17th Century Basohli Paintings in Jammu

Sunny Dua
Leading Roman lyric poet, Quintus Horatius Flaccus known as Horace has said and I quote, “A picture is a poem without words”. This goes well with Bhanudatta’s long poem Rasamanjari, text of which has been split into nineteen chapters and at a later stage rendered into series of Basohli Paintings, primarily because the original poetry was written in Sanskrit and never translated into any other language during that period. Bhanudatta of Mithila, Bihar in his poetry had reflected social life of elite of that era depicting couples as Nayaks and Nayikas which were converted into typical Pahari paintings at Basophil in Jammu.
However, at a later stage when more such writers followed the trend in their poetry, characters of Nayak and Nayika were reflected in the form of Lord Krishna and Radha, Lord Shiva and Parvati and even Lord Rama and Sita in paintings. Depicting these characters had become a trend in fifteenth century which still is prevalent in modern day artworks of many artists. Natyashastra, Rasikapriya, Saundarysringara and Sringaramanjari are some of the Hindi and Telugu works that all focused on these characters. Muslim rulers were also believed to have developed a taste for this literature which then was translated into English.
Impressed by the work of seventh and eighth century Rasamanjari, Raja Kirpal Pal of Basohli had engaged artists to paint this particular poetry on paper in the form of Nayak and Nayika, HiranandaShastri and Devi Das being a couple of them whose works are still lauded across the globe. Rasamanjari has 138 verses and they were all depicted in 135 paintings in three series. These series are scattered across the globe in museums and in private collections. Painted in Circa A.D 1680-1690 one of them is in Central Museum, Lahore and two in Boston and believed to have been acquired from the same source. However, Dogra Art Museum has largest collection of 69 Rasamanjari series which makes Jammu Museum a proud collector.
Rasamanjari paintings have been done in three series, first and most extensive of these series is in Dogra Art Museum, Jammu and others in Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Central Museum Lahore, Chandigarh Museum and with some private collectors. Second series is in Bharat Kala Bhavan, Banaras and some in National Museum, Delhi. These were painted by Devi Das. The third series, comprising 31 paintings is in the collection of Seth Kasturbhai Lalbhai of Ahmadabad. Distinctive in style this series can easily be distinguished from the set available at Dogra Art Museum, Jammu.
Widely known as Basohli Paintings, these are also considered as the first school of Pahari paintings. This painting style also grew into much creative Kangra paintings’ school by mid-eighteenth century. Visible from its bold colour schemes, imaginative works, vital in nature and very original pieces of art, these Basohli paintings were created using primary colours and a peculiar facial formula in seventeenth and eighteenth century. Experts and art lovers can very easily distinguish between Kangra and Basohli paintings by just looking at the features of Nayak and Nayika and intricacies that go into the art work.
The value of 69 art works of Rasamanjari series depicting Krishna and Radha in different scenes of life cycle and surroundings though have not yet been assessed, yet experts believe that their prices in any international art auction house can run into hundreds of crores of rupees. Developed in the foothills of Western Himalayas in Jammu and Punjab States, Basohli paintings are widely associated with the regime of Raja Kirpal Pal who was the first to honour artists and engage them in rendering Rasamanjari series into art form.
Originating in Basohli, a small town located in Jammu, this form of art work later spread into hill states of Kangra, Nurpur, Mankot, Kulu, Suket, Bilaspur, Nalagarh, Chamba, Guler and Mandi where artists practiced Pahari School of Paintings vigorously. These paintings though have been inadvertently associated with other states or regions like Rajasthan, Nepal and even Tibet yet they are quite different from Kangra and Rajasthan style of paintings and belong to Basohli and to nowhere else.
Basohli that comprised of about 74 villages is today a small town in district Kathua which on the world of cultural horizon of India is famous for its Basohli paintings and Pashmina Shawls. Established by Raja Bhupat Pal in 1635, this town is also called cradle of Basohli paintings and has produced many renowned artists like Sohan Singh Billawria and Surinder Singh Baloria who reside in Udhampur. Murals in Rang Mahal and Sheesh Mahal of Basohli Palace though have disappeared with the passage of time yet the place is depicted in many Basohli paintings. Situated in the uneven lofty hills of Shiwaliks and on the right bank of river Ravi, the town is also known for Battle of Basohli. DharMahanpur, Jodeya Mata (Sheetla Mata), RanjitSagar Dam (Thein), SewaHydel Project, Chamunda Devi and Basohli Bridge are some of the other tourist and religious places thronged by tourists every year.
The very basis characteristic of Basohli paintings is that primary colours are used to draw a peculiar facial formula. During 17th century in the foothills of Western Himalayas in Jammu and Punjab States such types of paintings were prevalent but Basohli paintings evolved a new pattern that was distinctive in nature and separated it from the lot. Most of the series that have been studied are characterised by strong colour appeal with red borders within which the picture stays embedded and looks delightful to the eyes.
Basohli miniature paintings can very well be gauged by its strong and evocative colours, bold lines, and deep-set facial patterns. This style of painting saw its emergence in 17-18th century and was called first school of Pahari painting. Though entire evolution theory of Basohli paintings in unclear yet the credit of its promotion goes to Raja Bhupat Pal. Basohli was the place from where this style of painting originated and then spread to other hill states including that of Punjab and Himachal Pradesh. Choli a tight-fitting bodice covering the breasts and ghagra like skirt covered with a Saree is the dress of women in these paintings.
The perfect geometric pattern of Basohli Paintings separates them from others wherein bright colours and glossy enamel add more beauty to the artwork. Besides the bold colours, glossy enamel like colours are also applied to add vibrancy to the artwork. Figures in the paintings are shown clad in rich costumes that portray faces and large bulging eyes. These add unique individuality to paintings which are done in brilliant colours with yellowish-brown, yellow, brown and green grounds that dominate the entire landscape against which figures are drawn. The popular themes of the Basohli paintings revolve around portraits of local rulers, Hindu Gods, figures from Hindu mythology, Radha-Krishna, Madhava-Malati love themes and themes from the BhagavataPurana.
A report prepared by Archeological Survey of India way back in 1918-19 and published in 1921 revealed that some Basohli paintings were purchased by Central Museum of Lahore which according to curator dated back to Pre Mughal era. Having deep red border and main canvas painted in primary colours these Pahari paintings were classified into two categories – School of Kangra Paintings and Dogra School of Jammu which was later established as Basohli School of Miniature paintings. When the state had become powerful, artists from Kangra migrated to Jammu and found employment in ‘The Court’ but later migrated back.
It was in 1678 that Raja Kirpal Singh inherited tiny state of Basohli and encouraged artists. He recruited his atelier – studio of professional artists in the fine or decorative arts where Rasamanjari series were painted in 1685 A.D. It was during the reign of Raja Kirpal Singh that a more mature in style and expression kind of artworks emerged. This oldest and peculiar type of Pahari art had many a time been associated with Gujarati style or having an influence of Mughal period from Delhi Darbar or resemble that of Mewar Paintings but factually Basohli paintings are unique in their own way and don’t have any allegiance to any of the mentioned painting schools.
When Aurangzeb 1658-1707 established himself as Emperor of Delhi he didn’t encourage artists who then migrated to small hilly states. He despised all arts including paintings. This was the time when Basohli paintings evolved. When Mughal authority weakened in Delhi due to invasion of Nadar Shah and Ahmad Shah Abdali and Sikhs also rose in the North and Marathas in South, another major migration of Hindu and Muslim artists happened wherein they founded Kangra style of paintings and settled in hilly states.
Rasamanjari series got prepared by Raja Kirpal Singh, stayed in the possession of PahdaKunjLal of Basohli whose ancestors were royal physicians to the rulers of Basohli. However, in 1956 Kunj Lal presented these paintings to BakshiGhulam Mohammad, the then Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir who donated them to Dogra Art Museum where they have been curated well. Second series of these paintings were painted by Devi Das in the year AD 1695 in which he had depicted squat figures, aquiline nose and a typical facial formula. Records reveal that out of this series, two paintings landed in Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and one in Lahore.
According to Dr.Sangeeta Sharma, Assistant Director, Archives, Archaeology and Museums, Jammu series of paintings available at the Museum possess a typical horizontal mat, red border with Takri scripted on the top and serial numbers on top left. On the back of these paintings Sanskrit verses have been inscribed in Devanagri. She said, “The architecture of pavilions depicted in the paintings possess towers, panelled doors, latticed windows and plinths ending in grotesque animal heads that gives Basophil paintings a unique characteristic”.
Dr Sangeeta added that interiors of rooms have been shown with cubicles with fruit trays, rose water sprinklers and flasks of wine. The carpets possess crude floral designs and trees like mangoes, cypresses, pomegranates and rhododendrons have been done very conventionally in Basohli paintings. Any good observant who has knowledge of Basohli paintings can tell its authenticity from the pattern of clouds, lighting and rain that’s very typical, she said adding that charming facial formula of women, receding forehead, high nose and wide lotus petal-like eyes are making Basohli paintings very unique. Along with these Jamas worn by men and transparent drapery of women with pearl necklaces make these paintings stand out of rest in India paintings.
Shivani Khajuria who teaches theory of art with special emphases on Basohli paintings at Industrial Training Institute (ITI), Jammu said, “Stone colours, brushes made out of squirrel hair and specially made hand papers either Wasli or ivory sheets are used to create a Basohli masterpiece. These are acid free papers and have archival qualities. Use of Takri on top borders and liquid gold in the figures/highlights is another hallmark of Basophil paintings which makes them expensive and unique”. Stones are crushed and the power mixed with water to form a paste which is then used as colours to paint a Basohli artwork.
Shivani informed that sometimes feathers of Kalmunha bird and colours arduously derived from dried-up leaves, flowers, beetle wings and khadiya earth besides 24 Carat gold and silver are used to decorate/finish Basohli paintings. She said, “The kind of precision and meticulousness that goes into making some artworks especially miniature portraits is so high that strands of hair on a subject’s head cannot be seen without a magnifying glass. Wherever the Basohli artwork is displayed like some in Dogra Art Museum, art lovers and visitors are provided magnifying glasses to see the precision with which paintings have been made.
State and national award winner Basohli painter, Sohan Singh Billawria who has painted 407 Basohli artworks for Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board and displayed his works in exhibitions across the globe said, “We are training children in Basohli paintings so that the art work survives”. To give an impetus to the students Billawria after having stayed in Jammu for pretty long time has moved to Basohli and set up a workshop to promote the art. Having spent 30 years into this profession, Billawria intends to preserve and protect this unique art so that it can be passed to next generation with more precision and authenticity.
Antima Manhas another Basohli artist whose works have been displayed in local exhibitions said, “I am pursuing the art professionally and has been successful in selling many pieces in India and even abroad. There’s however a need of having more innovation in Basohli art works as many new comers during their experiments with the art are distorting the same which is not a healthy sign”. Crediting her teachers Surinder Singh Balowria, Shivani Khajuria and Sona Padha for her works, she hoped that Government at its level will continue to promote the art in much better manner.