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Demystifying the Artistic Influences on Bikaner Miniature Painting

Bikaner Miniature Painting

Bikaner Miniature Painting: A Historical Fusion of Art Styles

With a rich history spanning over 400 years, Bikaner Miniature painting is a unique result of the confluence of Indian and Mughal artistic traditions. Originating as Matheran art in India, it evolved into the distinctive Bikaner art, merging the finesse of Indian craftsmanship with the influence of Mughal aesthetics.

The Mughal and Deccan Influences on the Bikaner School of Art

Vilaval Ragini, India, Rajasthan, Bikaner, ca. 1720, Opaque watercolour and gold on paper (Image source: National Museum of Asian Art)

The imperial Mughal workshops flourished under the patronage of the then-Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. These workshops established strong connections with the court of Raja Karan Singh of Bikaner. This led to an increase in Bikaner painting with Mughal subject matter.

The Mughal atelier was made up of many skilled miniature artists. These artists faced a crisis when Aurangzeb rose to power. A non-tolerant tyrant, Aurangzeb was a religious fanatic who withdrew the royal family’s support for the arts. Thus, in the 17th century, during the reign of Aurangzeb, artists from the Mughal atelier faced unemployment due to the loss of royal patronage. Maharaja Karan Singh, recognising their talent, employed Ustad Ali Raza from Delhi. Subsequently, many Mughal artists emigrated to Bikaner.

Raja Karan Singh’s youngest son was a general in the Deccan region, specifically Hyderabad, where he commanded Mughal forces. The master artist, Ruknuddin travelled with him. Due to this, Deccan influences began to develop in the paintings created during his reign. Many Bikaner Miniature artists in later years were either relatives of Ruknuddin or had emigrated to Bikaner from the Deccan region. We observe a strong influence of Jodhpur and Deccan Miniature painting during the reign of Maharaja Sujan Singh.

The Influence of Utsa Art on Bikaner Miniature Painting

Oftentimes, the court painting traditions of a region were completely different from the localised artistic styles. While court paintings were more polished and dependent on royal patronage, the folk art of the region could be more exploratory and free-spirited in nature. One of the rulers of Bikaner, Raja Rai Singh, favoured integrating Bikaner Miniature painting with the local art styles.

The Utsa community of Muslims was known as the pioneer of the Utsa art form, which was popular in the Mughal Empire. Rai Singh brought some famous Utsa artists to Bikaner and let them experiment with the pre-existing art styles of the region to create a completely new sub-style. With time, the influence of Utsa art became apparent in the other arts and crafts of Bikaner.

Distinctive Features of Bikaner Miniature Painting

Krishna lifts Mount Govardhan by Ustad Sahibdin, c. 1690. British Museum (Image Source: Wikipedia)

Themes in Bikaner paintings draw inspiration from Indian mythology, puranas, baramasa, ragmala, etc. However, although many schools of Rajasthani Miniature painting take inspiration from the Mughal style, Bikaner Miniatures resemble them the most from a stylistic point of view.

Because of this, they display a marked difference from other Rajasthani Miniature paintings. Namely, Bikaner Miniature painting does not include folk elements, bright and vibrant colours, or naturalistic depictions. We are able to trace the Bikaner school’s evolution through rich and thorough documentation. The details of Bikaner Miniature paintings are found in the royal archives, or the Bahis, and also in inscriptions that accompany the paintings themselves. These inscriptions, usually in the Marwari dialect, were occasionally written in Persian. They contained the name of the artist, the date of the painting’s completion, and sometimes the place of production.

The Bikaner school of art is known for its custom of artist portraits, which provide insights into their ancestry. The Miniature artists of Bikaner established studios, known as mandis. Amateur and beginner artists would work under master painters. Thus, many different styles of paintings are attributed to the master artists, who signed them after adding final touches known as ‘gudarayi’; which meant ‘to lift’.

Styles of Bikaner Miniature Painting

Bikaner Miniature painting is renowned for its refined elegance and subdued colour palettes. The artist Ruknuddin often painted court scenes with lush natural backgrounds and outdoor water fountains. Most human figures are drawn in the profile view and wear traditional Rajasthani clothing and heavy jewellery. When these paintings feature people from other regions, they are distinguished as outsiders by their non-native clothing and hairstyles. Ruknuddin’s distinctive square-shaped faces fell out of vogue when Usta Nure began painting small oval faces.

As Bikaner Miniature painting shares certain characteristics with the Mughal school, it is no surprise that the animals in these paintings are painted in a realistic style. They are closer to the Mughal naturalistic and realistic depiction than the stylised wildlife in Rajasthani Miniatures. A distinguishing feature of the Bikaner school is the artist portraits. These portraits enable us to learn about the famous artists of the period and trace their ancestry through the ages.

Themes and Subjects of Bikaner Miniature Painting

Krishna Kills the Ogress Putana, Folio from a Bhagavata Purana, India, Rajasthan, Bikaner, 1675-1700 (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

The subjects of Bikaner Miniature painting often originated from Indian mythology. Most of these Miniatures depicted a single scene or narrative from a longer story. Artists painted themes like the Ragmala, Baramhasa, etc and scenes from the Bhagavata Purana, Rasalila, etc. Some famous examples of Bikaner Miniature paintings include Ali Raza’s portrait of Karan Singh and paintings of Lakshmi Narayana. In later years, Bikaner Miniature paintings depicted beautiful architecture reminiscent of the city’s magnificent havelis.

The Miniature Artists of Bikaner

There were less than five hundred artists in the employment of the Bikaner court. They left behind over fifteen thousand paintings and many illustrated manuscripts: some commissioned for the royal library, and others for the zenanas.

Ruknuddin amalgamated the Bikaner style with the Deccan painting traditions. He illustrated different religious texts, such as Durga Satpsati, Ramayana and Rasikpriya. Some other well-known artists of the Bikaner school are Ibrahim, Isa, Nathu, and Sahibdin. During the reign of Maharaja Surat Singh (1827–1851), many artists arrived in Bikaner due to a rise in political ties with Jaipur. The declining Jaipur style created a new Bikaner sub-style that featured crude human figures, ornamental backgrounds and foliage, and an unusual shade of green. As with many other schools of Rajasthani Miniature painting, Bikaner Miniature Painting fell into decline due to the rising popularity of Company paintings and photography.

Despite this, a few artists continued to create Bikaner Miniatures in the ateliers of Maharaja Sardar Singh and his descendants. The contemporary Miniature artist Mahaveer Swami completely revived the Bikaner School of Art. He belongs to a long family lineage of traditional Bikaner Miniature artists. Mahaveer Swami has transformed the art form with his originality and expertise.  

You can learn Bikaner Miniature painting directly from master artist Mahaveer Swami by downloading the Rooftop app from Google Play or the App Store and enrolling in our Miniature Maestro Course! This in-depth course explores the traditional techniques and methods of eight distinct shailis of the Rajasthani School of Miniature Painting.

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