Keeping Himalayan Art Alive

Starved of funding, a centuries-old painting tradition is on the verge of extinction, but a new generation is determined to sustain it

Keeping Himalayan Art Alive
An artist gives final touches to a Kangra miniature painting on Nov. 1, 2018, near Dharamshala, India. (Shyam Sharma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Anil Kumar Raina does not need photos, voice notes or even books to rattle off the names he has grown up hearing. In truth, the 60-year-old artist has not quite learned how to use his smartphone well. Ask him about his family history, however, and he narrates with pride the lives of his ancestors who once flourished in this Western Himalayan region. Raina, the eighth-generation artist of the family that made the Indian Pahari miniature school famous, lives a life of obscurity. His village lies 13 miles from the Dalai Lama’s home-in-exile at McLeodganj, in the hilly state of Himachal Pradesh in north India. He holds on to the anecdotes passed down to him by his family as firmly as he does to the artwork he has created using the traditional techniques he inherited as heirlooms.

Pahari miniature art flourished in the north Indian hills between the 17th and 19th centuries in the towns of Jammu, Chamba, Kangra, Guler, Mandi and Basholi. Over the course of about two centuries, Raina’s ancestors — who enjoyed royal patronage — produced a large and stunning body of work, which is now showcased in museums across the world.

“During the later days of the Mughal rule under [Emperor] Aurangzeb, there was not much patronage to the arts,” explains Raina, sitting with New Lines in his house in the village of Makroti, near Kangra. “Perhaps that’s why my forefather, Pandit Seu, migrated from Jammu to Kangra in the 17th century along with his sons, Nainsukh and Manaku. They were able to hone their artistic skills in the beautiful Kangra Valley.” As the art developed, it bifurcated into different schools, such as Basholi, Kangra, Guler, Chamba, Mandi and Bilaspur.

Unlike the elaborate chronicles about Mughal miniatures, however, the Pahari miniature art lacked documentation. India owes almost the entire wealth of information on this rare art form to Professor B.N. Goswamy, an art critic and historian who has spent half a century researching Pahari paintings and their history. Gathering information from the north Indian town of Haridwar, considered holy by Hindus, Goswamy has pulled out records from priestly bahis (ledger entries) to trace the ancestry of these artists.

In a research paper published in Marg magazine in 1968, Goswamy wrote, “The first member of the family of Pandit Seu, as it has come to be called, about whom we have any tangible information is Pandit Seu himself. This exists in the form of a very refined sketch of the artist, which at present is in the Chandigarh Museum. The inscription on the portrait sketch is in mixed Devanagari and Takari and reads ‘Pandit Seu Musavvar,’ meaning ‘Pandit Seu, the artist.’ The name of Pandit Seu gets linked with his ancestors in an entry in a bahi (ledger) at Haridwar in the hand of Nainsukh, the younger of his two sons.”

The Chamba-based art historian and artist Vijay Sharma has also played a central role in documenting Pahari miniature art. He has spent most of his lifetime unraveling the fascinating world of miniatures, with only limited resources at hand. Retired as an artist from the century-old Bhuri Singh Museum, the 60-year-old is credited as the man behind the revival of Pahari miniature art. Recognizing his contributions, the Indian government awarded him a Padma Shri, the fourth-highest civilian honor, in 2012.

The son of a driver in Himachal Pradesh’s state transport department, the young Sharma always admired the miniature art he saw at the Bhuri Singh Museum in his Chamba hometown. “I was told they’re centuries old but their colors still looked so fresh. I tried to replicate them but didn’t have the right techniques to do it,” he says. He started tracing the origins of the art and discovered the rich history of Pahari miniatures. He heard that families in Chamba knew the art, but were unable to pursue it without financial support.

With the help of his enterprising father and the museum’s then-director, V.C. Ohri, Sharma landed in Varanasi, a 5,000-year-old Indian city on the banks of the Ganges, to learn the nuances of the art from Ustad Sharda Prasad. He didn’t just learn how to use delicate brush strokes, but also gave new life to the art by training the next generation. He authored several books, including “Painting in the Kangra Valley,” a detailed survey of the artistic styles of Guler and Kangra in the 18th and 19th centuries.

“In the early 18th century, after Aurangzeb’s death and the fall of the Mughal Empire, there was anarchy in Delhi,” Sharma told New Lines. “Many Mughal court artists fled to the hills. That was also when Pahari rulers stopped paying their contribution to the Mughals. This brought in affluence, and thereby these rulers were able to provide patronage to Pahari artists.” Meanwhile, Raja Sansar Chand became the scion of the Katoch Dynasty that ruled Kangra. His reign is considered the golden period for the valley. Manaku continued to train under his father, while Nainsukh went to Jasrota near Jammu to enjoy the patronage of Raja Balwant Dev Singh. A rare masterpiece by Nainsukh completed during this phase was sold at the Christie’s New York auction for a record $2,225,000 in 2008.

A large proportion of these precious gems are housed in prominent museums across the world. The collection of Pahari artwork at Zurich’s Rietberg Museum is especially notable. London’s Victoria and Albert Museum boasts of a rich collection of Pahari miniatures, as does New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, which contains iconic paintings, including one of a court scene by Purkhu, Sansar Chand’s favorite artist.

Recently, a painting from the collection of Pahari art in the Maryland-based Walters Museum led to brief controversy, when a leading Indian magazine paired the image of the artwork titled “Kali,” which depicts a Hindu goddess standing over a nude Lord Shiva, with a column by the Indian economist, author, and translator Bibek Debroy, who is known for translating the two Hindu epics and several scriptures in English. A police complaint was lodged against the magazine for hurting religious sentiments. “Lots of miniature paintings have been done on Kali,” says Sharma. “This painting is part of [the] ‘Tantric Devi’ series, the 10 manifestations of tantric goddesses known as Das Mahavidya, based on Tantric literature and old scriptures. The artist has just depicted whatever is written in the scriptures.”

The controversy raised curiosity about the Kangra art style. Pahari miniatures are often associated with themes of love, rasa and shringara (the Indian aesthetic of love and beauty). Yet “it is a misunderstanding that all of Kangra painting is about love,” Goswamy told New Lines. “There are scores of other themes, for example, the Devi Mahatmya. The worship of the goddess was very widespread in the hills, in one form or the other, in a benign or destructive form.” A 2010 film by the director Amit Dutta, “Nainsukh,” offers a further glimpse into this worship of the goddesses in the hills.

Typically illustrated with natural pigment colors on handmade, acid-free paper, Pahari miniatures are famous for their colorful and intricate depictions of Hindu deities, including Radha, Krishna, Rama, Sita, Shiva, Parvati, Kali and others. Some of the popular Indian poetic texts and aesthetics that form central themes of this art include “Gita Govinda” (composed by the 12th-century poet Jayadeva, depicting the relationship between Radha, Krishna and the gopis), “Barahmasa” (poems from folk traditions about a woman’s longing for her lover over the seasons), Shringar Rasa (the aesthetic of beauty and desire), Nayika Bhed (different forms of the heroine or nayika, as classified in a performing arts treatise, “Natya Shastra”) and the Shiv Parivar (Lord Shiva’s family). These works find a place in Raina’s aging steel cupboard, packed neatly in a blue plastic folder. They include “Barahmasa,” a series of 12 paintings showcasing four seasons according to the Hindu calendar, scenes from the epic Ramayana, Nayika Bhed, Shringar Ras and more, each worth anything between $100 and $1,000.

In March 2022, Christie’s New York sold a painting from a “Ramayana” series by the artists of the first generation after Manaku and Nainsukh, dated 1775, for $2,016,000. “This painting is an emblematic example of the great generation of artists, who produced art not only on the ‘Ramayana,’ but also the ‘Gita Govinda’ and the ‘Bhagavata Purana.’ The artists are known for their astute attention to detail and their propensity to veer towards naturalism in their depictions of landscape and characters,” Hannah Perry, a junior specialist in Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian works of art at Christie’s, told New Lines.

Born in a family as illustrious as Seu’s, Raina carries on his shoulders the weight and legacy of an art withering away for lack of patronage. That is why he had to take up a job as a gallery attendant at Dharamsala’s Kangra Art Museum to sustain his family. His late father, Chandu Lal Raina, who died in 1994, faced a similar predicament and became the first person from the Seu clan to dabble in another profession — goldsmithing. While that helped pay the bills, Chandu Lal was passionately involved in the revival of the ancestral art form as part of the Guru-Shishya Parampara program set up in the late 1980s by the state language and culture department of Himachal Pradesh.

“There weren’t too many takers. Despite the government offering to pay for learning the art, barely anyone enrolled,” says Dhaniram Khushdil, a 52-year-old Pahari miniature artist from Kangra, the erstwhile princely state. The Kangra Fort, built by the Katoch Dynasty, now lies in dilapidated condition. Maharaja Sansar Chand, the largest patron of miniature art, was the last to occupy it — in the 19th century.

Khushdil and Mukesh Kumar Dhiman, also 52, met Chandu Lal in 1988. Unlike others, they stayed on, fascinated by the intricacies of the art belonging to their hometown. In 2000, the duo met Vijay Sharma and trained under him. But there were no monetary gains. In 2004, Akshai Runchal, an engineer from McLeodganj, also called Little Lhasa, spotted the two artists who had been painting the walls of temples in and around the Kangra region. “Trained by the masters themselves, the artists were talented but were just relying on the soft money they earned from the temples. We decided to put their skills to good use and conceptualized a course designed by them. Quite a few students applied, and that’s how the Chitera Art School was born under the aegis of the nonprofit Kangra Arts Promotion Society (KAPS) in 2006.” After close to a decade, in 2015, KAPS succeeded in getting a Geographical Indication (GI) tag for Kangra miniature art. “Getting the GI tag for Kangra painting was important because a lot of fakes are being sold around the country under the same name,” Runchal explains. “When we sell an artwork, it bears the GI stamp of authenticity.”

Initially, KAPS held their classes in Dharamsala’s Kangra Art Museum under the guidance of curator Ritu Malkotia, but eventually they set up an art gallery at the main square in McLeodganj, a bustling and touristy space five minutes on foot from the Dalai Lama’s temple and residence.

Monu Kumar, 42, is a trained Pahari miniature artist. He looks after the gallery and also trains budding artists. Kumar would have continued painting buses and signboards had he not applied for the KAPS art program in 2007. “My father is a daily wager. Since I was always interested in painting, I began working on signboards when I was 15 to eke out a living and support my family. As I was trying my hand at learning Thangka painting (a Tibetan Buddhist artform), I was selected among seven of the 250 students who applied for a course at the Chitera Art School in 2007,” says Kumar, who hails from Khanyara village, five miles from McLeodganj. Training in Pahari miniature art hasn’t just transformed Kumar’s life but also given the Kangra Valley a promising young artist to revive the dying art.

This affable young artist can often be seen sitting cross legged on the floor of the gallery, dipping his brush in natural pigment colors and filling them into his neat sketches. The walls are adorned with paintings of every size and shape. Kumar points to a large canvas and says, “This is made using acrylic paints, and not the organic pigments traditionally used. That’s usually the case with large canvases.” Acrylic paints make an appearance in tiny steel boxes that the artist duo Dhiman and Khushdil carry to the Kangra temple. Perched atop a wooden ladder, they were painstakingly restoring the walls of the Brajeshwari Temple when New Lines met them. Even as the temple bursts at the seams with devotees lining up to catch a glimpse of the deity, the artists seem unperturbed. Opening his palette of colors, Dhiman says, “These are acrylic paints. Unfortunately, the last restoration happened with non-organic paints.”

For Raina, the use of acrylic paints is tantamount to sacrilege. He opens the treasure trove of his collection of stones used to make organic paints. There is Shingraf, the heavy red stone which renders the deep red, costing approximately $300; Varki Hartal, used to derive bright yellow, costing around $100; natural indigo; white from zinc oxide; and black from burning a mustard oil lamp. He makes the brushes by hand using squirrel hair. While Raina shares his joy of shrinking the world around him into beautiful miniatures, he is unable to hide his disillusionment at his son, in his early 20s, becoming a techie. “He’s not learnt this art, he’s a software engineer. We need money to run the house and we can’t do that if we carry on with this tradition.”

The same disillusionment is palpable in Vijay Sharma’s voice, too, on a phone call from Chamba, where he resides, works and teaches miniature art. He feels the art is in desperate need of government support. “Classical music and miniature painting were court arts. When the country became free, music still got patronage. Even though there are colleges teaching art in the country, there’s none teaching the traditional art of miniatures. However, in Lahore’s art college (in Pakistan) miniature style is taught. It’s a paradox that there’s no cultural policy in India regarding the revival of its ancient art forms,” says the artist. Pahari miniature masterpieces may be showcased in museums across the world, but the silver lining is that custodians of this art form, including Sharma, Raina, Dhiman, Khushdil and Kumar, are hard at work keeping the legacy alive, one brush stroke at a time.

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