Miniatures: Central India

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Miniatures: Central India

The art styles of Raghogarh, Malwa, and Bundelkhand define the Central Indian school of art. Central India, the Madhyadesh of the ancient scriptures, with no consistent geography, is almost an abstract concept, the unity of which may be discovered in its arts, architecture, culture, literature and language. In them and in performing arts, sculpture and religious and intellectual pursuits, Central India has a past receding to the Vedic days. As for the art of painting, it has the fifth–sixth century murals and Mandu, once the capital of Malwa, was one the earliest seats of miniature painting in India and the prime inspiration of the Rajasthani art style. Even the Mughal miniatures of Akbar's early days and the early art of Ahmednagar and Bijapur in Deccan borrow some of the features of Mandu art style.


Raghogarh, an erstwhile small state of Central India, situated between Malwa, Rajasthan, and Bundelkhand, is little known for its art activity, though it has had a massive tradition of painting spreading over two hundred years. Its artists excelled both in portrait painting and the serialization of legends and mythological themes.

The patrons of these paintings, the Khichi rulers of Raghogarh—Raja Dhiraj Singh (r. 1697–1726), Vikramaditya Singh (r. 1730–1744), Balbhadra Singh (r. 1744–1770), and Balwant Singh (r. 1770–1797)—appear to have been quite moderate in their rule, political aspirations and personal lives. They believed in good relations with all, the Rajputs (of Jaipur and Mewar) and the Mughals. The Raghogarh paintings reflect these aspects of their patrons, as many of them portray their contemporary chieftains visiting Raghogarh.

Raghogarh artists produced a large number of paintings during this era, which began in 1697, when Raja Dhiraj Singh initiated the Khichi dynasty at Raghogarh. This prolific artistic output could not have been possible unless Raja Dhiraj Singh and his successors had promoted and patronized it. Portraiture seems to have been the primary passion of Khichis, as most of the best paintings, reported from Raghogarh, are portraits. It seems that the Khichis maintained a galaxy of painters who rendered paintings, which had suited their patrons' taste. They portrayed the royal family, their favorite men and women and their pets, as also rendered various traditional themes, such as Rāga-Rāginīs, the love legend of Ūshā-Aniruddha, and legends related to Hindu gods and goddesses, and several folk themes and important occasions, such as visits by kings and princes. The Raghogarh painters also rendered portraits of various Mughal emperors and Rajput princes. This they must have done to record their visits to Raghogarh, or to accord to them state's honour. These portraits have no lavish or luxurious backgrounds and are rendered with great simplicity. The Raghogarh artists abstained from glamorizing their subjects. They preferred painting on flat backgrounds with bright colors and red borders. They derive their excellence from the careful and graceful depiction of a figure's features, overall demeanor and style of clothes. The Khichis' patronage of the arts was one of the most important activities of their court.

The Raghogarh paintings have a distinctive character that distinguishes them from the paintings of any other school of Indian art. The Raghogarh painting style incorporates many attributes of the art styles of Rajasthan, Malwa, and Bundelkhand, though it has excellence of its own.


Malwa, the heartland of Central India, has a great creative past. Its literary history began centuries before the common era, and that of painting around the fifth or sixth century a.d. The sixth-century wall paintings of Bagh caves in Malwa, in the tradition of Ajanta, bear testimony to its glorious past. The earliest miniature paintings at Malwa—the illustrations of the Jain Kalpa-Sūtrā, appear during the first phase of the medieval renaissance. The stylistic accomplishment of Kalpa-Sūtrā illustrations rendered at Mandu, the capital of Malwa, suggest that Mandu had by then assumed the position of one of the great centers of art in India. In 1401 a.d., Dilwar Khan, a descendant and the subedar (governor) of Mohammad Ghori, declared himself independent ruler of the region of Malwa. This period in the history of Malwa was full of turmoil. In 1405 Malwa fell into the hands of Hoshang Shah, a local Khalji Muslim. He made Mandu his capital, and under his patronage Indo-Islamic art and architecture flourished. The third Khalji ruler, Mahmud I, continued the tradition of his grandfather.

In 1540, after Sher Shah Sur defeated the Mughal emperor Humayun and captured all of his territories, including Malwa and Gujarat, he appointed Shiya Khan as governor of Malwa. Shiya Khan's son Bayazid, the well-known hero of the legend of Baz Bahadur and Rupamati, was also a great patron of arts and music. In 1555 he declared himself the independent ruler of Malwa. In 1562 Akbar defeated Baz Bahadur, and henceforth Malwa became a Mughal subah (province). In 1690 the Maratha ruler Peshwa Baji Rao entered Malwa and, in 1743, annexed it finally to Maratha state. Peshwa made formal grant of deputy governorship of Malwa in favor of Holkar and Scindhia, his two generals, who had rendered great help in conquering it. With this ended the Mughal hold over Malwa.

In Mandu, there already existed an earlier tradition of illustrating texts. Niamatnama (Book of delicacies) was illustrated during the first quarter of the fifteenth century. The dated Kalpa-Sūtrā of 1439, was also an early work of art. These texts were illuminated using fine combination of ultramarine, red, and gold colors. Later Malwa artists of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries preferred a more fluid grouping in place of the tight geometrical compositions of earlier renderings. The style of luxuriant trees with swaying creepers creating a soft meandering rhythm, the use of vibrant colors, simplifications, and boldly primitive idioms for the depictions of plants and animal life are some of the main attributes of the Malwa paintings of this phase.

Though rendered at Mandu, Niamatnāmā and Kalpa-Sūtrā do not define Malwa style. Niamatnāmā represents the Islamic and Kalpa-Sūtrā the Jain style pursued alike in other parts of India. It was actually in Rāmāyaṇa, Rāgamālā, and Rasikapriyā illustrations of the period from 1630 to 1640 that Malwa discovered its stylistic distinction and its earliest examples. The Rāmāyaṇa paintings offer a rich background to the subsequent painters. Monkeys and demons add color to the epic. Similarly, the birds, rivers, ponds, and even the architecture appear as symbols, presenting attractive groups in their idealized and decorative forms. The achievement of these Rāmāyaṇa illustrations is their form of composition and arrangement of different episodes of the story. The musical instrumentsdolaka (double or two-way drum), shahnāi (wind-blown musical pipe), and large cymbals—depicted in these paintings are still in common use in the Malwa region.

The Rāgamālā and Rasikapriyā paintings reflect deep influences of prior indigenous art traditions. Short cholī (blouse), striped ghāgharās (long skirt), chākdār jāmā (long gown with all four lower ends having angular formation), and the flat Akbarī turban are some of their special features. The Amaru-Sataka paintings of 1652 and the serializations of Puhakar's Rasavēli of 1660 depict emotional expressions of these love lyrics and represent the symbolic delineation of the nāyikābhēd concept (the literary theory that classifies various heroines engaged in love) in color.

The Rāmāyaṇa series of 1634–1640, 1652, and 1660, the Amaru-Sataka of 1652, and the Rasavēli of 1660 represent various phases in the development of the Malwa school. Another significant set of Rāgamālā paintings painted in 1680 by the artist Madhodasa at Narsinghgarh, a centrally located small state in Malwa, represents a culmination of earlier traditions. These Rāgamālā paintings are known for their bright colors, lyrical draftsmanship, and careful rendering. The miniature series of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa of 1690–1700 is highly elaborate and is in exact adherence to the text. The primary themes of the Malwa artists were Hindu myths and legends. In illustrating such subjects, these paintings are very well defined, as also extremely elaborate and often imaginative. They frequently represent also the less significant aspects, events, themes, and characters of Indian mythology.

Malwa artists generally used bright red, purple, yellow, green, and blue colors, creating a harmonious, enamel-like effect. The delicately molded features of men and women formulate the model of ideal beauty. These paintings are simple but balanced, and at the same time have powerful compositions and are considered pure classical statement of Indian abstract principles.


Bundelkhand, forming the northern part of Madhya Pradesh, is a cultural region bounded by the river Yamuna in the north, the escarped ranges of the Vindhya plateau in the south, the river Chambal in the northwest, and the Panna-Ajaigarh ranges in the southeast. It is the state of Orchha, with its bifurcated state Datia, that primarily denotes the Bundelkhand school.

In a.d. 1531, Raja Rudra Pratap came across a panoramic site suitable for building his capital. He later laid there the foundation of his capital city, Orchha. His son Madhukar Shah (r. 1554–1592) was a great patron of arts, and the earliest art activity at Orchha in the form of wall painting is from his period. These murals, rendered primarily on the walls of Rajmahal, are endowed with miniature-like finesse and precision. The episodes from the Rāmāyaṇa and Krishna-lila as also various myths and legends are their main themes. They are broadly narrative in style, which constitutes a characteristic feature of the subsequent Bundelkhand miniatures.

Raja Bir Singh Ju Dev (r. 1605–1628), the most powerful grandson of Madhukar Shah, was a close ally of the Mughal emperor Jahangir (r. 1605–1627), who bestowed on him many honors, including a royal palaquin and a mansabdārī of seven thousand (the authority under which he could maintain an army of seven thousand soldiers). Bir Singh Ju Dev built at Orchha a palace known as Jahangirī Mahal, consisting of seven floors, for the state visit of Jahangir. The Jahangirī Mahal is one of the best examples of Indo-Islamic architectural style. The paintings that embellish the walls of this palace represent the second phase of Bundelā art. There is a significant shift from the earlier mythological themes to scenes of hunting, war, dance, and various floral designs and patterns. These wall paintings, with simple form and pronounced lines, largely influenced the theme and style of the subsequent miniature art of the region.

In 1626 Orchha was bifurcated into Orchha and Datia. Datia, the newly formed state, continued also the tradition of wall painting. The Datia's newly built Bir Singh palace was embellished with paintings on various themes and subjects, some of which, such as Rāgamālā, reflected the initial tradition of Orchha murals.

The miniatures from Datia too were more akin to the earlier mural tradition of Orchha. A set of miniatures in the collection of the National Museum, New Delhi, have great stylistic unity with the Orchha wall paintings serializing the story of Mahiravana, the son of King Ravana. This story is an offshoot of the Rāmāyaṇa. Both the random and the text illustrating paintings continued to depict the same myths, legends, and themes, as had the Orchha murals, but now to them were added portraits of rulers and themes like nayikābhēd, and Bārahmāsā. Portraits formed the majority of these miniatures. In texts Keshavdas' Rasikpriyā and Matiram's Rasrāj were more prominent. The personality and the religious attitude of the rulers of Orchha and Datia added new dimensions to these mythological and religious themes. An outstanding work of art that was executed at Datia is its Rāmāyaṇa series rendered with great Mughal stylistic touch. It has inscriptions in Bundelī dialect on the reverse, which are translations from Valmiki's Sanskrit verses. These works not only bear eloquent testimony to the Bundelkhand's distinction as art style but also to its great contribution in the field of miniature paintings.

Bringing the art of portrait painting to new heights of popularity by infusing it with realism is one of the most notable contributions of this school. Portrait painting was a task that required great skill to create a realistic likeness, as there were no subsidiary or secondary objects, and the artists had to concentrate fully on a single figure. The Datia portraits, such as those of Raja Shatrujit-ju-Dev (r. 1762–1801), the eldest son of Raja Indrajit, achieved a new level of realism. These portraits of Raja Shatrujit represent him as a gallant and handsome prince. Dressed with elaborate care and in an imposing fashion, he is seen wearing a long jāmā and fine pearl jewelry. These paintings are intimate and real, with warm color tones. The Datia miniature painters of the eighteenth century blended facile craftsmanship with colorful ornamentation, putting their art of portraiture in a class by itself.

Despite the ethnic relationship with Rajasthan, Bundelkhand paintings have simpler compositions and are not overcrowded. Their episodes are complete in themselves, though sometimes compartmentalized, as in the Malwa and Mewar schools; their emphasis, however, is always on conveying a look of completeness. Ornate architecture, rich costumes, and gallant and handsome heroes engaged in the courtship of beautiful heroines form part of the poetry of the famous court poet Keshavdas of Orchha and are characteristics of Bundelkhand miniatures. The men invariably wear turbans crowned with a kalagi (crest), jamas (long gowns) painted with flowers, striped trousers, kamarbandh and slippers. The costumes of the women include the choli (blouse), transparent odhani (a cloak-type outer covering used by ladies), ghagra (a long skirt with large frill) and sari. They have besides beautiful pearl jewelry. These costumes are significantly shaded with lines. A rich color scheme with warmer tones, simple composition, and long eyes with sharp facial features are some of the important characteristics of Bundela paintings. The artists generally used coarse paper, locally known as Chattarpuri kāgāz, for their paintings.

Daljit Khare

See alsoAjanta ; Jahangir ; Rāgamālā ; Rāmāyaṇa


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