachitra (canvas cloth painting) as the backdrop to their performance, which helped painting tradition also grow in large sizes as pichhvais.

Indian miniature paintings are acknowledged in the entire art world as a class by themselves, they are intimate and beautiful. The strength of an Indian miniature lies in the directness of its expression, a kind of transparency concealing behind its lines, forms and colours nothing which the artist seeks to expose. The Indian artists stayed very little bothered about geometry-based dimensions and perspectives, as for them the essence of their rendering lied in its power to generate transcendental delight and thereby to elevate the view from material plane to spiritual and aesthetic vision.

Museums of London and US (e.g., V&A, MET, NGA etc.) have a great collection of original Indian miniature paintings and a few in National Museum, New Delhi.

Techniques of making a Miniature painting

Works of Indian miniature painters are often referred to as handmade opaque watercolours (natural pigments with gum Arabic and water) with zinc-white usually added to it.

Specifically designed for painting, handmade paper is used which is made up of rice stalk and bamboo. Layers of papers are pasted over each other to make it thick and are called Wasli.

Important significance for all Indian miniature paintings which differentiates them from western art is the burnishing of the colours while they are being built in thin layers. A process in which the paper is placed face-down on a flat marble or a thick glass surface, the painting is polished from the back with a burnishing agate. By doing this, the craftsman vigorously press the pigments into the paper, this way pigments develop brightness and the colours sparkle.

The brushes used are also special, for colour filing round straight hair brushes are used which are made from mongoose. Another type of brush used is the squirrel hair brush, which is used for detailed and intricate work, which is most important part of miniature work. The squirrel hair brush is very delicate. A good squirrel hair brush is curved and converges to a single point from the tip. This natural curve of the brush hairs makes the drawing line thin and even, which is the most important aspect of a miniature painting.

As part of miniature painting practice while working with squirrel hair brush, generally craftsmen hold their breathe to be able to draw very thin, delicate and even lines in the painting.

In those days miniature painting was learnt through guild system, teacher-pupil relationship, in which the teacher (Guru) accepts a pupil (Shishya) under himself and transfer all his learnings over period of many years as teaching process. This relationship of teacher-pupil stays life long.

However, In the current generation of miniature artists in northern India, the guild system is at complete loss. The range at present 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 centre of the craft for miniature with plentiful home grown studios and art galleries, but very few are able to produce any quality work. Also, sales of any good work is very limited, most of the work being sold is very commercial and focuses mostly on foreign tourists.

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