Indian Painting

Early Painting Traditions
From the 9th century, important schools of manuscript illumination flourished in the Buddhist monasteries of eastern India and in the Jain temples of western India. The subjects were religious and scriptural. Paintings were inscribed on palm leaves until the introduction of paper in the 14th century.

The oldest known Hindu texts date from the second half of the 15th century and relate to the Jain manuscript tradition. Hindu myths and epics were the subjects of these early works, produced in northern India. By the early 16th century, a new style had arisen that illustrated secular as well as religious themes.

In the courts of the pre-Mughal Muslim Sultanates, both the styles and the themes of painting combined the Islamic tradition of Persian painting and an indigenous sensibility.

Mughal Painting
When Humayun (reigned from 1530–40 and 1555–56) took refuge in Tabriz at the Safavid court of Shah Tahmasp II, he was exposed to the Persian painting and manuscript tradition. Humayun returned to India with two noted painters.

It was his son, Akbar, who consolidated imperial authority, established a new capital, and became a great patron of the arts. In Akbar’s atelier, approximately one hundred artists recruited from the pre-Mughal centers of painting were trained under the Persian masters. Eventually a new painting style, called Mughal, emerged from this synthesis. Akbar was determined to document his reign in the manuscripts and paintings produced in the imperial atelier. The result was new painting conventions to record a new reality—Mughal rule. European prints and paintings that came to the court gave artists the opportunity to study Western artistic devices and incorporate what they deemed appropriate. The introduction of portraiture was, perhaps, the most significant contribution to Indian art made during Akbar’s reign.

Akbar’s son and grandson continued to patronize court painting, but his great grandson Aurangzeb was determined to enforce Muslim orthodoxy. Artists left the royal painting atelier to find new patronage in the Rajput courts of the Rajasthan and the Punjab Hills.

Rajput Painting
Although pre-Mughal artistic traditions continued, painting was affected in both style and content by artistic developments at the Mughal court. Rajput rulers fought in the Mughal military campaigns and spent time at the Mughal court, where they absorbed the ethos of the court, adopted its way of dressing, and became patrons of the arts. Each Rajput kingdom evolved its distinctive style. The decline of Mughal power in the 18th century and the dispersal of the artists from Aurangzeb’s imperial atelier ushered in a period of florescence for the court painting in Rajastan and the Punjab hills.

How Paintings Were Viewed
Many Mughal pictures were parts of manuscripts and albums that were bound. Most of the Rajput paintings were not bound, but were collected and stored like books, until they were brought out to be examined, as you would a book.

The painting technique used was essentially simple—the application of opaque watercolor on paper. The artist began by laying out the composition with charcoal or thin black ink applied with either a brush or a pen. The paper may have been burnished beforehand. A thin ground—a layer of opaque watercolor—was brushed over the underdrawing. This layer—which might be white or tinted yellow or blue—covered the paper, but was translucent enough so that the underdrawing was still visible. Different colored grounds could be used to define major areas of the composition. Another underdrawing, generally red or black and done by brush in thin watercolor, was drawn on the ground.

At this point, the painting was usually burnished by being placed face down on a smooth slab of stone. The back of the paper was rubbed with a smooth stone, inset into a wooden holder. Burnishing was repeated frequently during the painting process. The practice of burnishing gave a smooth surface to the painting. Near the end of the process, the painted side might be rubbed using a smaller burnisher to produce local glossy areas.

Further layers of paint were added to the ground with artists working from larger to smaller areas of color and from more diffuse to more detail. The final areas were often the more important compositional elements, like human figures, or the lions and tigers of the hunting scenes. Towards the end of the process, final outlining, usually in black, of the design elements was done.

The paper used was of two types: One, a thin, smooth, whitish paper was prepared from fine off-white paper pulp; The other, a rougher, buff paper, was made from fibrous, brownish, nonuniform paper pulp. The practice of burnishing resulted in a smooth surface to the finished work. Cloth was used for larger-sized works.

Recent research into the types of pigments has uncovered the following information. Several types of whites were used, all metallic and including lead white (found in the majority of paintings), tin white, and zinc white. Lampblack was the only black identified. Brilliant yellow, called Indian yellow (a calcium or magnesium salt of euzanthic acid), was an organic extract from cow urine. Vegetable dyestuff indigo was the most common blue. Natural ultramarine (the mineral lazarite) was also used. Vermilion (mercuric sulphide) and red lead were the most common reds. Many greens were used. The most common was verdigris, copper chloride produced by the reaction of copper metal with salt water. Metallic pigments were also used, including gold in painted powder form and a tin metal that was silver in color. Binders, the solution into which pigments are mixed so that they might be spread, were gums—gum arabic and gum tragacanth.

Work Method
Artists sat on the floor working on boards or low tables.

Preservation of the Works
Paintings were kept in the palace in a dry picture storeroom, piled on stone shelves. They were usually wrapped in cotton bandanas to protect them from insects, damp, and light. Bundles were arranged by topic and size.

Paintings were available to the ruler and his court and, as they recorded geography, history, animals, as well as many other subjects, served as an invaluable educational resource.

The Artist
Although we know the names of artists who worked at the Mughal courts, many of the artists who produced Rajput paintings remain anonymous. Inscriptions and more recently, studies, have identified some of these artists. Stylistic evidence tells us that painting techniques and materials, as well as artists traveled throughout the region. The political alliances and military campaigns of the region assured cross-fertilization between Mughal and Rajput art.

Apprenticeship to a master artist began at a young age. Court workshops housed the artists. Artists’ wages were about equal to those of soldiers and they might receive a bonus for an outstanding work. Artists traveled with the rulers to war, hunts, and local festivals.

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