Kangra Paintings

Every work of art is fragrant of its time, said Laurence Binyon. The religion of Vaishnavism provided Kangra painters with inspiration while in the ruler, Sansar Chand, they found a patron who honored and encouraged them. It was in such happy circumstances that these artists created a style which combines elegance with nervous grace. There is delicacy and sensitivity in the line, combined with rare beauty of color. For almost forty years these artists were aglow with inspiration and they created these memorable paintings which communicate the spiritual concepts of Vaisnavism so vividly.

plate_02_sh gita_govinda_11 Bihari Lal Chaube (1595-1663) was born in Govindpur, near Gwalior, and spent his boyhood at Orchha where his father, Keshav Rai, lived. His father was a Brahmana and his mother a Kshatriya, and he belonged to that mixed caste now known as Ray, which produced such’wellknown poets as Padmakar, Gwal and Dev. In 1607, his father left Orchha and settled with his wife’s family in Mathura, the home of the Vrajabhasha dialect. Shah Jahan happened to visit Vrindavana, the holy city of’ Krishna. Bihari had an opportunity of displaying his poetic talent in his darbar and won his appreciation. A broad-minded son of a Rajput mother, Shah Jahan patronized Hindu poets. For some time Bihari lived with Shah Jahan at Agra, where he had an opportunity of meeting Abdur Rahim Khankhana, a well-known Hindi poet, who appreciated his poetry and encouraged ‘trim. Shah Jahan is said to have held a darbar at Agra at which his feudatories from various parts of India assembled, and among them was Mirza Jai Singh Kachhwaha, Raja of Amber, who was impressed by Bihari’s poetry and invited him to Amber.
Jai Singh I (1625-1667), who is better known as Mirza Raja, was a mansabdar of six thousand soldiers of the Emperor Aurangzeb. He was instrumental incapturingShivaji, the Maratha leader, whom he conveyed to the court of Aurangzeb. When he came to know that the pledge of safety given to Shivaji was likely to be broken, he abetted his escape. Tod says that he had twenty two thousand Rajput cavalry at his disposal and had twenty two vassal chiefs who commanded under him. “He became so confident of his power that he would sit with them in darbar holding two glasses, one of which he would call Delhi, the other Satara, and dashing one to the ground would explain, ‘There goes Satara; the fate of Delhi is in my right hand and this, with like facility, I can cast away’.”

gita_govinda_01The legend of the origin of the Sat Sai is as follows: Raja Jai Singh married a girl-wife, retired into his inner apartments with her and gave orders that anyone disturbing him with official business would be blown from a gun. This continued for about a year, and the administration of the kingdom fell into confusion. Apart from the ministers of the Raja, his senior Rani Anant Kumari, who was jealous of the young wife, could not tolerate neglect from her husband. The senior Rani, as well as the ministers, consulted Bihari Lal who suggested the following scheme, which was carried out. He wrote down the famous verse of the Sat Sai commencing with nahin paraga, which, ostensibly praising the beauty of the young queen, alludes to her age and gave a clear hint as to the state of affairs.

nahin paraga nahin madhur madhu
nahin vikasa yahi kal
ali kali hi saun bandhyau
again kaun haval.

“There is no pollen; there is no sweet honey;
nor yet has the blossom opened.
If the bee is enamoured of the bud,
who can tell what will happen
when she is a full-blown flower.”

This verse was concealed amongst the flower petals which were sent each day to the harem, to form the bed of the happy spouses. In the morning the paper remained stiff amidst the withered petals, and bruised the king’s body. He drew it out, read it, and at once returned to a sense of his responsibilities. He went outside, held a public court, and summoned the ingenious writer of the verse. Bihari Lal appeared, and the king, to show his satisfaction, promised him a gold mohur for every doha he might bring him in this way. Bihari Lal wrote two or three dohas, and received on each occasion the promised reward, till some seven hundred in all had been composed. These were collected and made into a book.

Prince Azam Shah, third son of the Emperor Aurangzeb, who was a lover of Hindi poetry, called an assembly of poets and had the verses of the Sat Sai arranged according to the classification of Nayakas and Nayikas found in the works such as the Rasikapriya of Keshav Das. This was entitled the ‘Azam Shahi’ recension which was followed by Kavi Lallu Lal in his commentary of the Sat Sai called the Lal Chandrika, and published by Grierson (1896). He calls Bihari the ‘mine of commentators’. Commenting on his poetry, he says, ‘each verse is a perfectly polished jewel.’ The verses of the Sat Sai are rich in poetic flavour, elegance, and subtlety of feeling. They have the quality of miniature painting for vividness. Brevity of expression is combined with richness of content and a power to elicit spiritual sentiment. They excel in refinement and grace.

The dramatic personae in these poems are Radha and Krishna, who are the Nayika and the Nayaka, and the sakhis, the maids of Radha. The sakhis carry messages between the lovers, they conciliate them when they quarrel, and among themselves they keep up a running commentary on the course of love.

The paintings of the Sat Sai have some features in common with the paintings of the Gita-Govinda. Masterly drawing, with extraordinary sensitive line, dramatic design, and festal radiance of colour, is seen in both the series. Dashes of red in the horizon are another common feature. The clothing and the treatment of vegetation are also more or less similar in both the series. In the facial formula and the buildings and landscape, however, there is a difference.

The Gita Govinda is a forest idyll, and in its Kangra paintings, the drama of the loves of Radha and Krishna is played in the forest, or along the river bank. In the paintings of the Bhagavata Purana, the incidents in the life of the boy Krishna are depicted against the background of the forests of Vrindavana and the river Yamuna. It is the trees of the forest, and the current of the river which are most prominent in these paintings. On the other hand, in the paintings of the Sat Sai the background of architecture provides the setting for the love drama of Radha and Krishna. It is against the background of straight lines of walls, windows and balconies that the games of love are carried on by Radha and Krishna, watched by the sakhis.

The parallel straight lines and right angles create a compositional pattern of restfulness and calm. Against the repose of architectural compositions, we feel the restlessness of love. While the architectural setting has precision, the human forms have a fiuid grace, matching the elegance of a waterfall against the straight vertical lines of a mountain. And always there is a pair of confidantes discussing the course of love of the divine couple. When there is dissension or misunderstanding among the lovers, they are unhappy and have an expression of serious concern on their faces, and they are never tired of coaxing, cajoling, or giving advice. When the course of love runs smoothly, they are unrestrainedly happy.

The knitting together of form and colour into a coordinated harmony is essential of great art. In these Kangra paintings, form and colour are so blended that the effect is musical. To achieve such a harmony, the artist made use of both line and color. The line which he used is the musical, rhythmical line, expressing both movement and mass. And what a rhythm the dancing line creates, a pure limpid harmony! This line was effectively supplemented by colours – the blues, yellows, greens, and reds – the pure colours of earth and minerals, which shine like jewels and have not been dimmed by the passage of time. The combination of fluid line and glowing colours ultimately produced an art which combines the beauty of figure with dignity of pose, set against the calm of the hills.

Another characteristic of these paintings is the manner in which dramatic relations and expectancy are expressed through design, as well as expression, on the faces of the lovers. Others are present, and, due to modesty, physical contact is not possible. Radha glances at Krishna with loving eyes through her veil, and on some pretext she moves away brushing her shadow with his shadow (Plate 4).

The lovers are standing in the balconies of their houses facing each other. Their fixed gaze has provided a rope on which their hearts travel fearlessly like rope dancers (Plate 9).

Clad in white, the lady has gone into the moonlight to meet her lover. It is white everywhere and hidden in it only the fragrance of her body enables her sakhi to follow. The white radiance of the moon and its pale silvery light has been marvellously evoked by the artist (Plate 6).

The artist has shown considerable skill in painting night scenes. The night is pitch dark and the lane is narrow. The lovers, coming from opposite directions, brush against each other, and only the light touch of their bodies enables them to recognize each other. How brilliantly the artist has painted the inky sky, resplendent with stars (Plate ‘8’).

Against the background of a paddy field and her home stands the demure village beauty. Wearing a fillet, and holding a stick, stands she of slender waist, with eyes downcast, unconscious of her innocent charm and beauty (Plate ’10’).

We know that Manaku had a son, Khushala, and if Manaku died some time before 1800, it is likely that these pictures were painted by Khushala after his father’s death. The work of the son is influenced by the father. The series on the Gita-Govinda is more complete, and more than one hundred and forty paintings exist. On the other hand, there are hardly forty paintings of the Sat Sai and about twenty drawings. The latter are in the collection of the Bharat Kala Bhavan, Varanasi, and are possibly late. It seems that the Sat Sai paintings were painted later than those of the Gita-Govinda and hence their date of composition is probably in the region of 1805.

Kangra Paintings of the Bihari Sat Sai

© National Museum, New Delhi

First Published 1966 – Second Impression 1982

Kangra Paintings of the Bihari Sat Sai is the fourth in the series of five monographs on Kangra Painting planned by Dr. M. S. Randhawa. The first is Kangra Paintings of the Bhagavata Purana, the second – Kangra Paintings on Love, the third – Kangra Paintings of the Gita Govinda, and the fifth – Kangra Ragamala Paintings.

Blocks by Poonawallas

The Commercial Art Engravers Private Limited, Bombay

Printed by Dilip Kumar Roy
Lalchand Roy & Co. (P) Ltd.
7 & 7/1 Grant Lane
Calcutta, India 700012

Authored by M.S. Randhawa

Edited for the Web by Goloka Productions


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1 Comment

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