The heritage of the 16th-century Rajputana miniature is widely disputed. Some point to early illustrations in Jain texts and Ajanta murals; others insist that it was made whole by the Mughal influence, beginning with Emperor Humayun. Regardless, this blend of bright, bold Indian colours and subdued, delicate Persian lines has created an array of masterpieces that lines the walls of our national museums.
The Mughal impact drew diverse schools of art toward a more standard depiction of court scenes and portraiture. The eight principal schools (Malwa, Mewar, Bundi, Kotah, Amber-Jaipur, Marwar, Bikaner and Kishangarh) are divided on the basis of locality. Each displays unique facial types, costumes, landscapes and colour schemes. Kotah-Bundi’s bountiful forests were transferred onto the canvas as hunting scenes. Jodhpur’s rich folk tradition birthed barrel-chested warriors and almond-eyed maidens, amidst etched mango trees. The Kishangarh school professes the loveliest story of all – that of Maharaja Sawant Singh who lost his heart to the singer-slave Bani Thani and commissioned hundreds of exquisite paintings in her honour. This led to the formation of a new style of exaggerated features – elongated necks, doe eyes set away from the cheek and regally slim fingers.
Unlike their more famous Mughal counterparts, the above-mentioned schools of art focus on the communication of bhava (emotion) through a portrayal of scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, Sanskrit poems, religious texts, folklore and musical themes. Pigments were excruciatingly eked out of minerals and plant sources, even gold and silver. Paint brushes were excessively fine, rumoured to have been made from the hair of squirrels. Set on paper, ivory panels, wooden slabs, leather, cloth, and even palace walls, the art flourished during this period. Unfortunately the craft was lost with time, although shabbier versions, made with poster paints on cloth, are still available as souvenirs in the region. The true glory of the age will live on, albeit on a smaller scale.