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Evolution of the Chamba School of Pahari Painting


Pahari painting has several schools of art and Chamba is one of them. These schools, in most of their aspects, are similar to one another, and gauging the differences between these schools requires a deep understanding of form and style. Here, we will take you through the changes and fluctuations the Chamba School of Pahari painting has gone through in its evolution. Its distinct traditions predominated its paintings while commingling with styles that came from the outside.

Phase One of Chamba Painting: 1675-1735

Just as the neighboring hill states of Kullu and Bilaspur had their distinct cult of Rama, royal worship in Chamba was also centred around Rama. When Raja Prithvi Singh brought with him a stone image from Delhi, the worship of Rama became more prominent. The stone image was named Raghubir, a name of Rama, and the king installed it as the family idol. 

Basohli Style
Rama and Lakshman. C. 1650. Victoria and Albert Museum.

The painting with Ram and Lakshman standing face to face belongs to the earlier Basohli style which influenced Chamba paintings in the early eighteenth century. This influence possibly reached Chamba through Kullu, hinting towards some cooperation between Kullu and Chamba. Stunted figures, sharp receding brows, long eyes, and curved noses are found in paintings of Ramayana in Kullu school.

Chamba Painting
Rama and Sita are worshiped by Hanuman. Victoria and Albert Museum.

The golden throne resembles carved wooden panels in a similar style at Brahmor Kothi, a building that served as a residence and office for officers, as police courts and a storehouse for taxes, and as a rest house for the traveling elite. This building lies on the Kullu side of Chamba state, where Kullu’s influence became prominent in the Chamba paintings. Besides Rama, Sita, and Lakshman, paintings of different incarnations of Vishnu also appeared frequently. Patrons favoured Parasurama, the sixth incarnation as much as Rama himself. 

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Phase Two of Chamba Painting: 1735-1760

In Phase II, along with Kullu influence, Chamba painting, and its features also exhibit intrusion of 18th-century Mughal art. The clothes that the nobility and upper class of hill states wore were reminiscent of days of rising Mughal authority. Chamba paintings show Mughal-style trousers beneath long skirts with a stroke of the line. Young Krishna is wearing a crown of feathers of a monal pheasant loved in hill states for their rarity. 

Though the features of Krishna and the conjunction of black and red speak of Kullu’s influence, the paintings lack the frenzy in colors typical of Kullu. In these decades, we found a series of paintings on scenes of Bhagavata Purana. It shows the rising popularity of Krishna as a deity among the people of Hill states. As religious tendencies evolved, worship of Rama turned into loyalty toward cults. Just paintings in the phase emphasised solely the figures of Rama, portraits of individual rulers also became more popular. 

Chamba Painting
Krishna swallows the forest fire. From a Bhagavata Purana series. Victoria and Albert Museum

In a painting inspired by Bhagavat Purana, Krishna and Balarama with six boys and three cows are trapped in a circle of fire. Krishna is saving everyone by drawing a branch of fire in his mouth. The painting style of fire here shows a sharp break from both early and later Basohli’s influence which was prevalent in Phase I.

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Phase Three of Chamba Painting: 1760-1770

The faces of the ladies resemble faces in other paintings painted during the same years. They suggest various experiments in the depiction of faces took place at the end of Umed Singh’s reign. Though this painting marked a new phase in Chamba painting, a few details typical of Chamba painting remain constant—the long physique of the body, long skirts raised to knee length, and chocolate brown background. There is an air of spacious clarity and the background is more neat and there is no cluster of objects. This trait was a reaction against over-crowded compositions of Laharu and his contemporaries. 

Chamba Painting
Lady with a hookah. Chamba, c. 1760. Victoria and Albert Museum 

In this phase, Chamba’s own specific painting devices—cusped archway, ivory background, depicting Krishna with a square-shaped head, and cured local hair at the nape of the neck— were becoming more prominent. The paintings have an identical use of orange-red, deep yellow, white, and chocolate brown. The faces of women are more piquant. On a close inspection, you would find grace in posture, execution, and structure that suggests the influence of the Guler school. 

Phase Four of Chamba Painting: 1770-1830

The paintings of Chamba rulers and their courtly activities depict a strong influence of the Guler school in these decades. Ranjha, also known as Ram Lal, was the fourth son of Guler’s famous master artist, Nainsukh. He made several paintings for the Chamba rulers. Another name of a Chamba artist available to us is Nikki, presumed as the third son of Nainsukh. He illustrated his paintings with the paternal characteristics of his father. The faces of the girls in his painting have a Guler-Kangra style which had become vogue in Kangra and Guler. 

Chamba Painting
The lady and the tambura. c.1805-1810. Victoria and Albert Museum.

Other idioms of Guler paintings available in Chamba paintings are— projecting canopies linked with pavilion structure, doorways and their rolled blinds, geometrical flower beds, a terrace with a fountain, along with a pair of strutting ducks. These influences can be attributed to Raja of Chamba’s marriages into the families of Guler and Kangra. The lady in the painting is wearing a yellow dress and playing a green tambura. There are two beds of poppies and a fountain on the terrace, and instead of ducks, the painting has a pair of tame quails. 

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Different schools of Pahari paintings developed their unique style not by restricting influences from the outside, but by embodying the traditions of other states. The way Chamba artists drew elements from Kullu, Basohli, Guler, and Kangra helped Chamba School to create its unique identity. These exchanges of styles and traditions tell us a lot about the relationship between different hill states. This exchange happens through the travelling activities of artists and their patrons and also through marriages between the ruling houses. 

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