Vedic Art: Indian Miniature Painting, Part 20

BY: SUN STAFF - 2.3 2017

Malasri Ragini 
Ragamala – Malwa, Central India, c. 1640

A serial presentation of India's artistic legacy in paintings, sculpture and temple architecture.


17th – 19th Centuries


Malwa was a great center of Sanskrit literature around the time of the Gupta period. To this day, every 12 years, the Simhastha Mela is held in the region, with more than 40 million pilgrims coming to take a holy dip in the river Shipra. Many other popular festivals also take place here, including the Gana-gour, celebrated in honour of Shiva and Parvati, and the Gordhan festival at Kartika, when local women sing the Chandrawali about Krsna's pastimes with the Gopis.

While Malwa School paintings illustrate the highest quality in devotional art, the region's religious and social customs are also translated into art. Mandana (literally, 'painting') is a folk art form in which the walls and floors of buildings are painted with traditional images. The white drawings stand out in sharp contrast on the red clay and cow dung walls.

Mandana Folk Painting

Villagers adorn every available surface with peacock and swastika motifs, animals and other signs of village life. These designs can sometimes be found recorded in the Miniature paintings, too, worked into various thematic scenes. In the Malasri Ragini illustration above, two deer are shown bottom left, rendered as wall paintings in the scene, as compared to the more life-like peacocks perched on the roofs.

Two art historians, Dr. Daljeet and Rajeshwari Shah, whose curatorial comments on Malwa School paintings are featured in gallery sheets at the National Museum in New Delhi, have provided interesting background information on the Malwa artworks:

"Malwa pioneered the art of miniature painting in Central India. Mandu is its earliest seat and the Mandu Kalpa-Sutra illustrations the earliest examples of its miniature paintings. Large protruding eyes, angular faces, men and women of moderate height, abundance of motifs and profusion of gold characterise these Kalpa-Sutra paintings.

The Malwa art style had its other centres at Dhar, Ujjain, Narsinghpur and Narsinghgarh. Malwa inclined to narrative rendering of its themes. The Mandu Ragamala and Ramayana illustrations of 1634 A.D. not only depict the initial style of Indian miniature painting but are also excellent in execution, draughtsmanship, colour-scheme and stylistic merit. Malwa has rendered the legends of Bhagavata-Purana and the known Sanskrit love-lore of Amru-Shataka with great thematic thrust, accuracy of details and great elaboration.

Balarama Bathing with the Gopis 
10th Canto, Bhagavat Purana 
Malwa, Central India, c. 1688 

A small canvas often compartmentalised, each compartment housing one episode independently, bright basic colours, blend of folk elements and highly charged faces are the other attributes of Malwa miniatures."

In the illustration above from Bhagavat Purana, we have another example of the traditional Malwa style, compartmentalized, in bold background colors, the figures flat and the perspective two-dimensional. Lord Balarama's water-sporting pastimes took place after Krsna's marriage to Rukmini. To soothe the Gopis' broken hearts, Krsna sent Balarama back to Vrindavan to re-enact His pastimes with them. At top center, Balarama is commanding Yamuna Devi to altar the river's course, and it flows down like two beautiful waterfalls into the scene below.

As mentioned in previous segments of this series, it is often suggested that the Malwa School found its primary influence not in the geographic region of Malwa, but in the Bundelkhand, a little east. Daljeet and Shah at the Delhi National Museum give a more detailed explanation of the importance of the Malwa school, particularly as it compares to two other nearby centers of art – the Orchha-Datia in Bundelkhand (near Jhansi, Uttar Pradesh) and Raghogarh (near Dhirpur, Madhya Pradesh) in Malwa region.

"There developed at Orchha-Datia in Bundelkhand and Raghogarh in Malwa two other Central Indian art styles. Orchha initiated as frescos, the art of painting in the middle of the 16th century. With unique vividness of theme, minuteness of details, fine line-work and maturity of form these frescos greatly influenced the subsequent art-styles of Orchha-Datia. Despite that there evolved at Tikamgarh, Dhubela, Panna and Chhatarpur some other centres of art, it was primary the miniatures from Datia that defined the Bundela art-style.

Datia is known for its excellent and elaborate illustrations of the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Bhagavata Purana and legends from other Puranas. The bulk of portrait-painting from Datia is large and magnificent. The art-world and the art-style of Datia stand in artistic merit at par with any of the major art-styles of Indian miniature painting. A comparatively larger rectangular canvas, profusion of deep blue and black colours, narrative quality, elaborate details and simple unadorned borders define the art-style of Datia.

Krsna Killing Dhenukasura 
Bhagavat Purana – Malwa, Central India, c. 1650

The Raghogarh dynasty had relations with Rajasthani royalty. Obviously, Raghogarh had its inspiration for art from Rajasthan. Raghogarh, however, developed its own different art-idiom and attained a distinction in art-style. The larger chunk of Raghogarh miniatures consists of portrait painting. They are highly versatile in their style of rendering. Obviously, there must have been a considerably large number of painters working under the state patronage. Raghogarh artists portrayed not only royal personages, the princes and princesses, but also their horses and other pets and the distinguished guests visiting Raghogarh.

Conventional themes like Ragamala… legends from the Bhagavata Purana and historical events have been largely rendered at Raghogarh. Simple borders in red ochre, static horses, their hooves and lower legs rendered in red ochre, robust male and comparatively simple and plain costumes are distinctive features of Raghogarh art.

Malwa, Orchha-Datia and Raghogarh, with their long traditions of painting, stylistic distinction, choice of themes and massive number of painted works, represent independent, fully developed and excellent art-styles. Ironically, Malwa is considered as one of the sub-styles of Rajasthan, whereas all major art-styles of Rajasthan are born of the Mandu [Malwa] art-style manifested in its Kalpa-Sutra paintings. Alike, a larger bulk of Indian miniatures is based on the poetry of Rasikapriya by Keshavadas, the eminent medieval court poet of Orchha, but, despite its massive excellent art, Orchha - Datia crave for the status of an independent art-school."

This explanation gives us a clearer picture of the importance of the Malwa School, and its preeminent position in relation to all the sub-schools of the Rajasthani and Central Indian Schools yet to be explored in this series.



Miniature Paintings of Central India, Dr. Daljeet and Rajeshwari Shah, National Museum in New Delhi