Nainsukh’s Pahari Paintings Are A World-Class Art Treasure!

Dr. Eberhard Fischer, Senior Director of the Museum Rietberg, Zurich (1972-2006) has researched and collected the unique works of Pahari miniature painting master-artist Nainsukh for 30 years. Around a hundred paintings survive of which, the CSMVS (Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Mumbai) has 17. Others can be seen in the Kolkata Museum, London (Victoria & Albert Museum) and Zurich (Rietberg). Dr. Fischer has also produced a film on Nainsukh’s life …

By Vimla Patil


Musicians by Nainsukh

Perhaps the 17th and 18th centuries were a period when miniature painting as an art reached its acme in many regions of India. The landscapes of these regions, so beautiful and opulent, that they inspired miniature paintings of various schools and became a mirror to nature and its changing seasons. Also, they reflected vignettes of royal life in the courts of maharajas and nawabs and included portraits of beautiful women or an artistic tribute to the iconic lovers Radha and Krishna. Various schools of miniature painting developed in India from the Mughal period onwards and master artists worked at the courts of Rajput and Muslim kings and nawabs to produce a fabulous plethora of paintings which is considered a world class art treasure today.

Miniature paintings are beautiful, hand-drawn artworks, small and carefully created with an eye on perfect detailing. These exquisite paintings are intricate in structure and use extremely delicate lines or brushwork, making them outstanding works of art specific to India. Another feature of miniature paintings is that they use hand-made colours created from minerals, vegetables precious stones, indigo, conch shells and pure gold or silver.

Musicians playing for a King

Popular subjects of most miniature painting schools of India are: Ragas or musical patterns of Indian classical music, events at the courts of the nawabs, maharajas and emperors of various regions, portraits of rulers and their queens, beautiful women at the court and idyllic pastoral scenes with animals and birds through the various seasons. A major subject was also the legends of Krishna and Radha, their romance and the Ras Leela. The paintings produced by generations of artists over the centuries were so beautiful that they acquired international recognition among leading international art experts. Some of the leading schools of miniature painting are: Mughal, Rajput, Basholi, Bundi, Kangra, Ragmaala, Deccan, Malwa, Orissa, Jain, Buddhist, Jodhpur, Jaunpur, Kishangarh, Mewar, Jaipur and Kashmir among others. Each school produced masters of the art and their paintings have become the art heritage of the world. Among the leading miniature painters of various schools are Basawan, Keshavdas, Mansur and Abu’l Hasan from the Mughal era and Pahari masters such as Seu, Kirpal, Manaku and Nainsukh. A horde of books on miniature paintings have been written by art scholars all over the world. Among the great books written on the subject is Indian painting: The Scenes, Themes, And Legends by Mohinder Singh Randhawa and John Kenneth Galbraith, world famous economist, Harvard professor, art connoisseur and US ambassador to India in the John F. Kennedy regime in the early 60s.

Royal Entourage, VA Museum, London

Of the artists, Nainsukh, an 18th century Pahari School painter from Guler, Himachal Pradesh, has been in the limelight in recent years. Nainsukh came from a family of painters (his father Seu and brother Manaku) and worked in Jasrota near Jammu, for Raja Zorawar Singh and his son Raja Balwant Singh. Dr. Eberhardt Fischer worked with his Indian counterpart Dr. B N Goswamy to document his life and work and recently made a presentation comprising a lecture, an exhibition and a film on the life and work of Nainsukh at the CSMVS (Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya) formerly Prince of Wales Museum of Western India, Mumbai.

A Rare Self Portrait by Nainsukh

The story of Nainsukh, a master of the Kangra School of painting, begins with his birth circa 1710 in a family of Pahari painters. His father Pandit Seu and elder brother Manaku were already well-known Pahari painters. Nainsukh found his artistic oeuvre by creating his unique style of painting with exquisite lines and fine shading and left a personal impact on the history of Indian miniature art. His fame rose so high after the research conducted by Eberhardt Fischer and B N Goswamy (distinguished art historian and Professor Emeritus of Art History at the Punjab University, Chandigarh) that one of his paintings was auctioned for $2 million last year! “Nainsukh had an extraordinary talent,” says Dr. Goswamy, “He absorbed many influences to create his own style. His observation was so keen that he picked up the minutest details with a rare humane approach. His patron, Raja Balwant Singh, was a man of meagre means, but a passionate connoisseur of the arts and Nainsukh created a magical, fantasy world for him. Witty and human, Nainsukh captured personal cameos with panache — a duck hunt, the prince holding his own umbrella, tigers in the wild and many more such glimpses of nature and court life. When Nainsukh was left at Raja Baldev’ s court by the artist’s father and brother, the Raja hardly knew that he had a ‘one in a million’ master artist at his court! His works have remained unparalleled over hundreds of years.

A Tiger and The Composite Animal

Among all Nainsukh’s works, one stands out for its uniqueness. It features a tiger and a strange composite animal that has been described in detail by Dr. Goswamy. “This painting of Nainsukh mystified me when I saw it in a catalogue,” he says, “It is clearly a Pahari work belonging to the last quarter of the 18th century. It is a lush green landscape with a gently undulating ground, trees that grow robustly with creepers wrapping themselves around their trunks. Verdant bushes look ready to flower. The atmosphere evoked by the painter is such that the work reminds one of great series like the Gita Govinda or the Bhagwat Purana which the painters of Guler produced so brilliantly. But there the resemblance ends abruptly. In this landscape there are no heroes or lovers. Here are two beasts, one a tiger and the other a composite animal – a lion’s paws, the lithe athletic body of a feline, the face of a monkey and the ears of a jackal – that sits majestically at a distance. No direct relationship is established between the two beasts. But somehow, the tension seems to hang in the air. What exactly is the relationship between the two is not clear. Nothing like this has been seen before in the entire range of Indian painting. What strikes one is the cowardly bearing of the tiger who seems to be slinking out of the frame, turning back to look over his shoulder at the strange animal with fear in his eyes. Do the beasts know each other? No one knows.” An interesting opinion has been offered by researchers who draw a parallel between the scene in this painting and a Jataka story – from the famous tales of the former births of the Buddha. But this is a conjecture and has no clarity.” The Tiger and the Composite Animal – A Pahari painting from the family workshop of Seu-Nainsukh circa 1780 is presently in a private collection in London.


Did you know?

Why are clusters of mango leaves considered auspicious in India?

The mango tree – Amra Vriksha in Sanskrit – is amara (amra) or immortal. It never dies because its wood retains enough moisture to regenerate new leaves and shoots for the tree to live again. Therefore, mango wood is never used for making furniture or building homes. Old logs often sprout new leaves to become new trees. Thus, hanging mango leaf clusters at the entrance of a home or using them in celebration rituals is a popular custom in India. A copper or silver pot with a cluster of mango leaves and a coconut on top (the Kumbh) is used in all auspicious celebrations. Such a pot is a symbol of immortality or a pot of nectar. Mango leaf clusters are extensively used in all worship rituals for Krishna and other Indian deities.

Mango Tree in Blossom

Mango trees flower at the beginning of springtime or Vasant, the season which is always associated with Krishna and the mood of romance – as well as the rebirth of nature. Mango trees and blossoms often feature in many miniature paintings to symbolize the season of love and Krishna’s romantic personality.


Paisleys on a Kashmiri shawl

Its fruit, the mango, has been presented variously as the paisley in Indo-Islamic art – on textiles, paintings and sculptural decorations, manuscript designs, floor patterns and very commonly on Kashmiri shawls and Kinkhwab (gold-encrusted) silks from Varanasi, India. During the British rule in India, this artistic motif became so popular in the Western design world that a city in Scotland where shawls with paisley motifs were woven was named Paisley!



Turban jewel in paisley shape

It features abundantly in Indian jewellery. The grand treasures of the Maharajas and Nawabs of India contained jewellery worth millions of dollars – of which many designs featured the paisley. This turban ornament is an example.



Ripe Alphonso mangoes

On a practical note, mango trees bear plentiful fruit during the summer. Innumerable varieties of mangoes grow in India in the warm summer but the Alphonso variety, which grows along India’s west coast of Maharashtra, is considered the king of fruit and a royal gourmet treat!



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    4. ABCD4645 says:

      Hi, I love to paint pahari miniature. However I have no formal training in the technique, colour, materials used etc. Where could I seek guidance regarding these ?

      • Vimla Patil says:

        ABCD4645, Pls contact Miniature Dept, Chatrapati Shivaji Vastu Sangrahalaya (Prince of Wales Museum), Fort, Mumbai. Best of luck. Vimla Patil

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