Matters of detail
In the exquisitely painted artworks from the Mughal era, everything appears close to nature — the carefully orchestrated colours and the general atmosphere of an idyllic landscape

I am not sure how I come to writing about the things that I do in this piece. It is just possible that it was the questions a young researcher from Baroda was throwing at me from a distance, some penetrating, some naďve: "Were there no women painters in history, before our times? Because no names seem to have come down." "How is it that all the women we see in our traditional paintings are so slim and well-formed? Was nobody fat or short or plain-looking?" Or, again: "Why is there so much detail in our paintings, so much attention to minutiae?""Where did painters get their ideas, or their inspiration, from?" And so on. I do not think I wanted to get involved in all the issues that the researcher was grappling with — my time, energy, competence, being serious inhibitors — but some things set me thinking. And I decided to look again at the paintings I was working on.

There was this wonderful painting of a ‘Mughal-looking’ princess out hawking with her maids and companions: a work that I had earlier attributed to Nainsukh, the great 18th century Pahari painter. Lush and poetic, the painting is extremely finely crafted. At the left lower end of a rich green landscape of rolling hills and luxuriant vegetation is brought in a group of women, all with delicate faces, all dressed in green ankle-length jamas, all wearing men-like turbans, with the princess — a late inscription at the back speaks of her as a ‘Begum’ — cutting a striking, bejewelled figure on horseback.

A Mughal Princess Out Hawking. Pahari; by Nainsukh; ca. 1740. National Museum, New Delhi; and Mughal Princesses, Hawking and Hunting. Late Mughal; ca. 1720. Chandigarh Museum

A Mughal Princess Out Hawking. Pahari; by Nainsukh; ca. 1740. National Museum, New Delhi; and Mughal Princesses, Hawking and Hunting. Late Mughal; ca. 1720. Chandigarh Museum 

One woman companion stands at the extreme right, hands folded, facing the princess; the others form a group behind the princess, one carrying a morchhal-fan, another a musket, a third a bow and arrow. One of them however, sports a hawk on her wrist, much like the princess who too has a hawk perched on her gloved hand. Her eyes are trained on the small lake, just past the leafy bush with circular fan-shaped leaves, where amid blossoming lotuses and outsized lotus leaves, a number of water-fowl — ducks, herons and egrets — swim or sport about. One of them will soon be brought down by her hawk, one can be certain.

What one does not immediately notice, however, but remains of great interest in this exquisitely painted work, is the fact that everything appears close to nature — the carefully orchestrated colours, the general atmosphere of this idyllic landscape — and is yet independent of it. Nothing quite corresponds to what one might see in real life: the contours of the rolling hills, the forms of the thickets in the distance, the relative scale of things.

There is an illusion of correspondence but no real correspondence because over everything a gossamer veil of idealisation has been cast by the painter. There is very sharp observation but it is shot through with poetic imagination. What is true of the elements of nature and landscape is true equally of the figures that we see in the painting: the princess and her companions. The ‘Begum’, one can be sure, is no specific individual. This becomes instantly clear when one compares her face and form with that of her companions: there is the same small, softly modelled face, features smooth and delicate as alabaster, eyes doe-like but not overly large, gently arched eyebrows, perfectly formed noses.

The figures tend to be tall, the feeling heightened by the long dresses in green that everyone wears. The bodies are firm and supple, the breasts delicately modelled, and the waists invariably slim. If one can distinguish the princess from the others then, it is because she towers over everyone else astride as she is on a horse, is bedecked in rich jewellery, and has an aigrette stuck in her sumptuous turban.

In the midst of all this, however, in fact the moment one gets used to believing that all of this is rooted in generalised observation or in romantic imagination — the painter brings in a detail that takes one by surprise and propelsone remarkably close to reality.

Specificity comes in with a sense of immediacy. Notice, for instance, where the left hand of the princess is: she, one can see, is just about to remove the leather hood that covers her hawk’s eyes which will make the great bird take off instantly and head for where its prey might be: the lake with its unsuspecting fowl. Or notice again the lake where while all other birds are peacefully moving about one little bird — painted on so minute a scale that one has to struggle to see it — has its entire body submerged in water and is striving to keep its neck out as if its legs have suddenly got caught in something: thick weeds, perhaps, or some turtle-like animal under water. There is a sense of desperation, not playfulness, in its stance. A drama unfolds.

There is no specific event that the painter is recording here, no significant happening. But he provides us with an opportunity to take in every delicious detail. There is clear intent on his part: he wants us to concentrate, look hard, if we have any desire to take from the work of art all that is there in it. In other words, he wants us to become a participant-observer. That is exactly why he paints with the utmost care and delicacy little details: like the moss-growing at the rim of the occasional rock, the feathery stalks of the bulrushes at the edge of the lake, the split trunk of one of the bushes in the foreground or the veins on its leaves.

And as far as inspiration is concerned, it could come from anywhere, anywhere at all. In the present case, I am pretty certain that it came from a late Mughal painting in which the vignette of a princess out hawking with her companions forms only one part. There is a striking similarity — setting, composition, colouring, figuration — but the Mughal work is ordinary, for by the beginning of the 18th century, the style had more or less come to a dead end. But what Nainsukh seems to have done in his painting is to pick an idea, refine it, give it wings and send it soaring on its majestic, aerial course.