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Fireworks in Indian Art: Sparklers and Celebration

fireworks in Indian art

From the discovery of fire to the invention of fireworks – we humans have always been fascinated by light. Time and again, poets and artists have strived to represent the brilliance of light on their canvases. Be it Van Gogh’s famous painting “Starry Night” or S L Haldankar’s “Glow of Hope”.  Perhaps, it was this fascination with light that sparked the invention of fireworks. The happiness we feel when we watch those bursts of light in the sky is like this universal thing we all share. It’s like being a kid again, that pure wonder and joy. Interestingly, in India, artists depicted fireworks as early as the 15th century. So, our love for the bright spectacle of light, whether from ancient flames or modern fireworks, has a long and colourful history. Let’s unearth the representation of fireworks in Indian art!

When did the depiction of fireworks in Indian art first begin?

India has celebrated Diwali and other festivals with firecrackers for centuries. There is a heap of both written and pictorial evidence that underscores their popularity.

In India, evidence of fireworks dates back to at least the 15th century, not just in texts but also in paintings depicting celebrations. Like anything bordering on the spectacular, Mughal artists in particular, frequently and casually included fireworks in their artworks.

A Dip into the History of Fireworks 

fireworks in Indian art
A firework display for Muḥammad Sháh, portrayed seated and leaning against a bolster, Mughal style, circa 1730 (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

In 1953, PK Gode, a historian and curator, wrote “The History of Fireworks in India Between AD 1400 and 1900”. It is a book that traces the history of fireworks through Indian history. He found a fascinating tradition where fireworks took centre stage in wedding celebrations. This suggests that the lively baraat processions we know today might have had a compelling historical precursor. 

Delving into the accounts of the Portuguese traveller Duarte Barbosa, Gode uncovered a vivid description of fireworks lighting up the sky during a Brahmin couple’s wedding in Gujarat in 1518. This underscores the widespread availability and allure of fireworks in that era. 

In Indian art, we come across fireworks in paintings depicting weddings, celebrations of Diwali or other festivals and events of socio-political or cultural importance. Let’s look at the varied representations of fireworks in Indian art below!

Diwali Celebrations: Fireworks in Indian Art 

Living in India, most of us automatically associate fireworks with the festival of light – Diwali. In Indian art, there is an abundance of paintings portraying Diwali celebrations taking place in royal palaces and natural surroundings. Here are some captivating examples!

Kishangarh style painting showing a Princess enjoying a sparkler in the month of Karttika, Unknown, circa A.D. 1750 (Image source: Google Arts and Culture)

This beautiful miniature painting is from around 1750. It shows a princess enjoying the lights and celebration of Diwali, surrounded by her attendants. The princess, smoking a hukkah and drinking wine is lighting a bright sparkler against the dark night. Take note of how the painters depicted the rising smoke; it truly showcases the talent of the miniature artists. 

Also Read: The Chronicles Of Kishangarh Miniature Paintings

Royals Celebrating Diwali with Fireworks

Pahari Style painting depicting lovers celebrating Diwali with fireworks, circa 1800 (Image source: British Museum)

Also Read: Visual Poetry Of Love: Kangra School Of Pahari Painting

“Ladies Playing with Fireworks”, school of Mir Kalan Khan, Lucknow, circa 1780 (Image source: Sotheby’s)

These paintings don’t just focus on Diwali, but cleverly capture the festival’s essence. Some showcase the brilliance of fireworks illuminating women’s quarters in palaces. While others vividly narrate the myths and stories behind Diwali. There’s also a delightful portrayal of people from various religions coming together to celebrate, promoting unity in these artworks.

Fireworks in Indian Art Showing Islamic Celebrations

“Fireworks on the Night of Shab-i Barat Feast”, Folio from the Davis Album, 18th century (Image source: Metropolitan Museum of Art)

If you believed fireworks were reserved solely for Diwali, reconsider that notion. This painting serves as a poignant reminder that people used fireworks not only during Hindu festivals like Diwali but also on occasions related to other religions.

The above painting depicts Shab-i-barāt, occurring on the fourteenth day of the Islamic month of Sha‘bān. People mark this significant event with festivities, prayers, and fireworks in honour of their ancestors. During this night, it is believed that God orchestrates the destinies of the living for the upcoming year. In this artwork, a Mughal woman stands on a terrace, releasing a firework. In the backdrop, the distant riverbank glows with the light of burning fireworks.

Fireworks in Indian Art Depicting Varied Celebrations

To this day,  weddings continue to feature fireworks as a mark of celebration. While innovation and technology have elevated today’s fireworks to greater extravagance, the timeless charm of wedding celebrations adorned with fireworks has been witnessed for years.

Fireworks in Indian Art: Wedding Celebration

“Mughal Emperor Shahjahan in the Marriage Procession of his Eldest Son Dara Shikoh”, Sita Ram, circa 1740 (Image source: Wikipedia, National Museum)

This painting was made by the artist Sita Ram. In 1815, the Governor-General of Bengal, Warren Hastings, sponsored Sita Ram to create paintings depicting celebrations and spectacular firework displays.

In this painting, a crowd of men escorts the riders while holding lit candlesticks in large glass jars on tall staffs with candles on both ends or as single flaming ones. 

Meanwhile, on the top right, in the far distance, a spectacular fireworks display unfolds, featuring streamers, barrages, Roman candles, and rockets illuminating the pitch-black sky with golden hues, while clouds of smoke gently descend. 

Here are Two Paintings Capturing Celebrations of a Different Kind:

Watercolour of a firework display on a bright moonlit night outside the Agna Mahal in Murshidabad, Circa 1790-1800 (Image source: British Library)

In 1704, the Nawab of Bengal moved his capital from Decca to a new location. By 1757, the Nawab and the English East India Company had a series of battles, and the English became dominant in Bengal. Even though Murshidabad remained the Nawab’s home, it lost its political importance. 

The picture shows celebrations by the riverside, with the gateway to Chandni Chowk and Munny Begum’s mosque in the background. In the front, men are lighting fireworks on the west bank of the river. General Duncan McLeod of the Bengal Engineers built the Agna Mahal, shown in the drawing, as part of the Nawab’s palace called Hazarduari (Palace of a Thousand Doors) in the 1830s.

In 1781, a Frenchman named Claude Martin designed a villa in Lucknow called Farhat Baksh. After he passed away, a local leader named Nawab Saadat Ali Khan bought the villa and turned it into a palace by adding more buildings. The accompanying fireworks surround the villa shown in the painting below with a glow.

This painting is a part of the Hastings Albums, a set of ten albums containing primarily watercolour paintings created by the Indian artist Sita Ram. The artist travelled with Lord Moira (later Marquess Hastings), who served as the Governor-General of Bengal and the Commander-in-Chief from 1813 to 1823. Their journey took them from Calcutta to Delhi during the years 1814-15. These artworks depict various scenes, including intricate illuminations and firework displays held on significant occasions.

Fireworks in Indian art
The grounds of the palace of Farhat Baksh in Lucknow lit by innumerable coloured lamps, Sita Ram, 1814. Photo courtesy: British Library)

This picture shows the lit-up grounds of Farhat Baksh in Lucknow. There are lots of colourful lamps, and you can see transparent figures of women on the buildings and railings. Fireworks are also lighting up the sky. On the palace terrace, Nawab Saadat Ali Khan and his guests are watching the beautiful lights. We can also see a crowd of people in front. 

That’s Lit! 
Fireworks were employed for unconventional purposes, including the training of large animals like elephants. This fact was observed by François Bernier, a French traveller, during his visit to Delhi and Agra in the early 17th century. He noted, “…The animals can be separated only by means of cherkys or fireworks, which are made to explode between them; for they are naturally timid and have a particular dread of fire, which is the reason why elephants have been used with so little advantage in armies since the use of firearms.”

A Painting of The Maker 

Here’s a unique take on the paintings of fireworks in Indian art – a painting of the firework maker himself! 

Fireworks in Indian art
“Maker of Fireworks” by an anonymous Calcutta artist, c.1794-1804, (Image source: British Library, Add.Or.1115)

Marquis Wellesley, during his time as the Governor-General of India, commissioned a series of paintings depicting various trades and occupations. This specific artwork, showcasing a firework maker, is in the Company style. This style was a blend of European influences that emerged in India during the 18th and 19th centuries. Wellesley, who actively collected and supported Indian art, also commissioned sets of Natural History drawings. 

To Conclude

The lively and enchanting portrayals of fireworks in Indian art not only brighten up the canvas. They also shed light on the rich cultural fabric of the nation. From ancient times to the present day, artists have skillfully captured the essence of celebrations, joy, and festive spirit through their depictions of fireworks. 

These artistic expressions not only demonstrate technical mastery but also stand as a testament to our lasting fascination with the interplay of light and colour in our shared cultural heritage. As we immerse ourselves in the visual symphony crafted by these artistic renditions, we are reminded that fireworks in Indian art are more than just bursts of light. They serve as poignant reminders of the significance of celebration and reflections of an enduring spirit that sparkles across time and tradition.

By Naomi Fargose

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