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Miniature Masters: A Glimpse Into the Life of Nainsukh and the Jasrota Miniatures

The Painter Nainsukh and the Jasrota Miniatures He Produced

Nainsukh: Joy (to) the Eyes was one of the most prominent Pahari Miniature painters of his time and is recognised even today for his immense contribution to this genre of painting. Originally from Guler, his most popular paintings are from his time at Jasrota. His work would go on to significantly influence the Basohli style of painting as well as impact the late stages of the Kangra shaili. Nainsukh and the Jasrota Miniatures played a huge role in Jasrota’s history.

So, who exactly was Nainsukh, and what makes him different from his many contemporaries?

Nainsukh: Early Life and Influences

Nainsukh and the Jasrota Miniatures
Balwant Singh on a construction site. This is a khakha, or fine line drawing that artists would practise before they worked on the final illustration. Image credit: Saffron Art

Unlike his father and brother, Nainsukh would soon leave behind the set ways of Pahari painting in favour of experimenting with new styles. Around this time, Aurangazeb began dismantling the Mughal ateliers, and many artists moved to the hills in search of employment. Perhaps Nainsukh was bored, or the town simply felt too small for three great artists to coexist. Whatever the reason, Nainsukh left Guler in 1740 and moved to the kingdom of Jasrota.

Other Facets of Jasrota Art

Nainsukh and the Jasrota Miniatures
The swords of Raja Balwant Singh of Jasrota. Attributed to Nainsukh. Image credit: Sotheby’s

The kingdom of Jasrota was founded in 1604 A.D. between the rivers Ujh and Ravi. It had several connections to art. The rulers Sukh Dev, Dhruv Dev, and Bhupal Dev encouraged art, which was closely linked to the Dogra School of painting. The palaces here were decorated with elaborate murals. Most of the palaces and forts now lie in ruins.

Nainsukh began working for Mian Zorowar Singh of Jasrota and later for his son Balwant Singh. Balwant Singh was not as much of a king as a landowner of sorts—a royal only in name. He was not a prominent personality, even within Jasrota.

However, he must have been supportive of Nainsukh’s artistic endeavours, as the Miniature master remained in his employment until the end of his reign.

Nainsukh’s Work At Jasrota

Nainsukh and the Jasrota Miniatures
Raja Balwant Singh performing a puja. Image credit: Victoria and Albert Museum

Nainsukh came from a family of famous painters, and his own work was no doubt of high quality. One would presume that he would have chosen to work elsewhere, perhaps for a richer or more powerful patron. However, his work for Balwant Singh was so unconventional that perhaps the novelty of its nature was what drew him to stay at Jasrota for twenty years.

Free from royal restrictions and free to paint what he wished, Nainsukh found satisfaction in painting things as he saw them. His minute observations are reflected in each of his paintings.

During his time at Jasrota, he moved away from the traditional Pahari style that his father had taught him. Instead, his close relationship with Balwant Singh and the lack of formality seem to have encouraged him to freely experiment with styles, themes, and subject matter.

Nainsukh and the Jasrota Miniatures: A Glimpse Into Nainsukh’s Life at Jasrota

Nainsukh and the Jasrota Miniatures
Balwant Singh in a Tent at Nagrota. Image credit: ReReeti

Nainsukh’s paintings are deeply personal, featuring scenes from everyday life that he would have been directly present at. Unlike other royal personalities, Balwant Singh did not care about maintaining a grandiose and pompous image through a carefully curated facade. He and Nainsukh shared a camaraderie that allows us a rare glimpse into the world of 17th-century aristocracy.

Nothing escaped Nainsukh’s eyes. Every detail is intentional and makes the subjects of his paintings feel more real. A look at his Miniatures feels like a glimpse into his life. And sometimes, the details told the story for him.

He painted Balwant Singh in all sorts of situations: examining a painting, shaving his beard, looking out of a window, smoking a hookah, supervising building construction, hunting, watching a dance performance, etc. He even accompanied the prince to his exile in Guler.

A temporary shrine. Image credit: 1stDibs

Nainsukh’s paintings were so thorough that they almost functioned like a diary. His Jasrota Miniatures form the most well-documented artistic period of his life. After Raja Balwant Singh’s demise, Nainsukh accompanied his family to Haridwar to cast the king’s ashes into the river Ganga.

We speculate that the temporary tent in the above painting features a temporary resting place along that journey. The simple shrine in the centre features Balwant Singh’s amulet, which insinuates that his ashes were placed in the urn below. This painting marks the end of their partnership. After Balwant Singh’s death, Nainsukh moved to Basohli.

Nainsukh and the Jasrota Miniatures: Refinement of Nainsukh’s Personal Style

Nainsukh and the Jasrota Miniatures
Whenever Miniature painters included themselves in their art, they were always in the background. It was unusual for them to paint themselves prominently, as in this painting. Here, Nainsukh peers over the Raja’s shoulder as he examines a painting.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Though Nainsukh deliberately chose simplicity sometimes, he certainly had the skills to capture intricacy. He often relayed the patterns on clothing and embellishments with a realistic flair. He didn’t stick to pure experimentation and even integrated Mughal elements into his paintings.

Nainsukh did not paint a lot of religious subject matter while in Jasrota, but returned focused on it during his later work in Basohli. This is significant as Hindu religious subjects formed the crux of Pahari painting in the 17th century.

Nainsukh and the Jasrota Miniatures: Breaking Down Stylistic Choices

Raja Balwant Singh examining a horse. Image credit: Victoria and Albert Museum
Nainsukh and the Jasrota Miniatures
Raja Dhrub Dev examining a horse by moonlight. Image credit: Victoria and Albert Museum

Nainsukh’s earliest Jasrota miniatures contain the conventional Pahari visual language. He soon began using restrained colour palettes and painting simple compositions with attention to scale and negative space.

A distinct loop on the hookah pipe is one of his signatures touches. He also painted a variety of skin tones. When we observe them closely, we are able to see smallpox scars on the skin of many of his subjects.

He drew elaborate backgrounds when required, but chose to keep it simple when he wanted to focus on the main subjects of his painting. His observation skills gave his paintings a high degree of detail.

For example, let’s take a look at how this master artist captured different moods and emotions through his paintings. In the below Miniature, Nainsukh cleverly divides the painting into two distinct halves.The prince wears simple clothing in muted colours with minimal embellishment. Nainsukh deliberately kept the background to the left simple and devoid of intricate details. The right side of the painting features vibrant colours that stand in stark contrast to the otherwise plain background.

Raja Balwant Singh’s Vision of Krishna and Radha. Attributed to Nainsukh. Image credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This painting portrays how Balwant Singh sees himself in a vision he had: he is a humble servant in front of his God. The entire right side is so intricately decorated that, at first glance, the two parts don’t even look like the same picture.

This also contributes to the unreal-like quality of this painting and separates the real world from the divine. Nainsukh was a master at rendering images with fine, unbroken lines, a characteristic that we can observe in all of his work.

Nainsukh and the Jasrota Miniatures: His Contribution To the Pahari Painting Tradition

Nainsukh and the Jasrota Miniatures
Raja Balwant Singh watching a group of performers. One of them hold a tube of paper, mimicking the Raja’s hookah. Image credit: Victoria and Albert Museum.

Nainsukh, his father, and his brother were all influenced by the late Mughal style. Once Aurangzeb had dismantled the atelier in Delhi, many Mughal artists moved to other courts, such as Guler, in search of employment.

Nainsukh’s paintings show such a strong Mughal influence that it suggests that he had carefully studied Mughal paintings. In fact, the entire Pahari School underwent a change in style during this time. Artists began paying attention to volume and scale and sought to convey poetic emotions through a carefully crafted composition.

Nainsukh and the Jasrota Miniatures
Raja Balwant Singh smoking a hookah. Image credit: The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Nainsukh favoured realistic and naturalistic rendering over the stylised Pahari idiom that had been popular previously. He meticulously painted backgrounds with tiny details and did his best to accurately portray moods and emotions. He first added a wash of colour and slowly built up details, which give his paintings depth and realism.

His extended family continued working in his style even after his death. Thus, paintings attributed to the ‘Family of Nainsukh’ bear a strong resemblance to his work. His family workshops were especially active during the reign of King Sansar Chand of Kangra. During this time, many paintings were attributed to the Kangra School, which led to a rise in its popularity in later years.

Interested in learning more about the progress of Indian Miniature Painting? Download the Rooftop app from Google Play or the App Store to learn more! Stay tuned to Rooftop blogs and follow us on Instagram @rooftop_app.

By Melissa D’Mello

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