Founded in the year 1611, the Rajput principality of Kishangarh lies on the banks of Lake Gundalao, about 80 kilometers from the Pink City. From its very inception, and further over the years, the city has served as a cultural confluence where diverse traditions of intellectual and artistic expression intermingle with one another. Renowned around the world for the distinct art style of Kishangarh painting, the burg is situated at the curious intersection of riti and bhakti, the Rajput and the Mughal, and finally, the realms of the spiritual and the royal.
The Kishangarh style of painting itself originated in the 18th century as one of the many schools of miniature art in Rajasthan. It is known for its distinctive and identifiable characteristics - men and women with elongated facial features, half-closed eyes, big foreheads and serpentine locks of hair. The paintings usually depict large panoramic landscapes portraying both the natural splendor as well as the built architecture of Rajasthan. Thematically and stylistically, the school straddles Hindu and Islamic influences, the origins of which lie in the cultural premise of royal patronage. In order to comprehend the artistic liminality of Kishangarh painting, we therefore must travel back in time to the inception of the cityscape itself.
Kishangarh was founded by (and named after) Kishan Singh, the eighth son of Raja Udai Singh of Jodhpur. Linked to the Mughals through marriage, the Rajput king inaugurated a rich court culture revolving around the production, discourse, and dissemination of both art and literature. Patrons and intellectuals were drawn to this cradle of inspiration, and thus began a tradition of soirées involving courtiers, nobles, poets, musicians, dancers - a milieu of aesthetes who formed the literati of the principality. Both the Mughals and the Rajputs were privy to these discussions, where an exchange of cerebral ideas, inspirations, and traditions took place - which would eventually go on to influence Kishangarh art as well as poetry. The successors of Kishan Singh carried on the legacy of his symposium, and the erudite gatherings of the crème de la crème of society came to be immortalized in Kishangarh’s paintings.
The late 17th century witnessed the inauguration of the court atelier in Kishangarh, which swiftly became the heart of the still-developing school of painting. Attracting master artists such as Bhavanidas, Dalchand, and Kalyanchand, the atelier specialized in painting courtly scenes, hunting scenes, and portraits of the royal family. With Maharaja Savant Singh ascending to the throne in the 18th century, the subject of Kishangarh painting shifted towards the religious Bhakti union of Radha-Krishna. Supervised by the Maharaja – who chose the name Nagaridas as his poetic alias – the continued soirées truly flourished and reached their full potential.
Fig.1 Devanagari calligraphy of poetry composed by the ruler of Kishangarh, Maharaja Savant Singh (circa 1748-1757)
Not only did Nagaridas write in Hindi Braj bhasha, but he also experimented with old Urdu vernacular, playing with language in accordance with the subject matter. In him we see the culmination of Kishan Singh’s vision of an intellectual conclave - where aesthetic disciplines lent themselves to engagement, experimentation and even enjoyment. The court of Kishangarh thus staked its claim as a locus of cultural activity. It is in Savant Singh that we see the liminality of Kishangarh painting intensify, poised at a juncture between the royal and the deification of royalty. This point of dichotomy engenders the spiritual thematic in the Kishangarh school, where love becomes devotion, mortal actuality becomes timeless sacredness, and the crown prince of a Rajput principality writes love poems in Urdu vernacular.
Early Modern India: Literatures and Images, Texts and Languages by Nadia Cattoni, Maya Burger
Cultural Exchange in Eighteenth-Century India: Poetry and Paintings from Kishangarh by Heidi Pauwels
The Art of Shringara: Revisiting the Kishangarh School of Rajasthani Painting Soma Ghosh
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