Into the world of great painters

These two volumes bring out the artists from the shadows of their ‘masters’and recognise the contributions long eclipsed by their patrons and scholars alike

Masters of Indian Painting 1100-1900 (Two Volumes)
Eds M. C. Beach, Eberhard Fischer and B. N. Goswamy.
Artibus Asiae Publishers, Zurich.
Pages 839, with more than 500 coloured illustrations.

Reviewed by Mahesh Sharma

THE "Masters" volumes are a landmark in the history of Indian miniature painting. The vision of these two volumes goes back to The Family as the Basis of Style, the path-breaking work that B. N. Goswamy published in 1968, replacing the hitherto accepted understanding of "style" as a court/regional phenomenon. Even prior to this work, Goswamy had constructed the genealogies of the artistic families of the Punjab Hills, breaking thus the notion of anonymity associated with the Indian painted tradition. This research eventually culminated in 1990 into Pahari Masters: Court Painters of Northern India. In a sense, the Masters of Indian Painting is an extension of this work, except that the geographical and chronological scale is huge. For once, the focus shifts from the courts and patrons to the master painters, whose styles get recognition, not only as an innovation in itself but also within the larger comparative context of the visual process over time.

The eighth-century tradition of Indian miniature painting is classified within six chronological categories distinguished by their dominant stylistic traits. Each of these time sections consists of topical essays on major stylistic exponent whose recognised works are discussed, possible attributions and sources analysed, and the "style and achievement" of the master painter examined while keeping in mind the "divergent opinions". Thus, a uniform comparative frame is delineated by which the works of all master painters are discussed, while the time divisions provide simultaneous comparison of the stylistic development across geographical boundaries.

In the first section, John Guy takes a broad chronological sweep (1100-1500), a period dominated by the illustrated Jain palm-leaf manuscripts and Buddhist murals promoted by the religious communities and monastic establishments. By the 15th century, the Timurid-Iranians and Mamluk-Egypt influence on embellishment is conspicuous, particularly after the introduction of paper which required new colours, as witnessed in the "Jainseque Sultunate Shahnama"; or in the "Laur Chanda" genre that synthesised the western-Indian and Iranian influences.

In the succeeding section, 1500-1575, Jeremiah Losty introduces the development of the "early Rajput style", of Mandu and Bengal, as well as the "Deccan style" at Bijapur and Ahmednagar. The essay on dispersed Bhagavata-Purana manuscript illustrates the development of collaborative production workshops. Though conventional style is emphasised, Ehnbom analysis seven different hands that painted these pages. Towards the end of this period, the early Mughal atelier, with its pronounced Persian influence, shapes the collaborative stylistic uniformity of the workshop system that produced manuscripts like Hamzanama, guided by such masters as Abd Al-Samad of Shiraz and Mir Sayyid Ali.

Milo Beach details the transition from the Persian to the Mughal idiom through 1575-1650. Now, it is possible to make firm and knowledgeable attributions to the master painters by names, even though they worked in the hierarchical but efficiently managed and controlled workshops that enrolled about 50 painters in the 1570s to 130 by 1650s. While the tastes of patron were paramount—Akbar’s interest in stories like Hamza or lively historical narratives, to Jahangir’s taste in individual portraiture, Shahjahan’s court ceremonials—this did not prevent the masters to experiment and develop individual styles.

Basawan along with Keshav Das and Daswanth brought in tonal modelling and atmospheric perspectives, Manohar tempered naturalistic modelling and pictorial space with stronger contours and surface rhythms, while Payag innovated with naturalistic details and muted colouring. Mansur was the master illuminator, Bishandas "unequalled in drawing portraiture" and the Hada-master specialised "in scenes involving elephants and hunting". The court was important but not paramount. Thus, Farrukh Beg was able to maintain his personal identity while his "physical circumstances and patronage changed".

Goswamy takes us through the shift from the Mughals to the periphery, particularly the Punjab Hills and Rajasthan through 1650-1730, dominated by the family-based styles. He asserts that while men and material were exchanged by the periphery and Mughals, there was, however, not an easy assimilation and internalisation of the Mughal idiom. Consequently, the "Rajput painting" never lost its identity while exhibiting the contemporary influences. Of particular interest is the Guler family of Pandit Seu, which disseminated the family-style across the hill states from Jasrota to Sirmaur over two centuries, while being dynamic enough to make certain "stylistic changes and adjustments to suit the new situation". The most iconic was Nainsukh who experimented with naturalism to bring out emotions and character traits, though the family tradition is more vivid in the three Rasamanjari manuscripts painted by three generations, all based on the drawings made by Kripalu.

Losty charts the politically turbulent 1730-1825 period, dominated by the mass production of Sanskrit, Persian and local/regional language manuscripts of varying illustrative styles, from Safavid idiom in Kashmir to European naturalism in Delhi. The artists flocked to Murshidabad and Awadh in the 1760s and with the ascendance of the East India Company, they were influenced, trained and employed by its officials who employed them to do the "racial" types, topographical drawings, etc. Tryna Lyons discusses the dominance of water colours and the impact of photography in the final section (1825-1900). The lively Kalighat painters who drew from the street theatre and popular literature also flourished in this period, while artists like Ghasiram popularised the "devotional" through the medium of colour lithography. This section discusses how art schools, art societies and studios changed the image of "gentleman artists", analysing the journey from the court painter to court photographer, and the use of photography by archaeologists and ethnographers in their fieldworks.

Finally, Masters of Indian Painting should be lauded for bringing out the artists from the shadows of their "masters", and for recognising the contributions long eclipsed by their patrons and scholars alike. The selection and quality of illustrations is delightful, just as the scholarly essays are informative, engaging and lucid. This compilation makes an all-time reference and a benchmark for the future scholarship.