views updated


NAINSUKH (1710–1778), Pahari painter The son of Pandit Seu of Guler, and younger brother of the celebrated Manaku, Nainsukh is the Pahari painter about whom we know the most. He must have started painting while still quite young, for an early work, almost certainly a self-portrait, datable to around 1730, shows him, brush held in right hand, poised to paint upon a sheet of paper. In another portrait, done some twenty years later, he appears standing behind his patron, hands folded and body bent at the waist, looking at a painting that his prince holds in his hand. But the most detailed information comes from an entry made in 1763 in his own hand, in the pilgrims' register of a priest at Haridwar, in which he speaks of his lineage at length. There is a remarkable self-awareness in this entry, and he prefaces the ten-line text with a delicate little drawing of Shiva and Pārvatī seated even as the river Gaṅgā emerges from Shiva's matted locks, while Bhagirath, the devotee, stands offering obeisance to the Lord.

Virtually nothing is known of Nainsukh's early training, presumably under his father, but about 1740 he seems to have left his hometown of Guler and moved to Jasrota, a little principality to the west, across the river Ravi. Nainsukh apparently worked first for some senior members of the Jasrota royal family, and then attached himself to the young prince, Balwant Singh, whose side he apparently never left for the next twenty years. In swift sketches or elaborate paintings, he captured his patrons in a range of moods and situations to which there are virtually no parallels outside the work of the Mughal ateliers. Nainsukh's work reflects his patrons' interests, their pursuits, even their dreamlike visions of grandeur. With Balwant Singh he appears to have developed a very special bond, for in these paintings and drawings we see him shadowing his patron everywhere and, with singular warmth, rendering him in what is truly an extraordinary range of situations: writing a letter, stalking a duck, watching a group of professional mimics, examining a painting, riding out in a litter for a hawking expedition, striking a lion down with his bared sword, having his beard trimmed, listening to petitioners, supervising a construction, standing in front of a fire before retiring, offering prayers, or simply smoking a huqqa in a camp bed, wrapped in a quilt and staring into space. Close to sixty such works have survived, some of them bearing inscriptions that make both patron and painter spring to life for the viewer.

After Balwant Singh's death around 1763, Nainsukh moved from Jasrota to the state of Basohli to take up work under its ruler, Amrit Pal. The work he did between 1763 and 1778, the year of his own death, has a different orientation, a distinctive flavor: an image of Vishnu seated in all his glory; the opening leaf of what might have been a series based on the celebrated poetic work of Bihari, the Satsai; and three paintings of what might have been a large Rāgamālā series bear witness to this change. Another possibility that can be entertained is that as he grew old, Nainsukh, following established practice among painters, occupied himself with planning rather than executing a series of paintings, preferring only to put down first thoughts in the form of sketches on paper or to create a body of drawings to leave to his sons. One of the series that Nainsukh made sketches for, and helped plan, is likely to have been the great Gītā Govinda series that is seen as a crowning achievement of Pahari painting.

Nainsukh's work is subtle, and its appeal lies not in surface skills, but in its deep humanity. Beginning with copying, or closely following, some late Mughal works that appear to have reached the hills at that time, Nainsukh swiftly began to alter them, bringing in fresh elements of observation and introducing little twists or surprises that infused them with lyricism. It is certain that even at a young age, Nainsukh was armed with prodigious skills: the ability to observe the tiniest, most casual of details with a clear eye; the use of a remarkable, supple line; the power to make clean, uncluttered paintings with a poetic air. His portraits are fine studies, well grasped, cleanly drawn, studded with the most appropriate details, conveying the true sense and presence of the person portrayed. But, interestingly, the more formal the portrait, the less interested he was in it. His interest lay apparently not in static or ceremonial studies, but in rendering, around his central figure, groups of related people over whom he trained a warm, mellow light. In his painting of the Jasrota prince Zorawar Singh watching the dancing girl Zafar (now in the Chandigarh Museum), for instance, the prince does appear closely observed, but the dancer and the musicians are animated and wonderfully depicted, their necks arched, fingers nimbly playing the instruments, their bodies utterly and totally absorbed in what they are doing. In the celebrated painting of Balwant Singh examining a painting with Nainsukh himself, the prince is naturally the center of attention, with his regal bearing and all signs of elegance, but the eye travels quickly, and with eagerness, to the minor characters in the work: a tall courtier respectfully seated, the man standing behind him with his hands folded across his waist and a box of implements tucked into his belt, and, above all, to the three musicians who are seen playing in one corner of the painting. Nainsukh lavished so much attention upon them—their gestures, the liveliness of their figures, the subtle differences in their complexions—that it is with effort that one's eye moves away from them back to the prince, or even to Nainsukh himself.

In the range of his work—close to a hundred works, now widely dispersed all over the world, can be attributed to him at present—Nainsukh conjures up stillness and tumult with equal ease, quiet moments melding seamlessly into situations astir with energetic action. But there is also discernible, under the surface, a certain playfulness, even open humor. Yet idioms do not dominate Nainsukh's work. What shines forth is his ability to seize a detail and exalt it, to grasp a moment and render it timeless.

B. N. Goswamy


Archer, W. G. Indian Painting in the Punjab Hills. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1952.

Gangoly, Ordhendra C. "Pandit Nainsukh, a Kangra Artist." Rupam 37.

Goswamy, B. N. "The Problem of the Artist Nainsukh of Jasrota." Artibus Asiae 28 (1966): 205–210.

——. Nainsukh of Guler: A Great Indian Painter from a Small Hill State. Zürich: Museum Rietberg, 1997.

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