Miniature PaintingsThe Art of Anonymity
The artist is traditionally viewed as a mediator between heaven and earth. Young painters were taught to see their growing talent as rooted in their connection to higher powers. They therefore expected little gratitude for the fruits of their labour. Ganga Ram leaves all of his work unsigned.
I met Ganga Ram in the hotel lobby in Jaipur on a blistering March morning. He pointed to the series of figures, animals and patterns that adorned the pastel corridors, quietly acknowledging the work of his hand. In the short time that I had been in Rajasthan, I had become fascinated with the miniature paintings displayed throughout the interiors of hotels, Rohet Garh and Mihir Garh. Upon discovering that the producer of these exquisite works lived locally, I sought to meet him.
With origins in the ninth and 10th centuries, Rajput miniature painting reached its apogee under the Mughal Empire (1526-1757 CE). Under the patronage of the imperial court, Rajasthani artists produced a vast collection of illustrated manuscripts, album miniatures, portraits, celebratory or genre scenes, and religious paintings. Over time, the art form became characterised by its confluence of influences taken from Hindu icons, Islamic symbols, and the Persian miniature tradition. This amalgamation exemplified a process of cultural syncretism particular to Rajasthan, found not only in painting but also in architecture, music and literature.
The soft spoken Ganga Ram told me that up until India’s independence from Britain in 1947, painting had remained a sacred activity, practised by highly skilled and experienced craftsman, and sponsored by the princely houses. In the 21st century, while discipline remains strict, with painters learning the craft from a young age, a steady decline in commissions from wealthy benefactors has threatened its position as a viable livelihood. The most striking aspect of our conversation was Ganga Ram’s humility. The artist is traditionally viewed as a mediator between heaven and earth. Young painters were taught to see their growing talent as rooted in their connection to higher powers. They therefore expected little gratitude for the fruits of their labour. Ganga Ram leaves all of his work unsigned.
CEREAL: How did you learn your trade?
GANGA RAM: I learnt how to draw first; sketching and colouring were the first techniques I picked up. Threading and decoration were others. My family were also painting miniatures, so I got inspiration from what they were doing. The first drawings I made were of birds, animals, and flowers.
CEREAL: Where do you look for inspiration?
GR: Inspiration is everywhere. Sometimes I find something in a magazine or a book, but mostly it lies in the nature. Whenever I travel to a new place, I like to see how the trees, birds, and flowers are different from where I live.
CEREAL: What are the common themes of Rajasthani miniature paintings?
GR: Miniature paintings usually include many local birds and animals – such as peacocks, camels, elephants, and horses – and for decoration we use floral motifs. Some show Hindu gods, most common being Ganesha, while others portray love scenes between Maharajas and Maharanis.
CEREAL: Is there a piece of work you are most proud of?
GR: I really like making illustrations of God, but my favourite is a peacock I painted in Mihir Garh.
CEREAL: Do you worry that miniature painting is a dying art?
GR: There are only a few artists left, so while the value of this particular art form is increasing, the demand for artists like myself is falling. Magazines like yours can bring miniature painting to the forefront again and help revive the culture of hand drawn wall paintings from Rajasthan.