Kashmir Painting

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KASHMIR PAINTING Our understanding of the painting traditions of Kashmir is limited by a dearth of surviving evidence. Manuscript paintings dating prior to the seventeenth century are virtually unknown. In related media, the mural paintings at the sites of Alchi (Ladakh, western Tibet) are the only indicators of a previously existing Kashmiri style and its eastward dissemination. Moreover, the manuscript paintings from the eighteenth century onward are so varied in style—ranging from the heavily Persianized to the purely indigenous (often termed "folkish")—that it is not possible to identify a single style among these as characteristic of the region. An inversion of the interpretative paradigm, then, is perhaps more beneficial. Rather than perceiving Kashmiri painting to be a directionless and mediocre imitation of styles from the Islamic and Indic worlds, another perspective could be more productive: the wide and rich variety of painting styles evidenced in but two centuries of surviving examples demonstrates that Kashmiri painters were not only prolific, but that they also fruitfully incorporated the many stylistic strains reaching them through commercial and other conduits connecting the region with lower India, Central Asia, and the Near East.

The earlier Buddhist foundations at Alchi date to around the late twelfth or early thirteenth century. Like other such establishments, this complex also took advantage of its location on a hub of trade routes linking the region with Kashmir and Central Asia. Efforts to "purify" their Buddhist practices inspired Tibetan monks to visit learned counterparts in Kashmir, and to invite Kashmiri masters and artists eastward. Thus, the Sumtsek's mural paintings at Alchi evince a relationship to the decoratively intricate, jewel-colored, compositionally balanced works likely admired at Kashmiri courts. Moreover, Kashmir's—and western Tibet's—linkages with larger Indic traditions are also discernible here: the series panels, separated by classicizing columns, are reminiscent of Gandharan stupa drum plaques (2nd–4th centuries), while the repetitive patterning of some of the figures' textiles hearkens to the western Indian style of painting prevalent in North India between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries. Exceptions to the gap in small-scale painting before the seventeenth century are the rare manuscript covers. Manuscript covers provide evidence not only of the continuity of the hybrid Tibetan-Kashmiri style, but also of significant Buddhist patronage.

The 1719 Shāhnāma-ye Firdausi provides a point of comparison for undated manuscripts, and its illustrations show local adaptation of a Persianate style that probably originated in Shiraz. There is a spontaneity and expressiveness in the figures that becomes rote in later works. Reminders of Shirazi and Timurid painting in general include the intricate arabesques of the textiles. In addition, the landscape lacks depth and, other than the detailed shrubbery, is schematic in its undulating lines. The figures' features, however, are rooted in local tastes as expressed in Hill painting, particularly the large, well-defined eyes and facial profiles.

Together with the strong presence of Persian-influenced painting styles in Kashmir, pre-Mughal idioms were still alive among the Kashmiri painters. Indeed, illustrations of Indic texts are convincing examples of the vast range of styles used freely by the painters, regardless of the illustrations' contents. An image from a Bhāgavata Purāṇa of about 1750 shows a subtle amalgamation. Basohli elements, particularly the rounded facial profiles with prominent noses and large eyes, are brought together with identifiably "Sultanate" characteristics. Compositionally, the whole image is strongly reminiscent of the late fifteenth-century Candāyana's depiction of Candā's flight with her lover Laur (Bharat Kala Bhavan, Banares [Varanasi]); meanwhile, the rendering of the striated domes and eaves, and the delicate color palate, are not unlike the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya's (formerly known as the Prince of Wales Museum) Candāyana (c. 1525–1570).

The image that captures and quite possibly personifies the trajectory of Kashmiri painting through the nineteenth century is one of the Goddess. She is shown in her apotropaic aspect, with many arms and weapons; her eyes look confidently ahead. Her aspect is somewhat softened by the mythical thousand-petaled lotus on which she sits, gently radiating and forming a transition to the muted colors and delicate arabesques of the shamsa. The image as a whole is the perfect balance of the stylistic poles discernible in Kashmiri painting. The traditions inherited from the Islamic world are abbreviated in the neatly executed shamsa, which makes reference to manuscript illustration, a practice associated with (though not exclusive to) Islamic culture. Simultaneously, the Goddess is shown complete with all accoutrements, executed in a style representing the indigenous, "folkish" traditions abundantly evidenced in illustrations of Indic religious texts. The two styles represent the vast spectrum of creative resources available to Kashmiri painters throughout the common era.

Alka Patel

See alsoSculpture and Bronze Images from Kashmir


Goepper, Roger. Alchi: Ladakh's Hidden Buddhist Sanctuary. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1996.

Goetz, Hermann. Studies in the History and Art of Kashmir and the Indian Himalaya. Wiesbaden, Germany: Otto Harrassowitz, 1969.

Goswamy, B. N., and Eberhard Fischer. Pahari Masters: Court Painters of Northern India. Zürich: Museum Rietberg, Artibus Asiae Supplementum 38, 1992.

Goswamy, Karuna. Kashmiri Painting: Assimilation and Diffusion; Production and Patronage. Shimla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 1998.

Khandalavala, Karl J., and Moti Chandra. New Documents of Indian Painting: A Reappraisal. Mumbai: Prince of Wales Museum of Bombay, 1969.

Losty, Jeremiah. The Art of the Book in India. London: British Library, 1982.

Pal, P., ed. Art and Architecture of Ancient Kashmir. Mumbai: Marg Publications, 1989.