Indian rituals and customs have deep connections with painting traditions. The Rajasthani school of painting developed from the interweaving of many such cultural practices. Indian art has been majorly inspired by Hindu mythology, local folklore and other religious and secular texts. The Rajasthani painting tradition incorporated these local traditions, and the ideas of ruling patrons. This split the Rajasthani painting tradition into various sub-schools such as Bikaner, Bundi, Kota, Kishangarh, Malwa, Marwar, and Mewar to name a few. Each of these painting traditions developed between the 16th and 19th centuries.
The Bikaner school of art was developed in the 17th century by artists from the Mughal atelier. They were primarily at a loss of employment during the reign of Aurangzeb. Maharaja Karan Singh employed Ustad Ali Raza, a master painter from Delhi. His early works from the 1650s can be considered the beginning of the Bikaner school of Art. The major themes of the Bikaner school of art are from Indian mythology, puranas, baramasa, ragmala, etc.
Bikaner tradition of painting is known for its refined elegance and subdued color palettes. There is use of finer brush strokes to provide detailing to the paintings. There is also a focus on forested backgrounds, and later, intricate architectural elements. The natural elements within the paintings remain primarily dominant, intricately woven within the rest of the image. The paintings generally depict individual scenes from larger stories. The characters have fine details, as one would expect in miniature paintings, and are mostly depicted in a profile view. It is rare to find front-faced depictions in Bikaner paintings. The characters adorn heavy jewels and can be found wearing typical Rajasthani attire, ghagra-choli and dhoti. However, people from other religions are depicted wearing their traditional dresses and turbans. The depiction of animals in Bikaner painting tradition is perhaps its most distinctive feature. It is similar to some Mughal style depictions, with animals painted in a realistic manner. The paintings are never flat and have a sense of depth to them. One of the most unique features of the Bikaner school of art is the custom of artist portraits. These portraits, called Ustas or Ustad often had information about their ancestry.
Master artist Ruknuddin, a celebrated Bikaner artist, amalgamated the Bikaner style with the Deccan painting traditions. He illustrated different religious texts such as Durga Satpsati, Ramayana and Rasikpriya. Some of the other well-known artists of the Bikaner school are Ibrahim, Isa, Nathu, and Sahibdin. There was a tradition to set up studios, or mandis where the artists worked under the supervision of a master artist. Many such mandis existed in Bikaner, and the paintings completed in mandis were signed under the master artist, even if they were stylistically different. However, in all such paintings, the master artist gave a few final touches called ‘gudarayi’, meaning ‘to lift’.
Out of all the Rajasthani painting schools, Bikaner is the closest to the Mughal miniature painting tradition, and hence, stylistically different from the other Rajasthani schools of art. It does not include folk elements, the use of bright shades, or completely natural depictions as in the other Rajasthani miniature paintings. It is the best-documented school of Rajasthani paintings, details of which can be found in the Bahis, the royal archives, as well as inscriptions on the paintings themselves.