Painting with Jewels: Miniature painting in India

POSTED: Thursday, February 28, 2019



Travelling through Rajasthan you are bombarded with art, design and colour at every turn. Each city was, until 1947, the capital of a distinct principality, and so, at every stop, another fort or palace looms above you awaiting exploration. Rajasthan was never officially part of British India, and princes continued to rule until 1947. Many of their forts and palaces have now been converted into museums that are world famous for their preservation of Indian cultural heritage, particularly these exquisite historical paintings. Jodhpur, Udaipur and Jaisalmer house three of my favourite palace museums and city-forts, and within each of these, exquisite miniature paintings are scattered like jewels within the ornately carved palaces that resemble gigantic jewellery boxes. 



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Indian miniature paintings use tiny intricate details to present entire histories, religious scriptures and individual experiences. Characterised by delicate brushwork, vibrant colour, and intricate symbolism, today, painters still use squirrel hair to create this distinctive style. Miniature paintings are crafted on a variety of materials. These include palm leaves, paper, papyrus, marble, ivory, cloth and wood.  Their resemblance to jewels continues, as the paints are typically created using natural materials such as precious stone dust, gold and silver as well as indigo and vegetables. Opulence meets delicacy in these tiny masterpieces. 



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Miniature painting in India can be traced back to the 7th century AD, where it was patronised in Bengal. Buddhist scripts were a common source of inspiration at this time, and scripts and deities were illustrated onto tiny 3-inch palm leaf manuscripts in minute detail. Later, from the 12th-16th centuries, miniature painting was adopted in Western India, but Jainism replaced Buddhism as the main source of inspiration. Unsurprisingly, it was in Rajasthan that the bold colours we recognise today were championed. There are many distinct schools of miniature painting, which in turn combine Iranian, Turkish and European influence, resulting in unique styles and pieces that are a product of global interaction and trade. 



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Persian influences resulted in the advent of paper, which replaced palm leaves, yet it was under the Mughals (16th-18th centuries) that miniature art exploded across India. At this time, they combined religious, musical, royal and philosophical inspiration. In Rajasthan, most paintings depicted the love stories of Krishna and the myths of ancient Hindu texts of the Ramayana and Mahabharata. The palaces across Rajasthan all boast stunning tableaus, murals and miniatures in jewel bright technicolour to faded pastels. 



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Across India this art form and style is literally everywhere! Even our hostel in Pushkar, a repurposed hotel, was entirely covered in intricate and radiant wall paintings in the style of older miniature painting. The rich, complex and multi-cultural artistic heritage of Rajasthan is captured in these delightful miniatures, which have in turn inspired art throughout India and the world. 



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