ONE OF INDIA’S most famous miniature art forms is named after the city founded by her ancestors, Kishangarh. Raja Kishan Singh, eighth son of Raja Udai Singh of Jodhpur, and ancestor of Princess Vaishnavi Kumari of Kishangarh, established this city in Rajasthan in the early 1600s. By the late 17th century, court painting had begun, and flourished in the first part of the 18th century. “When Aurangzeb acceded the throne in 1658, he disbanded the art atelier of the Mughal courts, so a lot of artists joined the provincial courts. That’s how we got the great artist Bhavanidas to Kishangarh,” says princess Vaishnavi, at a recent exhibition titled ‘Kishangargh, a Mythical Landscape’ which presents works by artists from the art studio she founded a decade ago, Kishangarh Studio, in the region’s typical style of painting, with stylistic and modern touches.

A Storied Past

The lyrical, aesthetic style of painting that defines the Kishangarh miniature style, one of the most recognisable (among other styles such as Kangra, Bundi-Kota, Amber-Jaipur, and Bikaner) was propagated by artists such as Bhavanidas, who, fresh from the finesse and stylisation of the Mughal school of art, would paint horses, court scenes and religious deities. “It was the patronage of the maharajas of Kishangarh (and whatever drove their passion, such as animals, or their devotion to Lord Krishna) that helped develop this miniature art into something so iconic,” says Vaishnavi, who lives with her husband and children in a hunting lodge surrounded by a leafy forest, in Kishangarh. “For over a century, there were different phases (landscapes to devotional Radha-Krishna miniatures) of the art. The figures portrayed have lotus-shaped eyes, a sharp aquiline nose, and the distinct profile of a Kishangarh miniature. There are also depictions of humour and satire — so there’s a vast pantheon of themes, from royal portraits to equine subjects.”

Artwork from the Kishangarh Studio.
Artwork from the Kishangarh Studio.

Kishangarh art truly flourished in the mid-to-late 18th century, when artist Nihal Chand took it to new heights (he’s credited with creating on canvas the dreamy-eyed princess, Bani Thani). And, thanks to Nihal Chand, the Kishangarh school was suffused with details — from tiny animals, to architectural embellishments, to intricately drawn flora — each painting became narrative art, a scene within a scene. “You would have Radha-Krishna in a boat, and in the background, there would be Radha-Krishna on top of the hill — there would be different dimensions of the story,” says Vaishnavi.

A Landscape Made for Art

Growing up in the lush environs of Kishangarh (Ajmer district), Vaishnavi had access to a lot of visual stimuli. “We have our own private temple inside Kishangarh Fort,” she says of the fort that guests of her family’s heritage property, the nearby Phool Mahal Palace, can visit. “There are lots of Pushtimarg paintings there, and a Pichhwai that is still an object of devotion.”

“There are a lot of man-made lakes to harvest rainwater,” says Vaishnavi. “This created pockets of greenery, which are reflected in the Kishangarh miniatures. From the watery landscapes and grey, rain-laden monsoon skies, to orange winter sunsets, Kishangarh miniature art showcases the beauty of the region.”

Not only has she grown up in the milieu of Kishangarh miniature art, Vaishnavi is also an authority on the subject, having studied Asian Art at the British Museum, followed by a Masters in History of Art and Archaeology at the School of African and Oriental Studies in London.

Artwork from the Kishangarh Studio.
Artwork from the Kishangarh Studio.

The Artist And The Patron

Vaishnavi wanted to use her love of art history, and meld it with her love for her hometown. “Fortunately, we have artists who still work there,” she says, although today, she laments that many are leaving for jobs elsewhere, such as the flourishing marble industry in that area. “Many of them are part of guru-shishya parampara, but today, I am faced with a paucity of artists. We are getting nobody under the age of 40, as the younger generation doesn’t want to paint. They all want government jobs.”

She currently employs four-eight artists at Kishangarh Studio. “Two of them were taught by seniors, one is self-taught, and one learnt at home,” says Vaishnavi. “It’s tremendous to have painters of a certain calibre, that is why I need them now more than ever... They get a monthly wage. And all the paintings you see are conceptualised by me.”

God Is In The Details

“I play with perspectives and architecture,” says Vaishnavi. “With elements inspired by the fort. You have a jharokha (balcony), jaali (mesh), the intricately carved todis (pillars) that support the balcony — any design — we take that and create a space. And it helps that our studio is based inside the fort,” says Vaishnavi. She takes an example from her previous exhibition at Bikaner House, where she showcased one traditional Pichhwai of the deity of Shrinathji, and the rest were all inspired pieces.

And how does she modernise her art? “For example, I will put a Shrinathji in gold and silver leaf against a backdrop of a green mango forest and create a juxtaposition,” she says. She also plays with designs such as the Tree of Life — a traditional theme that she modernises with a Kalamkari or Chintz background.

Artists at work in Kishangarh Studio.
Artists at work in Kishangarh Studio.

The clouds in her paintings are stylish and rounded. There are birds such as the Demoiselle crane, which features often in the Kishangarh school, based on the idea that it is searching for its partner. Then there’s an entire set of paintings that feature a Raza-like dot in the centre, the Cosmos Series. “I saw this beautiful Kangra painting called the Hiranyagaraba — a cosmic oval egg that was stark with a stripey background,” says Vaishnavi. “I took it and showed it to my two main master artists who were unimpressed. I told them to keep it simple. The idea stems from the Upanishads, and from the 1720s when the Kishangarh school took off, the oval form became a circle. It’s the point of creation — which is bursting; the goal was to make it pretty.” So she made one in silver foil, with a dense, layered background with Ashok, mango, banana, rubber trees (“Just as you find in Kishangarh.”)

Each artist she employs is a master of his specific design. “One person does the background (like the monsoon clouds, or the foliage), while another paints the figures, like the gopis or the deity,” says Vaishnavi. “Another paints the animals (such as the peacock or the crane).” The art becomes a combined effort.

An Expressive Future

The Kishangarh Studio makes art that primarily appeals to Vaishnavi herself. “That is why I am in this space,” she says, “I have done this out of passion. Selling is important, but I need to enjoy and be inspired to do this.” Of course, the art needs to be commercially viable. With prices that go up to ₹3 lakh, her art finds a place in people’s homes, and has a broad appeal. “There’s always space for a Pichhwai in a modern home, as it has that touch of modernity,” says Vaishnavi. “I also work with architects for a specific commissioned piece for a space.”

And now she wants to open a Centre of the Arts in Kishangarh to train youngsters. “That’s the only way forward,” she says. “We must look at our future,” she signs off.

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