My tour to Narendra Bhawan Bikaner has been memorable in many ways and one of them was meeting Mahaveer Swami, the famous miniature painter of Bikaner. The last seven generations of his family has been involved in this form of art and is carrying on his family’s legacy.
A casual stroll within Narendra Bhavan and one will already be familiarised with the paintings of Mahaveer Swami at the various walls of the property. It was very apt to put up a local art form representing the region for the travellers. On our second day of the stay, we reached Mahaveer Swami’s home in the midst of torrential rains.
History of miniature paintings
Since my knowledge of miniature painting is limited, I sorted help from Medhavi Gandhi – founder The Heritage Lab. Medhabi later explained that the miniature painting as a form of art had originated in Persia. During his exile to Persia, Humayun, the Mughal emperor had experienced this form of painting. And he brought some painters with him to India. Miniature art developed under the patronage of Akbar, but only continued to increase under Jahangir and subsequently Shahjahan. Akbar mostly had the painters illustrate stories like the Ramayana etc for him as he didn’t know to read and liked looking at the pictures. Of course, court scenes (Akbar on a hunt, building Fatehpur Sikri, etc) also documented the King’s rule. Jahangir was fascinated by European paintings that Thomas Roe got with him and urged the painters to copy/imitate them and was fond of symbolism/ allegory in the paintings. Shahjahan largely had artists show his stature in court. It’s said that these are called miniature paintings as they are small in size compared to European Paintings.
An ever smiling and soft spoken Mahaveer Swami took all the time to answer our queries on this Bikaner style of painting with natural pigments on handmade paper which is made of 2 -3 layers. Confirming the history of miniature paintings in India, this art form is more than 400 years old.The Miniature art is a confluence of Indian and Mughal Artists. The Indian form was known as Matheran Art and with an influence of Mughal art, it became Bikaner Art.
The family workshop of Mahaveer Swami has a working chamber and an ante room. The Ante room is where he stores all his ingredients, primairly natural colour pigments. The working chamber is more than 300 years old. Mahaveer Swami and his son were seen working on various projects. Paint brushes, erasers, pencils, rulers, rolls and rolls of paper, working sheets, small pencil sketches of an ongoing 12 painting series of Ras Leela, were all scattered around. Wonder how Mary Kondo would have reacted if she had entered the room. A giant magnifying glass is also present which helps in carrying out the paintings.
Sone ki Syahi which Mahaveer Swami uses
These paintings involve natural colour pigments which doesn’t fade with time. It’s intersting to see how the ink is made. There is Sone ki shyahi too. As the name suggests, it’s golden ink which is made from gold leaves and silver ink also. The reason behind the cost of these paintings being so high lies there as well. In a palate made of stone, which has 3 compartments, I saw the golden ink and the brushes which are used to paint with this expensive ink.
Time taken to complete a miniature painting and undefined cost
Looking at a painitng or any art form in different forms of completion is like a journey and Mahaveer Swami showed us one commissioned work of Panch kundi yoggya. Most often when asked, he won’t be able to tell you a price for a painting. The beautiful painting that he was working on will probably be sold for around 15 – 20 Lakhs INR and will perhaps take more than a year to complete.
What’s the history of miniature painting in India and who are some of the famous miniature painters?
As Medhavi confirmed, miniature painters moved further after losing patronage or sometimes travelled in search of work or even went as part of the bridal entourage to other courts. Thus developed the Rajasthani/ Pahari schools of miniature. In this case, “schools” does not mean an institution but more like a gharana/ style just like in music. Most painters didn’t sign their work; barely any records exist but some of the most popular ones are Mansur, Ghulam Ali, Basawan… from the Mughal court; and Nainsukh and his brother Manaku from the Pahari courts.
Challenges faced in Miniature paintings
Mahaveer Swami is the 6th generation painter in his family and with his son joining in, it makes 7th generation running. When I asked him whether he considered anything else as a career, he smiled as he always does. He went on to explain that since his childhood, he watched his father paint and how everything at his home revolved around painting. So he could not think of any other career but miniature paining artist. Every morning, they perform puja as his is a family of priests and then sits for the days work. Today one of the biggest challenges faced by this art form is getting the younger generation attracted to it. It’s not only that, there is limited work and proper evaluation of miniature paintings never happen. I could draw so many similarities with Indian classical music here, from less youth joining in to the concept of Gharana to dying patronage. Just like any other doyen of any other art form, Mahaveer Swami wants more people to join, understand and culture the art form. He has residential, national and international students staying with him to learn the art. In earlier days, the classical music training also used to happen like this.
It was time for us to leave but so many stories remained untold and as I was leaving the place. I realised that I was fortunate enough to visit a place which has been witness to an art form for more than 300 years. Some great paintings, probably hanging on the walls on some palace, was created in that room and I was blessed to have interacted with a person who was just not involved in creating that art but also was keen on sharing his knowldege with newer generation to keep the art form going.
P.S. – I chose to write about this as meeting Mahaveer Swami was one of those experiences to cherish for lifetime. I didn’t carry my camera and all the pics are mobile shots but I believe, any form of documentation works as long as you portray the true picture.
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