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Earliest known miniature art in Himalayan hills

Post by on Sunday, July 18, 2021

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Basohli, which is a corrupt form of the Sanskrit Vishvasthali, was an ancient state, situated on the river Ravi in Jammu and Kashmir. This style of painting was developed here in the fourth quarter of the 17th century, the first dated examples of which are from the time of Raja Kirpal Pal (1678-93).
From the illustrated leaves of Rasamanjari(1695), the Gita Govinda(1730) and the Ramayana drawings (1816)- a systematic evolution of the Basohli style of painting can be set up which is the oldest one amongst Pahari schools in the hilly area.
In the beginning of the 20th century, paintings of the Basohli style, were called “Tibetis” (Paintings done in Tibet), mostly obtained from the Thankas which preserve a continuity of style through the centuries, and in expression as well as in subject matter they can be clearly distinguished from Basohli paintings.
The chief characteristics of the Basohli paintings were geometrical patterns, bright colors and glossy enamel. Besides the bold colors, lustrous enamel like colors were also employed. The decorative conventions and dramatic compositions where the figures were shown clad in rich costumes, stylized faces, and large bulging eyes lent unique individuality to these paintings.
The popular themes of the Basohli paintings are the portraits of local rulers, the Hindu gods, figures from Hindu mythology, Radha-Krishna, Madhava-Malati love themes and themes from the Bhagavata Purana. Figures in Basohli paintings were often depicted in rich costumes with stylized faces and large bulging eyes. Basohli paintings evolved by fusion of Hindu mythology, Mughal miniature techniques and folk art of the local hills. In these paintings the faces of the figures painted are characterized by the receding foreheads and large expressive eyes shaped like lotus petals. The landscape is stylized and trees are often depicted in circular form. The composition is simple but unique.
The paintings themselves are mostly painted in the primary colors of Red, Blue and Yellow. One of the most popular themes in Basohli painting particularly during the reign of Kripal Pal was the Rasamanjari written by the poet Bhanu Datta. A Basohli Rasamanjari series was illustrated by Devi Das, a local painter of Basholi belonging to the Tarkhan community, which produced many skilled artists.
The first mention of Basohli painting was in the annual report of the Archaeological Survey for the year 1918-19 published in 1921.
It seems plausible to suggest that a number of centres, such as Basohli, Mankot, Chamba, or Nurpur had been producing paintings in a traditional form with local variations when in the 17th century many such centres all over north India were blossoming forth from the semi-folk level into court traditions. The exact nature of the parent style from which the different schools including Basohli style emanated cannot be determined because of the complete absence of known materials. Whether we call it Basohli or something else, it does not necessarily mean painting restricted to that particular centre but designates a whole region. In current terminology, ‘Basohli’ stands for the decorative traditional style of paintings in the hills, with its seats in Mankot, Jasrota, Chamba, Nurpur, Bilaspur, Kulu, and Mandi, each representing local forms of Basohli.
The Basohli style was favoured by other rulers also and at one stage Basholi school of painting converged on other sub schools. Thus the Basohli style was modified to a certain extent as it was handled by different artists for their patrons. Mankot is the main offshoot of Basohli style.
The style of Mankot(the modern Ramkot) was the closest to the Basohli type. Both in color scheme and drawing, Mankot and Basohli are so alike that if they do not have inscriptions giving the king`s or prince`s name it is impossible to distinguish them from Basohli portraits. The explanation of this extension of the Basohli style to Mankot is the marriage of Kirpal Pal of Basohli to a Mankot princess.
A Basohli painting requires hard-to-find Veasli paper or even ivory sheet, special brushes made of squirrel hair, feathers of Kalmuha bird and colours laboriously derived from dried-up leaves, flowers, beetle wings and khadiya earth. For ornamental purposes 24-carate gold and pure silver are used. The deftness and precision of Basholi portrait was such that a single hair of the subject can be recognized with a magnifying glass and this indescribable element of a painting elevates it to a work of art.
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. 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. The characters have receding foreheads, almond-shaped enlarged eyes and well-proportioned bodies.  Women wear tight fitting choli-ghaghra-diaphanous sari ensembles, 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!
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 the fascinating Mughal connection. In portraits, gold and silver is used to embellish dresses of the subjects.
Local art can thrive on good patronage.  Basohli painting flourished with the encouragement of Rulers of that time. But, this art form is now thriving to get a fresh lease of life from the society which made little or no efforts to save this art from perishing.  

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