Rooftop – Where India Inspires Creativity

Learn Indian art online

Exploring the Evolution of the Guler School of Pahari Painting

An Introduction to the Guler School

Pahari painting, a form of Indian miniature painting, flourished in the foothills of the Himalayas between the 17th and 19th centuries. Among the various schools that emerged within this genre, the Guler School holds a prominent position. Known for its soft and delicate elegance, its lyrical depictions of nature and romance continue to captivate the hearts of art lovers. 

In this blog, we delve into the nuanced characteristics, historical context, and artistic influences that define the Guler School of Pahari painting.

A Historical Overview of the Guler School

Guler has a long history of the art of painting. Before the Guler School gained prominence, it was home to another style of painting. The famous Kangra style actually originated in this region! Certain Kashmiri painters sought refuge at the royal court of the king of Guler, Raja Dalip Singh (1695–1743). These artists were trained in the Mughal style of painting and were the pioneers of Kangra painting. The Guler School began developing during the early phase of the Kangra School.

Certain rulers of Guler took a page out of the Mughals’ book and began to support and provide patronage to artists.They also came into contact with the Mughal School of painting due to their relationship with the Mughal rulers. Due to this, paintings of the Guler School show considerable similarity to Mughal Miniatures, though they are not as intricate and refined.

Guler School: Evolution Through the Years

Lovers on a Terrace Watching an Approaching Thunderstorm. ca. 1780–90, First generation after Manaku and Nainsukh. Image credit: Museum Rietberg

The Guler School originated in the late 17th century in the small hill state of Guler, located in present-day Himachal Pradesh, India. It was established under the patronage of Raja Dalip Singh, who invited talented artists from nearby regions to his court. The Guler School became more active during the reign of Govardhan Chand. 

Govardhan Chand’s son, Prakash Chand, was also a patron of the arts. Known for his extravagant (and irresponsible) spending, his heavy debt did not stop him from supporting the Guler artists. The Guler School also reached its highest point under the patronage of Prakash Chand’s son, Bhup Chand.

Guler School: Themes and Subjects

The Guler School predominantly focused on themes such as Hindu mythology, the Radha-Krishna romance, and nature. Devotional themes, particularly the love between Radha and Krishna, were a recurring motif, depicted with great sensitivity and emotional depth. Themes like the Barahmasa were also quite popular.

Love stories also found a place in the miniatures of the Guler School. The tales of Sohni and Mahiwal as well as Nala and Damayanti feature prominently in the art of this region.

The artists of the Guler School first stuck to painting Rajput themes. However, they soon began experimenting with Sikh religious themes and painted portraits of Sikh dignitaries and religious leaders.   

Style and Technique

Guler paintings are characterised by their refined lines, delicate yet precise brushwork, and softened look and feel. Artists typically employed a wash technique, painting water-based pigments on handmade paper or cloth. They used bright, jewel-like colours such as vermillion and indigo, as well as gold leaf to further enhance the vibrancy of these paintings. Cool tones like greens and blues dominate the Guler colour palette.

As with all schools of Indian Miniature painting, artists of the Guler School too used natural and mineral pigments.

Guler School: Naturalistic Depictions

Guler School
South Wind Cools in the Himalayas. From the Second Guler Gita Govinda Series. ca. 1775, First Generation after Manaku. Image credit: Museum Rietberg

One of the distinguishing features of the Guler School is its naturalistic portrayal of landscapes, flora, and fauna. The artists drew inspiration from the picturesque surroundings of the Himalayan foothills and incorporated elements such as lush forests, meandering rivers, and cascading waterfalls into their compositions. In fact, paintings of the Guler School tend to depict lush environmental beauty and scenic views much more than its Pahari contemporaries.

Geometric flower beds, terraces, pavilions, fountains, and architectural elements like doorways with rolled blinds are some other characteristic features of Guler Miniatures. Perhaps a Mughal influence shines through in the Guler artist’s tendency to lean towards naturalism. Their paintings display soft colour palettes and realistic depictions of human faces.

Emotional Expressiveness

The Meeting of the Eyes, Manaku, ca. 1750. Image credit: Media Storehouse

Guler paintings are renowned for their ability to evoke a sense of bhakti (devotion) and rasa (emotional essence). Whether portraying the longing of Radha for Krishna or the serene beauty of nature, these paintings capture the subtleties of human emotions with grace and finesse.

The artistic legacy of this school was shaped by a confluence of cultural influences. Artists from Guler were known to have interacted with their counterparts from neighbouring regions, including the Mughal, Rajput, and Deccan kingdoms. Thus the miniatures of the Guler school showcase certain influences from other schools of Indian painting.

The influence of Mughal miniature painting can be seen in the use of perspective and the treatment of architectural elements, while Rajput and Deccan styles contributed to the lyrical quality and vibrant palette of Guler paintings.

Nainsukh, Manaku, and the Evolution of the Guler School

Guler School
Diwali in Guler, by Nainsukh,1760-1763. Image credit: British Library

Did you know that the artist Nainsukh originally belonged to the Guler region? His earlier paintings follow the archetype of the Guler school.

Guler School
Painting of Mian Gopal Singh of Guler playing chess with Pandit Dinamani Raina, Pandit Seu of Guler. ca.1720–1725. Image credit: Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

The artist Pandit Seu was one of Guler’s foremost artists. He and his sons, Manaku and Nainsukh, dominated the artistic sphere in this state at the peak of its artistic glory. Some art historians speculate that Nainsukh felt that Guler would not be able to accommodate three artists of such high calibre.

Whatever the reason may be, he eventually left Guler to work for patrons in other states. During this time, his gradual experimentation with style and subject matter would distance him from the Guler School.

His brother Manaku, however, continued to stick with his father’s style. One of his notable achievements was completing a series of large-scale illustrations of the Ramayana that his father had originally started. He experimented with various compositional techniques to depict complex narratives and situations.

Another one of Manaku’s famous works is a set of Gita Govinda. Dating back to 1730, this series features some interesting elements, including certain remnants of the Basohli school. One of them is the use of beetle wing casings to depict jewellery and precious gemstones in the paintings. Manaku also painted many portraits of Raja Govardhan Chand and other members of the royal family.

Legacy and Significance

Guler School
Radha Prepares to Meet Her Lover. ca. 1780–90, First generation after Manaku and Nainsukh. Image credit: Museum Rietberg

Despite its relatively short-lived existence, the Guler School made a significant contribution to the style of Pahari painting. Its influence extended beyond the confines of the Himalayan region, influencing subsequent artistic developments in other regions of India. Certain features of Guler painting also influenced Pahari artists from the Chamba and Kangra schools.

In the mid-19th century, many artists migrated to Punjab, which led to the decline of the Kangra and Guler School. Even though some painters remained in the Pahari regions, they lost the refined touch that was seen previously. Moreover, artists began painting with chemical paints instead of natural ones, which led to the loss of the ‘soft’ look that the Guler School was famous for.

To learn more about Indian art forms, download the rooftop app from Google Play or App Store to stay updated on our upcoming art events and workshops. Stay tuned to rooftop blogs and follow us on @rooftop_app.

By Melissa D’Mello.

Related Posts