Call of the Hills

The awesome miniature collection of Eva and Konrad Seitz includes some of the most brilliant as well as the most lyrically beautiful of all Indian painting styles – Pahari. The collection contains important examples from all phases of the genre, meaning those from the mountainous regions of northern India once known as the Punjab Hills, which now form the present day states of Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. They have assembled one of the largest collections of ‘first generation after Nainsukh’ Guler style painting, of which a group is now in the Rietberg Museum. Konrad Seitz first went to India as a young German diplomat in the late 19603. He and his wife were drawn to Pahari paintings and were one of a small group of pioneer collectors in this field who recognised the importance of these schools. Over the years they have shared their collection and many of their paintings have been published, most recently in Beach, M.C., Fischer, E., and Goswamy, B.N., Masters of Indian Painting, Artibus Asiae, Zurich. 2011 and in Valmiki, Rama’yana ilfustre par les miniatur’es indiennes du XVle au XlXe siecle, Editions Diane de Selliers, Paris, 2011.

It’s important to know that Pahari rulers and ruling class were Rajputs, like those of Rajasthan, whose stories of their origin often suggested that they were descendants of the ruling Hindu dynasties of the north Indian plains who had taken refuge in the hills after their displacement by Muslim invaders after 1193. Although the Mughals had established their rule over the whole of northern India by the second half of the 16th century, and controlled key fortresses such as that of Kangra, their political influence in the hill states remained slight, especially with the weakening of the Mughal empire in the 18th century. Only one painting series survives from this area before the 17th century, a manuscript of the Devi Mahatmya (Simla Museum) from the mid-16th century, illustrated in a style akin to the Early Rajput style of the north Indian plains. In the mid-late 17th century, the hill rajas from Mandi and Bilaspur patronised artists who had been influenced by work from the Mughal court. This brief flirtation with Mughal naturalism did not last long, and by the end of the century those artists as well as others at centres such as Bahu and Basohli, now in Jammu, and Chamba had returned to their non-naturalistic Rajput roots and were illustrating traditional Hindu texts such as the Ramayana, the Rasamanjari and Ragamalas in brilliantly assured fashion, dependent again on line and colour with their figures set against conceptual renderings of architecture and landscape. Such a style had spread throughout most of the Pahari region in the early 18th century. Although much of the hill region formed strongholds for the worship of Shiva and the Devi, and paintings and manuscripts reflected this, the spread of Vaishnavism and, especially the worship of Krishna, induced patrons to commission illustrated versions of Vaishnava texts, such as the Bhagavata Purana and the Gitagovinda. Texts such as the Rasikapriya and Satsai also were now added to the painters’ repertoire, using the divine lovers Krishna and Radha to illustrate literary concepts. Portraiture as at all Rajput courts was especially important to the rajas of these hill states and was normally interpreted as single portraits with or without attendants, while intimate family portraits are also an important sub-genre here. With the weakening of Mughal power in the early 18th century, Mughal artists sought patronage elsewhere, some presumably seeking work at the hill courts, because, by about 1730, Pahari painting began to change. It moved towards a more naturalistic style, assimilating some of the canons of Mughal painting, in which the depiction of volume, space and landscape became progressively more important for the expression of poetical moods. This phase of Pahari painting is especially associated with the Guler artists Pandit Seu and his sons Manaku and Nainsukh, who were especially influenced by the contemporary Mughal stlye and may indeed have visited Delhi. Nainsukh, the most famous name in Pahari painting, is renowned for his portrayal of his patron Raja Balwant Singh of Jasrota in all of his many moods. This familial style was continued by their sons and grandsons who influenced the whole Pahari area but especially the large state of Kangra ruled by Raja Sansar Chand (reg. 1775-1823). This dominance gave the name of Kangra to much of the painting production of this later period, which is renowned for its lyrical interpretation of poetical Vaishnava texts. Incursions from the Gurkhas of Nepal in the early 19th century brought instability to much of the hills, only relieved when the Sikhs under Maharaja Ranjit Singh expelled the Gurkhas from the western hills and brought those states under Sikh dominance in 1809. Later, the British drove the Gurkhas out of the eastern Pahari region and back to Nepal in 1814-15. The Kangra style gradually stiffened throughout the mid and later 19th century under this new regime, and many Pahari artists migrated to Lahore and Amritsar which became important centres for Sikh painting.

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