Different Strokes – A story of paintings

Mural from Lepakshi

My article titled Different Strokes’ was first published in Deccan Herald, Spectrum supplement in July 2012. A shorter edited version is reproduced here.

Heritage is not just about stone sculptures or palaces. Poornima Dasharathi traces the history of paintings in the State, and discovers that they are full of rich and diverse themes.

When we look at a Jaipur painting or a Mysore painting on the cover of a calendar or between the sheets of a diary, we just give it a glance as our eyes focus on  the dates. The painting is pretty no doubt, but beyond that, it doesn’t register.

However if we were to know that the painting was the skillful work of an artist a thousand years ago with limited materials such as a rock face as canvas or probably the only record that tells us how a king looked like, then we would better appreciate its significance and value.

Art has flourished in South India much before the Christian era. As timelines changed, the canvas changed from the flat surface of caves (mural) to cloth and manuscripts (miniatures) and finally paper.

Murals of Badami

The earliest example in the State are the murals in Badami caves. In the book, ‘South Indian Paintings’, the author Sivaramamurti attributes the beautiful murals in the caves to the time of the western Chalukyas, who ruled from sixth – eighth century AD. 

In the same style as that of Ajanta, the art was probably made during the reign of Mangalesa, the uncle of Pulakesi II and the brother of Kirtivarman.

The ruler was a great patron of art and created some magnificent cave temples in his capital. One of the paintings that have been described by all scholars is a court scene where there is a central seated figure witnessing music and dance. 

Scholars think that the central figure is Mangalesa’s elder brother, Kirtivarman, for whom he had high regard. Though mostly obliterated today, the graceful figures and their beautiful jewellery remind one of the Ajanta murals.

The local colours used were red, yellow, green, brown and black. The usage of blue came in the later years as it was imported from Persia, the author explains.

From the 8th century until the 15th century, there are no samples of paintings in the State. This is not to say that painting as an art was not promoted but examples of paintings have not been found, apart from just one discovery of palm leaf manuscripts from Moodbidri, based on the teachings of Mahaveera (Jain saint). The manuscripts use bright colours chiefly red, yellow and green and are exquisitely detailed.

From the 15th century onwards, there are many records of paintings in south India. The Vijayanagara rulers revived Hindu art in their vast empire. Wall paintings decorated not only caves outside the capital but on every building in the cities.

This fact is chronicled by Domingo Pais who visited Hampi during the reign of its most famous ruler, Krishnadevaraya. While he gives a glowing account of the city, what strikes one’s mind is an account of paintings on a portion of the palace which depicts the cultures of all communities including the Portuguese and other foreigners to Vijayanagara; the paintings are intended as a window to the Queens to know about the cultures of people across the world.

Though the palace doesn’t stand today, Vijayanagara paintings can be found all over south India in fragments, Anegundi, Hampi, Lepakshi, Kalahasti, Tirupati (in Andhra Pradesh now), Chidambaram (in Tamil Nadu), to name a few.

In Hampi’s Virupaksha temple, the ceiling of the mantapa has a series of paintings. One of the scenes shows the ascetic, Vidyaranya, the guru of Harihara and Bukka (founders of the empire), being carried on a palanquin and followed by a retinue.

The Virabhadra temple at Lepakshi is home to some of the best preserved paintings of the Vijayanagara period. Apart from the exquisite temple architecture, the temple’s ceiling describes many stories of Shiva – Bhukailasa, Kirataarjuniya and the marriage of Shiva and Parvati – to name a few.

The paintings are highly decorative; the highlight of the paintings is the exquisite textile designs and patterns of the clothes that people wore in that period.

Deccani paintings

The ‘Deccan’ sultanates constituted the area that comprised north Karnataka, Maharashtra and northern Andhra. Of the five kingdoms, art flourished mostly in the kingdoms of Ahmednagar, Bijapur and Golkonda.

The Deccani (Dakhani) paintings were largely influenced by Persian and Turk art. Artists came from Tabriz( in Iran) to the Deccan in 15th century setting the tone for the Deccani art narrates Mark Zebrowski in the book, ‘Deccani Painting’. However despite the foreign influence, there is an underlying Indian humanism, he explains.

Persian and Indian fusion is also emphasised by A L Narasimham, noted art historian, in the book, ‘Nijada Kale’. He describes the miniatures found in an astrological manuscript, Nuzm ul Ulm, commissioned by Adil Shah I in 1570.

The miniatures usually have a single character with blossoms and creepers that enhance the shape; the patterns usually seen in Persian designs. The Persian way of showing the faces at an angle is later changed to showing just the profile, he further adds. 

The Bijapur court which encouraged music also produced the earliest of Ragamala series of paintings. It is said that depicting musical modes through paintings originated in Bijapur.

The Deccani style reached its zenith during the rule of Ibrahim Adil Shah II in Bijapur, says Aruni, ICHR. Ibrahim II was a great patron of art and passionately fond of painting, music and poetry.

Zebrowski compares him to another great contemporary, Akbar. Like Akbar, he was fascinated by Hinduism; in fact most of his portraits show him wearing Rudraksha beads.

Ibrahim gave his daughter in marriage to Akbar’s son, Daniyal; amongst other goods, many manuscripts and paintings went as a part of the bride’s retinue to the Mughal court. Some of the Bijapuri artists like Farrukh Husain also went on to work in the Mughals’ court. 

European influence

The Vijayanagara and the Bahamani kingdoms extended patronage to many European artists. Some of the earliest artists were Jesuits who drew scenes from the Bible, explains Narasimhan. He narrates the charming story of a padri named Bartholomew who presents a few biblical art works to Vijayanagar ruler, Venkata II, who ruled from Penukonda in 1600s. 

Amazed by the skill, the king orders the artist to create the same work in front of him. As the artist recreates the paintings, the king buys the entire collection and has it displayed in the court much against the wishes of courtiers.

Another such story from the same article is that of an artist named Cornellius Heda who journeys all the way from Prague to India. Imprisoned by the Portuguese in Goa, he escapes and arrives at the court of Ibrahim in Bijapur known for his sympathy towards artists. He becomes the court painter and art advisor to the King. 

Post 17th century, there was a huge influx of European artists. As landscape artists were given patronage in India rather than Britain, many such artists visited India and created huge collections of landscapes, culture, everyday life, flora and fauna. They returned to their countries and sold these paintings of exotic East.

After Tipu’s demise, there was a flurry of British artists to Mysore. The Daniel brothers who visited India and China created a portfolio of around 60,000 sketches!  Many detailed paintings of forts, landscapes and hills were also commissioned by the British for military purposes.

Mysore paintings

Mysore traditional paintings stick to devotional themes. There is an absence of realism and they are richly ornamental with the use of gold. 

Though this style was patronised by the Wodeyars, much of the Mysore school of art that has been found and described is only from late 18th century onwards, during the time of Krishnaraja Wodeyar III (Mummadi).

Some of the artists of this period are Javagal Narasimhayya, Naguvanahalli Naranappa, Patala Nanjudappa and Tippaji to name a few. Many works of the painters decorate the palaces in Mysore even today.


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