Gurus envisioned
Amrik Singh

The Magic of Indian Miniatures
Ed. Avaneet Gandhi. Academy of Fine Arts
and Literature, New Delhi. Pages 204.
Price not stated.

The Magic of Indian MiniaturesThis is an unusual book. Everyone knows Arpana Cour as one of the leading artists of India. She has won acclaim both nationally and internationally. What is more, she continues to be creative and is a fervent supporter of public causes about which some details are given in these the biographical note attached to the book.

The unique thing about this book is that its contents are in the nature of a family heirloom. These miniature paintings had been collected by Arpana’s great-grandparents and preserved and enriched by her father. Arpana being a painter herself knew the value of the miniature paintings in original in the possession of the family. All this goes to the credit of her ancestors who went about collecting these paintings. It is equally creditable that even after the Partition, the family heirloom remained intact.

Once Arpana got established as a painter, she turned her attention to these miniatures and got a professional editor to classify, arrange and edit the material. Out of the 200 odd pages of the book, not more than 15-20 pages are given to the text. For the rest, the book consists of pictures with appropriate descriptions given at the bottom. These are also on display in the Academy of Fine Arts and Literature, New Delhi, in a separate gallery.

Some of these paintings were fragile and required preservation. A few of them were done even on mica. Arpana has taken steps to preserve each one of them. While the originals are on display, this volume makes them available to the lay reader.

The tradition of Indian miniature paintings goes back to the 9th-10th centuries, when Buddhism was active in India. To start with, they were painted mainly in eastern and western India. This led to their growing popularity, and more particularly as part of the illustration of the numerous manuscripts that were being written all the time. The printing press came a few centuries later.

It was in the Lodhi period (1451 to 1526 AD) that miniature paintings became popular in India. As stated earlier, they generally formed illustrations in manuscripts, which were being written at the time.

It was with the coming of Islam in a substantial way that the full flowering of miniature paintings took place in India. The Mughal patronage was a significant factor. To start with, there was a certain amount of influence of Persian paintings, too. But before long, the Indian artists took over and developed their own style.

With the decline of the Mughal Empire, the scene shifted mainly to Rajasthan and to Pahari kingdoms. The new artists remained by and large anonymous. This particular volume has a large number of interesting examples of that period. Apart from Sikh themes, certain other portions of the book deal with Kashmir, Rajasthan, the Mughal background and even those which are called popular prints. These became popular mainly in the later half of the 19th century, when printing had become a part of the emerging scene. The first one-third of the book deals with Guru Nanak and the other Sikh gurus, while the remaining part deals with all kinds of themes.

The illustrations in various Janamsakhis need special mention. Though most of them deal mainly with Guru Nanak, several other books in the same idiom were also written about the Sikh gurus. That not each one of them is dependable becomes evident from the fact that several of them give different versions of the same incidents. What we are concerned with is the fact that several of them were illustrated. This particular book includes several of them, and a separate section of the book is devoted to this particular category of miniature paintings.

Kangra paintings are known all over the country and are prized highly. In a large number of cases, these painters were connected with the Mughal court. But once they moved to the hills, they got more and more involved in Hindu mythology, notably the Bhagwat Puran and the Ramayana. They also started paying special attention to the Ragmala and Geet Govind traditions.

When Maharaja Ranjit Singh conquered Kangra, several of these painters moved over to Punjab. Later, some of them moved on to Patiala. About one-sixth of the book is devoted to this particular development. And about the same amount of attention is paid to the Rajasthani phase. It is not possible to go into further details except to say that Arpana has done a signal service to the cause of miniature painting. She has put the family inheritance in public light and also made them available in the printed form. It is an important book and needs new ground.