One of the most significant miniature painters of the eighteenth century, Nainsukh – along with his older brother Manaku and father Pandit Seu – played a crucial role in shaping what is known today as the Basohli style of Pahari painting, and also set the stage for the later Kangra phase.
Details of Nainsukh’s childhood are unclear, but it is evident from the style and dates of his early paintings that he was apprenticed under his father at Guler. He worked at Guler until 1740, when he took up employment at the court of Mian Zarowar Singh, ruler of the Jasrota kingdom in present day Jammu and Kashmir. While he was hired by different members of the royal family here, the most frequent subject of Nainsukh’s paintings was prince Balwant Singh, one of the king’s sons. Nainsukh worked at Jasrota until the death of Balwant Singh in 1763, after which he moved to the court at Basohli. He continued to work there under the patronage of Raja Amrit Pal, until his death in 1778.
Nainsukh’s work shows strong influences from the Mughal style, even before the influx of artisans from Delhi to the Punjab hills in 1739 in the aftermath of Nader Shah’s invasion. Unlike the brightly-coloured, intense style that dominated the Basohli atelier in the late seventeenth century, his paintings have a muted colour palette and naturalistic rendering of human figures, especially in his depiction of faces and skin colour. His application of shading over the wash gave the objects and figures in the painting a pronounced solidity without dampening the otherwise light colour palette. He typically depicted landscapes and foliage in as much detail as the characters in the foreground, while aligning and proportioning all the objects and characters according to the architectural structures in the scene, giving the composition a sense of completeness. Patterns, such as those that occur on walls, carpets and clothing, were replicated with great detail.
Unlike his brother and father, Nainsukh is known mainly for painting from life rather than depicting religious or folk stories, although he has produced several notable images of these as well. Apart from the style described above, he was also known for his humorous observation of his subject matter, something which is particularly pronounced in his paintings of Balwant Singh and the Jasrota court. Scholars note this series of portraits for their frank depiction of ordinary scenes from the prince’s everyday life — trimming his beard, writing letters, preparing for bed and so forth — which are nonetheless rendered with great care by Nainsukh. This period at Jasrota is often cited as an example of the close ties that sometimes arose between patrons and artists in mediaeval India, going well beyond financial obligation, and departing from the convention of portraying rulers in a formal and flattering light. The scenes painted by Nainsukh grant great insight into the prince’s state of mind, suggesting that Balwant Singh had formed a friendship with the painter. Nainsukh is also known to have visited Haridwar in 1763, when the prince’s ashes were taken for dispersal in the Ganga. While there, he also added a long entry on the prince in the priest’s registry, along with a drawing.
Nainsukh’s style had a major impact on manuscript painting at Basohli and subsequently at Kangra, where his sons Kama, Ranjha, Nikka and Gandhu later worked. He had presumably trained them in his methods, which fit neatly with the existing Mughal influence that had been growing in the region since the early eighteenth century. His work is housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum, among others. Nainsukh’s work continues to be widely regarded as uniquely representative of the fully realised Pahari style, and has been the subject of multiple publications, most notably BN Goswamy’s Nainsukh of Guler, published in 1997.
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