The oldest known miniature art in the Himalayan hills

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Basohli, which is a corrupted form of Sanskrit Vishvasthali, was an ancient state located on the Ravi River in Jammu and Kashmir. This style of painting developed here in the fourth quarter of the 17th century, the earliest dated examples of which date from the time of Raja Kirpal Pal (1678-93).

From the illustrated sheets of Rasamanjari (1695), the Gita Govinda (1730) and the drawings of the Ramayana (1816) – a systematic evolution of the Basohli painting style can be established, which is the oldest among the Pahari schools. of the hilly region.

At the beginning of the 20th century, paintings in the Basohli style, were called “Tibetis” (Paintings made in Tibet), mainly obtained from the Thankas which preserve a continuity of style through the centuries, and in expression as well as in the subject they are clearly distinguished from basohli paintings.

The main features of Basohli paintings were geometric patterns, bright colors and shiny enamel. Besides bright colors, brilliant colors like enamel have also been used. Decorative conventions and dramatic compositions where the figures were depicted dressed in rich costumes, stylized faces, and large bulging eyes imparted a unique individuality to these paintings.

Popular themes of Basohli paintings are portraits of local rulers, Hindu gods, figures from Hindu mythology, Radha-Krishna, Madhava-Malati love themes and themes from Bhagavata Purana. Figures in Basohli paintings were often depicted in rich costumes with stylized faces and large bulging eyes. Basohli paintings evolved through a fusion of Hindu mythology, Mughal miniature techniques, and folk art from the local hills. In these paintings, the faces of the painted figures are characterized by receding foreheads and large expressive eyes in the shape of lotus petals. The landscape is stylized and the trees are often depicted in circular form. The composition is simple but unique.

The paintings themselves are mostly painted in the primary colors red, blue and yellow. One of the most popular themes in Basohli painting, especially 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 from Basholi belonging to the Tarkhan community, who produced many skilled artists.

The first mention of the Basohli painting was in the Archaeological Survey’s annual report for the year 1918-19 published in 1921.

It seems plausible to suggest that a number of centers, such as Basohli, Mankot, Chamba or Nurpur, produced paintings in a traditional form with local variations when in the 17th century many such centers throughout the north of India flourished from the popular semi-level in court traditions. The exact nature of the parent style emanating from the various schools of which the Basohli style cannot be determined due to the complete absence of known materials. Whether it is called Basohli or something else, it is not necessarily a painting restricted to that particular center but refers to an entire region. In current terminology, “Basohli” represents the traditional decorative style of painting 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 also favored by other rulers and at one point the Basholi school of painting converged on other sub-schools. So the Basohli style has been changed to some extent as it has been processed by different artists for their patrons. Mankot is the main offshoot of the Basohli style.

The Mankot style (the modern Ramkot) was closest to the Basohli type. Both in the color scheme and in the design, Mankot and Basohli look so similar that if they do not have inscriptions giving the name of the king or the prince, it is indistinguishable from the Basohli portraits. The explanation for this extension of the Basohli style to Mankot is the marriage of Kirpal Pal from Basohli to a princess Mankot.

A basohli painting requires hard-to-find Veasli paper or even ivory leaf, special squirrel hair brushes, Kalmuha bird feathers, and painstakingly derived colors from dried leaves, flowers, beetle wings. and khadiya land. For ornamental purposes, 24 karat gold and pure silver are used. The delicacy and precision of Basholi’s portrait were 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 the rank of a work of art.

The most obvious feature of a Basohli miniature is its dark red border. The colors used in the painting are red, yellow and blue: red for love and passion; yellow for the sunny climates of the land of the Dogras and their cheerful character; and blue for who but Lord Krishna, the eternal lover. Representation of pomegranates, forest flame, mangoes and so on – trees that we find around us. Trees, fruits, foliage and birds are used not only as decoration but also to evoke emotions. The figures have a receding forehead, enlarged almond eyes and a well-proportioned body. Women wear tight choli-ghaghra-sheer saree sets, while men are pictured in a jama with a belt around the waist. Jama for men and choli-ghaghra-sari for women – this is not the traditional way of dressing the Dogras!

In fact, this is how the Mughals dressed. In Basohli painting, the subjects are mostly Hindus dressed in Mughal adornments and discovered in Mughal interiors.

It is the fascinating Mughal connection. In portraits, gold and silver are used to embellish the subjects’ dresses.

Local art can thrive with good sponsorship. Basohli painting flourished thanks to the encouragement of the rulers of the time. But, this art form is now thriving to get a new lease of life from the society that has made little or no effort to save this art from extinction.


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