First artistic representations found in India are the Bhimbetka rock cave paintings done around 30,000 years ago. These paintings are akin to the common human desire for pictorial documentation of their human experience - and are the start of the world’s first museums.
34,000 years before this ancient Bhimbetka art work, non Homo sapiens, but a related human species – the Neanderthal, made the first known art - paintings in a cave in Spain 64,000 years ago. The Neanderthals displayed their sensitive and aesthetic side and if we Humans didn’t kill them they would have had their own civilization and perhaps screwed the planet a bit less.
These paintings made by our European cousins, were made in a red hand stencil. Interestingly, the human fascination with red is pretty ancient; this fascination continued well up to the start of the miniature – even the word miniature comes from Minium which is the name of naturally occurring form of lead also known as red lead.
But our main focus here is when and where, in Panjab and India, the first miniatures originated? Almost a thousand years before the Mughal rule the earliest Miniature paintings flourished under the patronage of the Palas of Bengal in the 7th century AD. (Currently large parts of that empire are in Bangladesh).
Influence of the major Indian religion of the times: Buddhism
These miniature paintings, usually on palm leaf, were of Buddhist deities and stories about the Buddha. The main centers producing this art were Buddhist monasteries at Nalanda and Kurkihar. These works were exported throughout Southeast Asia spreading the message of Buddhism. A point to be noted: we should not forget that North India was not Hindu in those times as generally believed but was primarily a strong Buddhist society; currently a turbaned Panjab was then practicing Buddhism ardently– and what about Central Asia or the currently Taliban dominated Afghanistan : there too the majority of people were Buddhist. So the needs for these miniature manuscripts were great as all Buddhist temples kept these in their religious and ritualistic settings.
Current form of miniatures and their recent past?
The actual, miniature painting which we see in the current form started in the Western Indian Himalayas in the 17th century. Initially they were done on Palm leaves and later the work was done on paper with a strong influence of Persian miniature art under the Mughal rule.
The influence of Persian miniature in Indian art:
Again the artists brush is always a brush dipped in the melting color pot of many styles and cultures. Root of all evil is Chinese – just kidding – the truth is that root of all culture is Chinese (of course, we Indians get most of the credit because of our amazing PR) – and again the
influenced the Persian artists in the 13th century when it was amalgamated into the Persian miniature style this new mix of styles hopped over to India with the Mughals and merged with our art styles and became the Indian miniature genre.
Nothing is pure in this world or original – only the blend is unique for a tad bit of time, and then comes along another blend to blend in this style and thus in this flowing river of creativity nothing is ever original but a blend.
Themes of Miniature paintings
Miniature painting depicted religious and Indian Epics, Ragas and scenes from the Royal court: inside the harem or private chambers, outside scenes in the courtyards or in open outdoors as shown in equestrian games or crowded battle scenes with multi-species involved in the struggle.
Ragas – Classical Music of various seasons.
Different ragas of classical music based upon the seasons such as Bhairava, Malava, Sri-Raga, Vasanta, Dipaka and Megha were represented pictorially Religious texts
Besides Buddhist and Jain texts; themes from Indian epics such as Ramayana, Mahabharata and Bhagvata Purana are often depicted. Later the Sakhis ( life stories) of Sikh gurus were added.
With the advent of Mughal, the Indian miniature paintings under the Persian influence focused more on portraits and richness of color Court and Palace scenes dominated the small paper done in incredible detail.
Rajput and Sikh painting followed. The central figure painted shifted from Pirs and Fakirs and Gods to the King and his court. Love and war were common themes. Not unsurprisingly, many a royal noble fell in love with horses more deeply than even with women as documented in many legends and later depicted in art. ( Please see related blog: Horses – the divine soul mates of brave warriors). So horses fill these pages as the divine being who sacrificed his or her life unflinching in battle with hardly any recognition.
Both the love for women and the aristocratic obsession with horses joined the list of themes that filled the miniature landscape. Even the Maharaja of Kishangarh painted horses brilliantly.
Shah Jahan: the great patron of miniature painting. The zenith point of the Indian Miniature painting was during the period of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. He was the greatest patron of this art and encouraged his court painters to paint all aspects of life in the Mughal times.
The ‘Panjab Sikh’ school and the Pahari miniature school
In the 19th century in Panjab, under the extremely secular Khalsa raj of the true Panjabi, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, miniature art flourished again. But we should not forget that the Panjab School goes back even though people think of Punjab painting as 19th century ‘Sikh Panjab’ painting. Great art was produced way back in the time of the 'Suba' of Lahore flourishing under the Mughals.
Pahari artists accepted the patronage of the Maharaja when he conquered Kangra in the Panjab Hills. While in the plains of Punjab in Lahore, Patiala and Amritsar paintings were produced in this pahari style which had reached a level of mastery with the likes of Nain-sukh.
After the demise of the true Maharaja, Patiala became a great center of patronage. Pahari painters migrated to Patiala, as did painters from Alwar and Jaipur. In Patiala, apart from Sikh subjects, Hindu mythology dominated as the whole approach was liberal in the usual Sikh and Panjabi liberal ways of embracing all humans, their beliefs and their art forms with open arms.
Sikh gurus dominated the landscape of the miniature and they and other subjects and the concomitant style of the miniature did arouse in Panjabi artists, in the both Panjabs, to evolve their own styles and carry on the tradition with their own ‘blends’