Bordered by the Rajput Rathor centers of Jodhpur and Jaipur, close to the sacred Lake Pushkar, Kishangarha was founded in 1609 by Maharaja Kishan Singh (r. 1609–1615). His descendant Rup Singh (r. 1643–1658) developed the state and supported its unique arts, as did Rai Singh (r. 1706–1748).
A synthesis of Mughal artistic idioms with the conventions of the provincial schools of Rajput Rathor in the eighteenth through the late nineteenth centuries gave birth to the brilliant school of Kishangarh painting, with its lyrical and delicate yet exaggerated treatment of human figures. Kishangarh landscapes, with their huge white palace backdrops, also reveal a distinct individuality, in contrast to those of the late Mughal and neighboring Rajput schools of Marwar, Jaipur, Bundi, Mewar, and Malwa. Kishangarh paintings are specially dedicated to the Vaishnava bhakti (devotion), or the passionate love of Krishna and Rādhā, unlike other schools dominated by Brahman painters.
A new golden era of Kishangarh art began from the period of Maharaja Savant Singh (r. 1748–1758), who helped the Marathas fight against his brother Sardar Singh, forcing a partition of the state in 1755. Savant Singh's romance with a singer and concubine, Bani Thani, became a very popular subject of local paintings.
The artist Nihal Chand (1710–1782?), a surdhaj Brahman, started his artistic career at the age of fifteen. His palette consisted of rich reds, white, and greens, with a range of grays to black. He received training in the local styles from the masters, and he is thought to have initiated bhakti paintings in the Kishangarh school. The most famous among his (attributed) works is the jharokha bust portrait of Bani Thani, which incorporates all the unique qualities and exaggerated features of this school, such as the large curving eyes with arched eyebrows, pointed nose, and chin. His other notable work, Godhuli vela (The hour of cowdust), at the National Museum, New Delhi, depicts a tall blue-colored Krishna with an hourglass waist.
Based on the poetry of Nagari Das, the conventional three-tiered painting Boat of Love (National Museum, New Delhi, c. 1730–1735) depicts, against a late night background, finely rendered grand local palaces, lush greenery on the bank of a river, and stylized human figures (especially the haloed Krishna-Rādhā). The naturalistic treatments of cows in Krishna Milking Cows (National Museum, New Delhi) is reminiscent of late Mughal idioms.
Between 1755 and 1766, Kishangarh paintings flourished, including a small number of large-sized miniatures, among the most interesting works of the style. Sardar Singh (d. 1781) of Rupnagar, like his father Savant Singh, was a significant patron. Secular subjects, such as hunting, boating, and darbar scenes, emerged as common themes. The brilliant painter Amar Chand (1754–1812) succeeded Nihal Chand, working at both Rupnagar and Kishangarh. His Moonlight Darbar of Sardar Singh (c. 1764) is outstanding in size and workmanship, depicting monumental architecture and tiny human figures. His colleagues Joshi Sawai Ram and Suratram, his son Budhlal, and Surajmal (son of Nihal Chand) also enriched the atelier. Later Mughal styles were blended with local Krishangarh idioms. Other painters of the time, like Sitaram (another son of Nihal Chand), tried their best to follow Chand's idioms, but created disproportionate and unromantic figures, rendering female bust portraits or darbar and outdoor scenes. Bahadur Singh, a cousin of Savant Singh, evoked vir ras (valor) in Kishangarh paintings. The stiff figures delineated by Sitaram indicated his decline, yet he produced some new compositions, including scenes from the epic Rāmāyana. But his style was more rigid in form and his figures more angular.
Birad Singh (r. 1781–1788) stabilized Kishangarh's political situation. During the reigns of Rai Kalyan Singh (1797–1838), Mokham Singh (1838–1841), and Prithvi Singh (1840–1880), Kishangarh painting declined. Perhaps due to both the advent of the British Company school and the new medium of photography, the delicacy and lyrical quality of the earlier paintings was replaced by a static, harsh appearance. In modern times, some artists attempt to continue the style, using large panels and shading their figures, but one can hardly consider this an actual continuation of the unique Kishangarh style.
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