Pahari denotes ‘hilly or mountainous’ in origin. Pahari Schools of Painting includes towns, such as Basohli, Guler, Kangra, Kullu, Chamba, Mankot, Nurpur, Mandi, Bilaspur, Jammu and others in the hills of western Himalayas, which emerged as centres of painting from seventeenth to nineteenth century.
Beginning at Basohli with a coarsely flamboyant style, it blossomed into the most exquisite and sophisticated style of Indian painting known as the Kangra School, through the Guler or pre-Kangra phase. Unlike the distinguishing stylistic features of Mughal, Deccani and Rajasthani Schools, Pahari paintings demonstrate challenges in their territorial classification.
Though all the above centres crafted precisely individualistic characteristics in painting (through the depiction of nature, architecture, figural types, facial features, costumes, preference for particular colours and such other things), they do not develop as independent schools with distinctive styles. Paucity of dated material, colophons and inscriptions also prevent informed categorisation.
The emergence of the Pahari School remains unclear, though scholars have cautiously proposed theories concerning its beginning and influences. It is widely accepted that Mughal and Rajasthani styles of paintings were known in the hills probably through examples of Provincial Mughal style and family relationships of hill Rajas with the royal courts of Rajasthan. However, the flamboyantly bold Basohli-like style is, generally, understood to be the earliest prevailing pictorial language.
B. N. Goswamy, one of the most significant scholars of the Pahari Schools of Painting, has attributed the shaping of Pahari style from the simplicity of Basohli to poetic lyricism and refinement of Kangra to the ingenuity of a family of artists through his scholarly approach of family as the basis of style.
His central argument is that the family of Pandit Seu (Shiv) was chiefly responsible for the course of Pahari paintings. He argues that identifying Pahari paintings on the basis of regions could be misleading as political boundaries were always fluid.
This argument is also true for Rajasthani schools as attribution merely by regions creates vagueness and several disparities remain unexplained. Hence, if a family of artists is considered as the style bearer, justification of multiple strands of a style can be accommodated within the same region and school.
Scholars agree that in the early eighteenth century, the style of the Seu family and others conformed to the Basohli idiom. However, from middle of the eighteenth century, the style transformed through a pre-Kangra phase, maturing into the Kangra style.
This abrupt transformation in style and beginning of experimentation, which gave rise to varied stylistic idioms related to different Pahari centres, is largely ascribed to responses by various artist families and paintings (especially, the Mughal style) that were introduced in the Pahari kingdoms.
This sudden arrival of paintings, which might have been introduced through rulers, artists, traders or any such agency or event, impacted local artists and profoundly influenced their painting language.
Most scholars, now, dispute the earlier hypothesis that the sudden change was caused and initiated by the migration of artists from the Mughal atelier. For Goswamy, it was the naturalism in these paintings that appealed to the sensibilities of Pahari artists. Compositions, worked out from a relative point of view, show some paintings with decorated margins. Themes that included recording the daily routine or important occasions from the lives of kings, creation of new prototype for female form and an idealised face, are all associated with this newly emerging style that gradually matures to the Kangra phase.
Major Pahari schools of painting
The first and most dramatic example of work from the hill states is from Basohli. From 1678 to 1695, Kirpal Pal, an enlightened prince, ruled the state. Under him, Basohli developed a distinctive and magnificent style.
It is characterised by a strong use of primary colours and warm yellows—filling the background and horizon, stylised treatment of vegetation and raised white paint for imitating the representation of pearls in ornaments.
However, the most significant characteristic of Basohli painting is the use of small, shiny green particles of beetle wings to delineate jewellery and simulate the effect of emeralds. In their vibrant palette and elegance, they share the aesthetics of the Chaurpanchashika group of paintings of Western India.
The most popular theme of Basohli painters was the Rasamanjari of Bhanu Datta. In 1694–95, Devida, a tarkhan (carpenter–painter), did a magnificent series for his patron Kirpal Pal.Bhagvata Purana and Ragamala were other popular themes.
Artists also painted portraits of local kings with their consorts, courtiers, astrologers, mendicants, courtesans and others. While artist ateliers from Basohli, gradually, spread to other hill states, such as Chamba and Kullu, giving rise to local variations of the Basohli kalam. A new style of painting came in vogue during 1690s to 1730s, which was referred to as the Guler–Kangra phase.
Artists during this period indulged in experimentation and improvisations that finally resulted and moulded into the Kangra style. Hence, originating in Basohli, the style gradually spread to other hill states of Mankot, Nurpur, Kullu, Mandi, Bilaspur, Chamba, Guler and Kangra.
The Sanskrit epic, Ramayana, was one of the favourite texts of the hill artists at Basohli, as well as, Kullu. This set derives its name from ‘Shangri’, the place of residence of a branch of the Kullu royal family, patrons and formerly possessors of this set. These works of Kullu artists were influenced in varying degrees by the styles of Basohli and Bilaspur.
Rama learns of his exile and prepares to leave Ayodhya along with his wife Sita and brother Lakshmana. Maintaining equanimity of mind, Rama indulges in his last acts of giving away his possessions. At the request of Rama, his brother piles up his belongings and the crowd begins to gather to receive the largesse of their beloved Rama—jewellery, sacrificial vessels, thousand cows and other treasures.
The first quarter of the eighteenth century saw a complete transformation in the Basohli style, initiating the Guler–Kangra phase. This phase first appeared in Guler, a high-ranking branch of the Kangra royal family, under the patronage of Raja Govardhan Chand (1744–1773).
Guler artist Pandit Seu with his sons Manak and Nainsukh are attributed with changing the course of painting around 1730–40 to a new style, usually, referred to as the pre–Kangra or Guler–Kangra kalam. This style is more refined, subdued and elegant compared to the bold vitality of the Basohli style.
Though initiated by Manak, also called Manaku, his brother Nainsukh, who became the court painter of Raja Balwant Singh of Jasrota, is responsible for shaping the Guler School emphatically. The most matured version of this style entered Kangra during the 1780s, thus, developing into the Kangra School while the offshoots of Basohli continued in Chamba and Kullu, India.
Sons and grandsons of Manak and Nainsukh worked at many other centres and are responsible for the finest examples of Pahari paintings. Guler appears to have a long tradition of paintings amongst all Pahari schools. There is evidence that artists were working in Haripur–Guler ever since the reign of Dalip Singh (1695–1743) as many of his and his son Bishan Singh’s portraits, dating back to earlier than 1730s, i.e., before the beginning of the Guler–Kangra phase can be found. Bishan Singh died during the lifetime of his father Dalip Singh. So, his younger brother Govardhan Chand ascended to the throne that witnessed a change in painting style. Manak’s most outstanding work is a set of Gita Govinda painted in 1730 at Guler, retaining some of the elements of the Basohli style, most strikingly the lavish use of beetle’s wing casings.
Nainsukh appears to have left his hometown in Guler and moved to Jasrota. He is believed to have initially worked for Mian Zoravar Singh, whose son and successor Balwant Singh of Jasrota was to become his greatest patron. Nainsukh’s celebrated pictures of Balwant Singh are unique in the kind of visual record they offer of the patron’s life. Balwant Singh is portrayed engaged in various activities — performing puja, surveying a building site, sitting in a camp wrapped in a quilt because of the cold weather, and so on. The artist gratified his patron’s obsession by painting him on every possible occasion. Nainsukh’s genius was for individual portraiture that became a salient feature of the later Pahari style.
His palette comprised delicate pastel shades with daring expanses of white or grey. Manaku, too, did numerous portraits of his enthusiastic patron Raja Govardhan Chand and his family. Prakash Chand, successor of Govardhan Chand, shared his father’s passion for art and had sons of Manaku and Nainsukh, Khushala, Fattu and Gaudhu as artists in his court.
Painting in the Kangra region blossomed under the patronage of a remarkable ruler, Raja Sansar Chand (1775–1823). It is believed that when Prakash Chand of Guler came under grave financial crisis and could no longer maintain his atelier, his master artist, Manaku, and his sons took service under Sansar Chand of Kangra.
Sansar Chand ascended to the throne at the tender age of 10 years after the kingdom had been restored to its earlier glory by his grandfather Ghamand Chand. They belonged to the Katoch dynasty of rulers, who had been ruling the Kangra region for a long time until Jahangir conquered their territory in the seventeenth century and made them his vassals.
After the decline of the Mughal power, Raja Ghamand Chand recovered most of the territory and founded his capital town of Tira Sujanpur on the banks of river Beas and constructed fine monuments. He also maintained an atelier of artists.
Raja Sansar Chand established supremacy of Kangra over all surrounding hill states. Tira Sujanpur emerged as the most prolific centre of painting under his patronage. An earlier phase of Kangra kalam paintings is witnessed in Alampur and the most matured paintings were painted at Nadaun, where Sansar Chand shifted later in his life.
All these centres were on the banks of river Beas. Alampur along with river Beas can be recognised in some paintings. Less number of paintings was done in Kangra as it remained under the Mughals till 1786, and later, the Sikhs.
Sansar Chand’s son Aniruddha Chand (1823–1831), too, was a generous patron and is often seen painted with his courtiers. The Kangra style is by far the most poetic and lyrical of Indian styles marked with serene beauty and delicacy of execution.
Characteristic features of the Kangra style are delicacy of line, brilliance of colour and minuteness of decorative details. Distinctive is the delineation of the female face, with straight nose in line with the forehead, which came in vogue around the 1790s is the most distinctive feature of this style. Most popular themes that were painted were the Bhagvata Purana, Gita Govinda, Nala Damayanti, Bihari Satsai, Ragamala and Baramasa.
Fattu, Purkhu and Khushala are important painters of the Kangra style. During Sansar Chand’s reign, the production of Kangra School was far greater than any other hill state. He exercised wide political power and was able to support a large studio with artists from Guler and other areas.
The Kangra style soon spread from Tira Sujanpur to Garhwal in the east and Kashmir in the west. Painting activity was severely affected around 1805 when the Gurkhas besieged the Kangra fort and Sansar Chand had to flee to his hill palace at Tira Sujanpur. In 1809, with the help of Ranjit Singh, the Gurkhas were driven away. Though Sansar Chand continued to maintain his atelier of artists, the work no longer paralleled masterpieces of the period 1785–1805.
This series of Bhagvata Purana paintings is one of the greatest achievements of Kangra artists. It is remarkable for its effortless naturalism, deft and vivid rendering of figures in unusual poses that crisply portray dramatic scenes. The principal master is believed to have been a descendent of Nainsukh, commanding much of his skill.
This painting is a depiction from Rasa Panchdhyayi, a group of five chapters from the Bhagvata Purana devoted to the philosophical concept of Rasa. It has passages that speak movingly of the love that gopis have for Krishna. Their pain is real when Krishna suddenly disappears. In their forlorn state of separation, they appear utterly devastated with the fruitlessness of search when the deer, trees or creepers, whom they address in their distracted state, do not have answers to their piteous questions regarding the whereabouts of Krishna. With minds engrossed in thoughts of Krishna, the gopis recall and enact his various lilas or feats.
The typical female figures in paintings of the Chamba school exude warm, sensual and charming beauty.
Noted for its deft handling and mixing of colours, the canvas space of Chamba paintings is dominated by red and blue colours.
Art from this school is noted for its depictions of the Tantra cult associated with the worship of the Devi or the Goddess.
The ferocious and wrathful forms of the Devi are given a larger-than-life finish, and crude mystified look with deep tones of red, black and blue shades.
Other Pahari schools of painting
It shares an affinity with the Guler School and its sensitive portrayals of landscape. A Garwhal miniature often has an overcast sky with clouds, foggy landscapes, etc.
Hindur or Nalagarh School:
This school of Pahari miniatures can be distinguished by their evolved symbolism, narrative details, realist depictions of human figure with sharp features, rich costumes, each figure busy in his/her own lifestyle.
The human figures strewn across the Jammu School’s canvas are tall, slim with marked well-defined physical characteristics. Hills and strained nature depictions, with light colours employed in bright shades, are other stylised features of this school.
An integral part of the Sikh School, this style developed in the Punjab plains and was characterised by Sikh images, and stereotypical costumes, and emphasis on features like beards and moustaches.
Kashmir, Lahore, Mankot and other schools:
The surrounding minor centres where Pahari art developed following the conventions of the major art centres. There exists little difference in between these schools.