Suman K Sharma
It is a chilly afternoon. Humongous clouds deter a tepid sun from coming out in the open. Inside the drawing room, a few pink and yellow roses standing in the flower vase valiantly try to spread cheer and warmth.
30-something Sona Padha enters with her three-year old son, Atharva, in tow. She has the looks of your next-door neighbour who struggles to keep a brave front in these hard times. An acclaimed practitioner of the centuries-old Basohli style of painting, the soft spoken Sona lets her angst seep through the conversation. Her main worry is that not much is being done to save this exquisite form of art that has brought Jammu on the world map of painting. Excerpts:
Tell us something about yourself, Sona.
I was born to the renowned family of Padhas of Basohli, the youngest among three sisters and older to a brother. My ancestors were personal physicians to the local rajas. Padha Kunj Lal, my great grandfather, was presented several invaluable Basohli paintings by the contemporary raja. The raja also got his portrait made by the court artistes as a royal favour. Our ancestral house still treasures some of those paintings and visitors from India and abroad come frequently to view them. Ever since my childhood, I held a fascination for these paintings and nursed a wish to paint in that style. So when I passed my XII class, I just would not budge from my insistence on joining a diploma course in Basohli Painting at the Government Handicrafts School, which was opened in the town in 1983. Thanks to my Guru, Shri Lalit Kumar Dogra, who is now settled in Kathua and encouragement of my family, it was a matter of time – and effort –before I picked up the nuances and subtleties of the art. Destiny gave me Dheeraj Kapoor, my husband, who also is a talented practitioner of this art. Wide recognition too has come our way: I was awarded by the State government in the years 2009 and 2011; Dheeraj too got the first prize for a miniature in 2010. We have held exhibitions at the Lalit Kala Academy, New Delhi….
It looks like a rewarding career for Dheeraj and you…
(Laughs). Yes, it is. When my husband or I look at a finished piece after days of labouring on it, or hear a word of praise from a discerning viewer, we feel an inner glow of warmth which I cannot describe in words. But if you are talking of a reward in monetary terms, it is next to nothing. Think of the material used. A Basohli painting requires hard-to-find Veasli paper or even ivory sheet, special brushes made of squirrel hair, feathers of Kalmunha bird and colours labourously derived from dried-up leaves, flowers, beetle wings and khadiya earth. For ornamental purposes, we use 24-carate gold and pure silver. Then consider the deftness and precision required to produce one miniature portrait in which you can single out each single hair of a subject with a magnifying glass. And how do you reckon that indescribable element of a painting which elevates it to a work of art? In return, the money we get is hardly enough to pay my son’s play-school fee. Little wonder that my husband and I, in spite of being State awardees and all that, have to go for regular jobs – he is a manager with a private firm and I teach at a public school – for a living. In fact, and this is the harsh truth – all the contemporary Basohli painters – the chacha-bateeja duo of Sohan Singh Baloria and Surinder Singh Baloria, Dharam Pal, Sushil Padha, Shakeel Ahmed Raza and Arun Dogra – have to take up regular employment. To Basohli painting which should rightly have been our calling, we can devote only a little time that we spare from the worldly cares of making both ends meet.
You said something about the precious paintings gifted by Basohli rajas to your ancestors. You could have made a whole lot of money by selling a few of them to connoisseurs.
‘’If wishes were horses…!” That is our priceless heritage, our family’s pride. You know, even Dr MS Randhawa has acknowledged in his book Basohli Painting that my great grandfather, Padha Kunj Lal, possessed a grand collection of Basohli miniatures. Then came a request from J&K government for loan of the choicest amongst these paintings for public display in an art gallery. Our family was too glad to oblige. End of the day what happens is that the government intends to fop us off with a measly 5 lakh rupees for the entire collection, which can easily fetch us many many times over in the open market. We are left to fight this case in a court of law.
Tell me how a lay person can recognise a Basohli painting.
Oh, that’s easy enough. The most obvious feature of a Basohli miniature is its deep red border. The colours used in the painting are red, yellow and blue: red for love and passion; yellow for the sunny climes of the land of Dogras and their cheerful disposition; and blue for who else but Lord Krishna, the Eternal Lover. You will find depiction of pomegranates, flame of forest, mangoes et cetera – trees that we find around us. Trees, fruits, foliage and birds are used not merely as decoration but also to evoke emotions. One instance is the convention of weeping willows to represent the pangs of a lonesome nayika. In portraits, gold and silver is used to embellish dresses of the subjects. The characters have receding foreheads, almond-shaped enlarged eyes and well-proportioned bodies. Women wear tight fitting choli-ghaghra-diaphanous sari ensemble, while men are shown in a jama with a sash round their waist…
Jama for men and choli-ghaghra-sari for women – that is not the traditional way Dogras dressed themselves!
You are right. Actually, that is how the Mughals dressed themselves. In Basohli painting, the subjects are mostly Hindu dressed up in Mughal finery and discovered in Mughal interiors.
That’s intriguing – the Mughal connection.
There is nothing mysterious about it. Basohli painting is one of the outcomes of the harshness of the Mughal Empire under Aurangzeb and the revival of Vaishnavism in the 17th century. Artistes began to flee from the Mughal court to find quarter with Rajput princes of small kingdoms in the Himalayas. There is this charming tale of a 12-year old Raja Sangram Pal of Basohli invited to the Mughal women apartments as the queens wanted to see the boy-king renowned for his handsomeness. Sangram Pal was asked to cover his eyes with a blindfold before entering the female quarters, as was the royal custom. But when he was brought to the presence of the queen, she ordered him to remove the piece of cloth from his eyes, as a man’s beauty lies in his eyes. The point is that a few artistes from the Mughal court must have come in contact with Rajas of Basohli and encouraged to settle in our town to apply their art in full freedom. The result is for all to see – a beautiful mixture of the Mughal aesthetics and Hindu sensibilities.
Do you have any suggestions to restore the glory of Basohli painting?
Yes, I do; only if there was someone to listen. First, treat Basohli Painting as an art and not just a handicraft. A Basohli miniature is intricate and as finely done as any other work of art. But more than that, it is a coming together of the finest in Hindu and Muslim aesthetics. J&K Academy of Art, Culture and Languages should shed its highbrow attitude and promote Basohli painting at the national level to make it more remunerative and attract new talent. I am told the government has made some makeshift arrangements for display of our paintings at Lakhanpur. What artiste worth his name would consider keeping his or her prize paintings with some semi-literate caretaker in a dusty, cheerless room? Could not the authorities have come up with a better idea, such as asking the Department of Tourism to do something about it? Second, there is a pressing need for augmenting the training facilities for the young. The one institution in Basohli, that was founded in Basohli at the initiative of Mr Parvez Diwan, IAS, when he was SDM there, is now thirty-two years old.
There is none other which imparts instruction on Basohli painting. Why can’t we have institutions similar to Vanasthali of Jaipur, Rajasthan or Shanti Niketan of West Bengal, where young minds come to partake of their heritage? If that seems too ambitious, let the Fine Arts College have a faculty of Basohli Painting. Third, the State should facilitate regular and more frequent interaction between the professional artistes of Basohli painting with the aspiring artists by supplementing annual camps organised by the Kala Kendra.
Art thrives on patronage. Basohli painting flourished with the encouragement of rajas. Now it is the turn of the State Government to preserve and propagate it.