Curated By Kuhu Kopariha

The word ‘miniature’ finds its origins in the Latin ‘miniare’ meaning ‘to colour’.

A vast subject of study that encompasses artworks across time and culture in the Subcontinent, Indian miniature painting as a tradition includes small-scale paintings and manuscript illustrations as well. Miniature paintings was born here during the literary boom of Buddhism and Jainism between the 9th and 12th centuries. The 3-inch palm leaf manuscripts were minuscule and intricate, especially when compared to the large-scale wall paintings that preceded them. In the 15th century, when paper was introduced in India and became the medium for manuscripts, indigenous painting styles reached the height of their development and the size of the paintings became irrelevant. An entire century later, a fusion of Persian and indigenous art styles emerged and reached new heights under Mughal patronage. These were even further away from palm leaf manuscripts.

What, then, is a miniature painting
if it isn’t defined by size or style?

Indian miniatures are flat or lack perspective in their visual grammar.

The foreground, middle ground and background all appear equally important to the viewer. Even when the wide-eyed figures of the 9th century evolved to naturalism under Jehangir, the miniature lacked realism.

Miniatures can be defined as narrative paintings. Like most indigenous art, miniatures portrayed a scene or story to the viewer. Hunting scenes, court scenes and mythology were some of the most recognisable themes in Indian miniatures.

The process behind the art was as significant, if not more so, than the iconography. Preparation of colours was crucial; colours were created by hand using organic, earth and mineral pigments.

Indian miniatures are decorative and include fine details in costume, architecture, patterns and shadows created by flora and fauna.

Are you ready to step into the world of centuries old miniatures and explore how they contemporise themselves to our times?

This exhibition focuses on the numerous identities of the art form and how it morphs and contemporises itself time and again, branching into different schools and themes. Even today, 12 centuries later, miniatures only seem to acquire more space both nationally and internationally, in the practices of modern and contemporary artists.

A man sleeping in a pavilion, Hamzanama

Illustration part of the book 'Hamzanama' or 'Dastan-i-Amir Hamza', Mughal India, Opaque pigments heightened with gold on cloth c. 1560-1575 © Sarmaya Arts Foundation

The manuscript is centred around the adventures of Prophet Muhammad’s uncle, Amir Hamza, who sought to convert the world to Islam. The story is considered factual, interwoven as it is with local legends and popular tales.The manuscript was painted by local miniature artists supervised by Persian masters Mir Sayyid Ali and Abd as-Samad, who followed Humayun from Iran to India. At least 50 artists were employed for this project, producing 100 illustrations per volume; this is how Akbar’s reign saw the establishment of karkhanas or workshops for artists to work collectively.

This folio of A man sleeping in a pavilion is a beautiful representation from the Hamzanama series. It uses intricate decoration, disregards perspective and boasts the finesse of a Persian miniature. But the choice of bolder colours like saffron against the red quilt betrays the influence of local styles. The choice of colours, however, may not have been intentional. The unavailability of subtler colours in India, such as zinc white, played a role in the limited palette of this folio and of the commission at large.

'The horse Dilsringar, belonging to
Maharaja Sawai Pratap Singh of Jaipur

Rajasthani Miniature, Jaipur style, Opaque pigments on paper c. 1750-1770 © Sarmaya Arts Foundation

Jaipur was the closest to the Mughal seat of power Agra/ Delhi, and the Rajput and Mughal families were tied together in marriage beginning in the late 16th century.Jaipur also had an alliance with the Mewar, where Maharaja Madho Singh of Jaipur (r. 1750-68) spent his formative years.Under the patronage of Madho Singh I and his son Pratap Singh (r. 1778-1803), Jaipur became one of the most well-known styles in Rajasthani miniature paintings.

This painting of Dilsringar, the steed of Sawai Pratap Singh, is set against a sublime flat green and is a remarkably realistic image of a horse. The realism is typical of the Mughal style, with the Rajput court paintings being less defined and flat in appearance. The colour and design of the saddle align with the palette of Jaipur. The composition is finished with a midnight blue border, a favourite colour of Udaipur (Mewar) painters.

Maharaja Bhim Singh in procession on horseback,
accompanied by attendants on foot, Udaipur

Rajasthani Miniature, Mewar School, Opaque pigments on paper c. early 19th century © Sarmaya Arts Foundation

Maharaja Bhim Singh (r.1778-1828) was one of the liveliest patrons, with an obsessive interest in portraits of himself — whether a court scene, a hunting scene or a modest one where the Maharaja carries on with his daily activities. Here, for example, he is shown leading a procession outdoors.The painting uses isolation of colours and patterns — for example the clear division of mountains, the flat blue backdrop and the ground. The artist also uses the colour white in abundance and plays with scale. These were the characteristics of Mewar paintings in the late 17th and early 19th centuries, a composition popularised by Mewar artist Bagta and carried on by his younger son Chokha. The latter created several paintings of Maharaja Bhim Singh.

The halo, the size of the emperor and his ornate horse all indicate the princely stature of the figure. The painting carries an inscription on top, a distinct feature in Rajasthani miniatures, which would detail the event, the individual, the date and the artist.

Rajasthani miniature, Mewar school

Opaque pigments on paper c. early 19th century © Sarmaya Arts Foundation

The Rajasthani school of painting defined individuality only through distinctive features like moustache or body size. Other physical traits of the kings remained more or less the same, which is why inscriptions were needed to identify the subject of the painting.This untitled miniature may be attributed to either Raja Bhim Singh or Jawan Singh from Mewar, and bears several similarities to the painting titled 'Maharaja Bhim Singh in procession on horseback, accompanied by attendants on foot Udaipur':

- It plays with scale and colour isolation
- White and blue are the dominant colours in the composition
- There is a crescent moon-like shape visible right next to the king

Even after noting all these similarities, there is no certainty that the artist of the two Mewar paintings was the same. The Rajasthani miniature stressed on similarities instead of differences in its compositions. If the artists Bhagta and Chokha gained popularity in the court of Mewar, then regional artists followed court standards.

Rajasthani miniature card, Nathdwara style

Opaque pigments on paper c.20th century © Sarmaya Arts Foundation

Religious themes were a big part of the Rajasthani miniature school. The first known commission is a series from the Bhagavata Purana c. 1525, possibly patronised by the Rana Sanga of Mewar. In every miniature tradition in Rajasthan, the tales and rupas of Krishna were illustrated, but Nathdwara (a city north of Udaipur) became the spiritual home of Shrinathji and the centre of religious patronage.

Several artists moved to Nathdwara as a result, and popularised the cloth painting tradition of Pichwai. This new style of painting was influenced by the artists of Mewar, Kishangargh and Kota. As a result, the original Pichwai comes with a window cut out (similar to the blank space seen here behind the artists) for the idol to fit through. As devotees and patrons wished to keep souvenirs of their pilgrimage, a need for miniature cards arose in the city.

Rajasthani miniature, Nathdwara style

Opaque pigments on paper c.20th century © Sarmaya Arts Foundation

The miniature cards of Nathdwara are the closest to indigenous techniques and colours when compared to any other school of miniature painting in Rajasthan. They are smaller than the average miniature painting: the one shown here, for instance, is 15.5 cm in height and 12 cm in width. The paintings are adorned in colours and the flowers of spring associated with the festival of Holi. To the left stands the tilkayat or chief priest of the temple of Shrinathji and to the right would stand the patron. However, the patron could request the artist to paint them in the likeness of a priest, shown in devotion to the Lord.

The miniature cards began to be sold near temples and in bazaars thanks to the influx of people to Nathdwara. The patronage for these miniatures cards came from common people like merchants, businessmen and women as well as traders and others. After the invention of the camera, versions of the miniature cards where people collaged their photographs into the composition became a popular souvenir format.

‘Untitled’, suite of five paintings, Gopa Trivedi, 2018

Gopa Trivedi, Gouache on Wasli, 2018 © Sarmaya Arts Foundation

The miniature tradition lives on today in the art practices of several modern and contemporary artists. The roots of Persian and Rajasthani miniatures can be seen in the practice of Delhi-based artist Gopa Trivedi. “With miniatures, I found my medium,” the artist told Sarmaya in an interview. Just like the court painters of the Indian miniature school, Trivedi makes her own wasli or canvas and sometimes even creates her own colours. An internship at a karkhana in Jaipur acquainted the artist with the time-honoured craft processes behind miniatures.

Trivedi even takes on the narrative style of Indian miniature painting. In this series, the progression of the narrative can be seen from one painting to another, just like a manuscript. The story progresses as you flip the pages. Trivedi’s practice in some ways also contrasts or reinvents the miniature style; her work is minimalist and showcases ordinary or everyday objects and (secular) spaces. The themes are centred around their infiltration, degeneration or erasure.

Mapping the Heavens, Desmond Lazaro

Indigo dyed cotton cloth, natural pigments and raised gold on wooden backing, 21st century © Sarmaya Arts Foundation

Born in Leeds, England, Desmond Lazaro travelled to India to pursue his masters at MSU Baroda. Here, he became captivated by the traditional Indian Pichwai from Rajasthan. Lazaro learnt about miniature painting techniques in great detail by studying for 12 years under the guidance of Jaipur Master Banu Ved Pal Sharma, a living expert on the miniature and Pichwai style. This is why Lazaro employs stringent processes like pigment and brush-making, cloth-dyeing, the use of gold leaf and more. The artist marries miniature iconography and process with star maps, his personal journeys and the journeys of explorers.

In Mapping the Heavens, Lazaro uses indigo-dyed cotton cloth reminiscent of the midnight blue used in Mewar, with natural pigment. The contrast of blue and gold was commonly used for religious paintings. They represent the infinite (blue) and the finite (gold), the heavenly and mortal realms. The work draws inspiration from his travels around Dunhuang in western China, particularly his trip to the Margao Buddhist cave where the oldest star map was discovered. In accordance with his interest in the ancient and contemporary universe, Lazaro’s painting showcases mythological creatures representing the zodiac signs and an empirical view of the heavens.

Ways of Seeing, Jethro Buck

Natural pigment and gouache on hemp paper, 2019 © Sarmaya Arts Foundation

Another artist based in the UK chanced upon the Indian miniature tradition by accident. Jethro Buck came to India as a traveller in 2010 and stumbled upon the Udaipur karkhanas. Buck became mesmerised by the processes involved in pigment-making, outlining a court scene, filling in the intricate patterns. For him, it felt like peering back through time into the ateliers of the Mughal and Rajput courts. The artist then applied for a grant in India to learn miniature painting and was tutored by Ajay and Vineet Sharma, master artists from Jaipur.

He believes that his art transcends cultural and political boundaries. From these ideas comes his painting Ways of Seeing. The title comes from the book and series by John Berger, an art critic in the 1970s, and speaks to the idea of how one symbol or visual is interpreted in different ways by different people. The tigers here are that one visual reinterpreted across cultures, tradition and mediums of visual art, represented in Rajasthani textiles (top right), Rajasthani Kota miniature drawings (middle left), Bengal Pattachitra (middle right), Pahari miniatures (left bottom), Korean folk paintings (right bottom) and even a photographic print (top left).

Wild things, Jethro Buck

Oil and 22 3/4 ct gold leaf on Gesso Panels, 2019 © Sarmaya Arts Foundation

With his monumental work scaling 3 feet in height and 6 feet in width, Jethro Buck’s Wild Things turns the word ‘miniature’ on its head. Created using oil paint and 22 ¾ gold leaf on Gesso panels, it borrows and meshes together a potpourri of images from across the global landscape – pastoral England to Mughal India.

In the miniature-style painting, animals and humans are seen hunting, tending to farms or strolling in lush green forests and arid desert lands. “It’s a call for reconnection, both literally, like we need to get back out there and back into the natural environment, but also symbolically and culturally,” says Buck. His artistic practice and this work stress on the need to preserve tradition, and on this large canvas the natural/manmade, traditional/modern, east/west worlds collide. However, to view these worlds one must get past the dreamy elements that capture the imagination, like the swimming school of fish or the magnificent golden tiger. In many ways the iconography, colour palette and intricacy betray the miniature. From 3-inch palm leaf to a 6ft-wide Ges'so panel, Wild Things scales the grandeur of Indian miniatures.

Thank you for visiting our exhibition and watch this space for updates on the upcoming ones.