Pahari Manuscript Painting
Manuscript and muraqqa illustration traditions in kingdoms at the foothills of the Himalayas — including present-day Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, and Jammu and Kashmir — are grouped together under the term pahari, meaning “of the mountains.” These kingdoms were established by Rajput kings from Rajasthan in the late seventeenth century and maintained their sovereignty until the early nineteenth century. The courts at Basohli, Kulu, Guler and Kangra in particular took great interest in manuscript painting and established the careers of notable artists such as Pandit Seu and his sons, Nainsukh and Manaku, to whom the distinctive character of Pahari painting is largely credited. Manuscript painting flourished in the Himalayan foothills – which are also known as the Punjab hills as they pass through the northern part of Indian and Pakistani Punjab – until these kingdoms were annexed by the Sikh Empire and the British East India Company in the first half of the nineteenth century.
Despite major changes and external influences, Pahari painting retained certain key features. The paintings usually illustrated amorous or religious Hindu texts, particularly those featuring Krishna and Radha, namely the Gita Govinda and Bhagavata Purana. To a lesser extent, the Nala-Damayanti, Mahabharata and Ramayana were also illustrated. Following Rajput tradition, Pahari courts also commissioned ragamala albums and portraits of young kings. Almost all figures – in albums as well as in manuscripts – were depicted in profile, with their facial features rendered with increasing accuracy over the eighteenth century. Costumes were carefully painted to convey their pattern and texture. While Pahari painting is often divided into a Basohli and Kangra phase due to the heightened influence of these courts, manuscripts and albums were commissioned by many other kingdoms in the region, albeit for smaller projects and sums of money. The artists hired for these commissions worked throughout the region, as a result of which it is difficult to distinguish variations of styles across different courts.
The earliest manuscript from the Himalayan foothills is an illustrated copy of the Rasamanjari, made at Basohli between 1660 and 1670. This early style is characterised by the use of bright, deep shades of yellow, ochre and green; detailed depictions of ornamentation on the main figures of the painting; and the use of strong gestures to express heightened emotions. The almond-shaped eyes are wide open and intense, especially in romantic or intimate scenes. While necessary details of the environment were painted around the characters — such as trees or architectural features — these were kept in the middle ground or foreground, while the background was usually a solid colour field with a very high horizon line. When noble or royal persons were included in a painting, they were often shown to be disproportionately large compared to the structures inside which they were situated, underscoring their importance in relation to other figures. For a brief time, paintings at Basohli in the seventeenth century included the application of wing cases from beetles on the figures’ costumes to imitate jewellery. However, this technique is not seen in later paintings.
As a result of the political independence and the remoteness of the Pahari kingdoms, the early Pahari style at Basohli was far removed from the naturalism, restraint and muted colours of Mughal painting, despite the strong influence of the Mughal style in Rajasthan and the Deccan during the same period. Over the course of the next century, however, Nainsukh began to occasionally work for the Rajasthani and Mughal courts and, as a highly influential painter, became responsible for the introduction of Mughal elements into the manuscripts painted in Basohli and surrounding kingdoms. Additional Mughal influences on the Pahari style were brought by the many artisans who fled from the atelier of Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah, following the seige on Delhi by Nader Shah’s forces in 1739. Notable features that distinguish this later style from that of the seventeenth century include a landscape backdrop with a lower horizon line, a lighter colour palette, less ornamentation in the costumes, and a more realistic size difference between human figures and architectural elements. This style, established in the mid to late eighteenth century, is considered to be the fully realised form of Pahari painting.
The Kangra ateliers flourished in the late eighteenth century to the early nineteenth, carrying forward the themes, experiments and Mughal influences of the Basohli paintings, while also adding new elements. This was largely done by artists from the families of Nainsukh and Manaku, under the patronage of the Kangra king Sansar Chand. In addition to the features of the late Pahari style described above, Kangra paintings feature an emphasis on the green, undulating landscape of the Punjab hills as well as a continuous narrative technique practised mainly in Pahari paintings and very rarely in Rajasthani and Mughal ateliers. This composition technique typically involves the strategic arrangement of trees and architectural elements in such a way that a scene is divided into panels. The main participants of the narrative are shown multiple times in the same painting, enacting different parts of the narrative within the divisions created by the surrounding landscape and buildings. Continuous narratives were usually applied to known stories from the Bhagavata Purana, the Gita Govinda and the Ramayana, possibly so that the painting would remain intelligible to the viewer.
Royal patronage for Pahari manuscript painting ceased in the early nineteenth century, prompting many Pahari artisans to take up employment at Sikh or Rajasthani courts. While some minor artists in Kangra continued to practice the art form, the Punjab hills were no longer a cultural centre for most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Today, organisations such as the Kangra Arts Promotion Society (KAPS) and the Kangra Museum of Arts in Dharamshala offer training in the traditional Pahari style of painting, including the use of traditional materials and pigments. These paintings are sold commercially as individual works, although the income from sales and the stipend from these organisations remain a precarious form of livelihood for traditional Pahari artists.
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