The state of Kotah, near Bundi, is located in the eastern part of Rajasthan, surrounded by Jaipur and Gwalior on the north, the state of Bundi to the west, the state of Udaipur on the south, and Rajgarh in the east. Like Bundi, Kotah enjoys extraordinary physical features. It has vast expanses of fertile land, sprawling mountain ranges, and river gorges covered with dense forests and abundant wildlife, including tigers. Its rich flora and fauna, reflected through its paintings, have made this state well known the world over.
Due to the close proximity of Kotah and Bundi, there is a uniformity of cultural traditions. Initially, Kotah style began as a simple variant of the Bundi idiom, so much so that in some of the early examples of paintings, the similarity of style, treatment of landscape, color schemes, and identical subject matter made it difficult even for scholars to differentiate between the two. Since the same dynastic family ruled the entire area, it was natural to find close contacts between states and artists.
Kotah, the land of the Hada Rajputs, was called Hadaoti, which comprised the old states of Bundi and Kotah. Though Kotah began as an offshoot of Bundi in a.d. 1624, it surpassed Bundi in its economic and cultural progress. It was the fifth largest among the native states to enter the Indian Union in 1948. The antiquity of the Hada Rajputs goes back to a.d. 1241, to Rao Deva ("Rao" is the title of the Hada Rajputs), whose grandson Jaitsi pushed the Hadas across the Chambal River where Koteya, the chief of the Bhil tribes, ruled. After killing Koteya, Jaitsi offered his severed head to the construction of the citadel and the palace complex as a human sacrifice, and the town that grew around it was named Kotah.
According to some scholars, the earliest evidence of Bundi painting can be traced to an early Ragamala series painted at Chunar near Banaras in a.d. 1591. The painters of this series were Muslims who may have had some formal training at the Mughal atelier. It is apparent that Kotah artists may have treated these sets as a model, later developing (by about 1650) their own style, with certain elements borrowed from the nearby Mewar school. At the same time, a marked Deccani influence is also discernible in both schools, as the Hada rulers had campaigned in the Deccan from early Mughal rule until the end of Aurangzeb's reign in 1707.
A long genealogy of monarchs followed Kotah's first independent ruler, Rao Madho Singh (r. 1624–1640). Rao Jagat Singh (r. 1657–1684) deserves special mention; during his reign Kotah assumed an independent status as a school of painting. A few portrait studies, as well as the famous Kotah Bhāgavata, are attributed to this period. Maharao Durjan Sal (r. 1723–1756) and Maharao Ummed Singh (r. 1770–1819) were hunting enthusiasts, and shikar paintings (hunting scenes) became immensely popular during their reigns. The Kotah repository includes breathtaking hunting scenes from the Kotah palace collection.
The uniqueness of Kotah painting lies in its wonderful landscapes, which appear throughout its range of subjects, from mythological to political to social and genre paintings. Lush green vegetation, with a great variety of trees, plants, and vines, is depicted under a sky that is often filled with tumultuous rain clouds in hues of orange, grey, and blue. Large expanses of green undulating mounds, tall palms, and flowering shrubs and bushes, inhabited by colorful birds and animals, are the usual settings for the Barahmasa and Ragamala paintings. Architecture is limited to single- or double-storied buildings with prominent chhajas (weather sheds), windows and doors with rolled-up curtains, and floors overlaid with carpets. Men and women have flesh of an almost orange tint, with prominent stippling suggesting a cast shadow that highlights the contours of the face and body. Out-door settings invariably have plantain groves, waterfronts with aquatic birds, and pairs of Saras cranes.
The upsurge of Vaishnavism in Rajasthan in the seventeenth century resulted in the production of a number of miniature paintings and manuscripts devoted to Krishna bhakti (devotion to Krishna). Popular poetic works like Bhāgavata Dashama Skanda (the tenth canto of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa), the Gītā Govinda of Jayadeva, and the Rasikapriya and the Kavipriya of Kashavadasa became favorite subjects of the Kotah painters, as did the Rāgamālā and the Barahmasa. Among these subjects, the Barahmasa (the depiction of 12 seasons indicating the responses of the divine couple, Rādhā and Krishna), painted against the background of seasonal flora and fauna and festival celebrations, particularly caught the eye of the Kotah painter. Two such complete sets are in the collection of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (formerly known as the Prince of Wales of Museum) in Mumbai. The Rāgamālā (the pictorial representation of musical modes in color) were also appreciated by the masses and the elites alike.
In keeping with the Rajasthani tradition of maintaining an atelier or karkhanas (workshop) of painters, the Kotah rulers, impressed and influenced by the contemporary grandeur of the late Mughal emperors, encouraged portraiture and darbar (court) scenes on the one hand, and shikar (hunting) scenes on the other. Toward the end of the eighteenth century emerged some of the most astonishing elephant studies ever produced. The painting of Maharao Durjan Sal's elephant, Kishnaprasad, by Sheikh Taju, reveals a careful rendering of the contours of his dark and wrinkled body within a composition that dramatizes swift action; the elephant lifts a cheetah in his trunk, while the excited mahavat (driver) raises his ankush (an item of armor with a spearhead-like front) to control the elephant's fury. Tiger hunts in the jungles of Kotah were also among the favorite subjects of Kotah painters. Maharao Ummed Singh I and His Chief Minister Zalim Singh Shooting Tigers, attributed to Sheikh Taju, is one such breathtaking visual narrative.
The last known ruler of Kotah was Ram Singh II (r. 1827–1865). A king with nominal political authority, he was the last great patron of the arts. The political decline of Kotah during his time favored the development of painting to a great extent, as the king devoted all of his energy to religious festivities, court celebrations, and patronage of the arts. Fond of jewelry, clothing, hunts, the harem, and performances, his art collection included a large number of dated and inscribed drawings, as well as paintings using a peculiar green color imported from Germany of the nineteenth century. One such masterpiece, Ram Singh II of Kotah and Companions Celebrating Holi, inscribed with the name of Kishan Das, dated 1844, is now at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne.
Singh, M. K. Brijraj. The Kingdom That Was Kotah. New Delhi: Lalit Kala Akademi, 1985.
Welch, Stuart Cary. Gods, Kings, and Tigers: The Art of Kotah. New York: Asia Society, 1997.