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Miniature Masters: Ruknuddin and the Mughal Influence on Bikaner Miniature Painting

An Introduction to Ruknuddin and the Bikaner School

Bikaner is one of the numerous tourist attractions in the state of Rajasthan. This colourful desert town is home to a unique style of Miniature painting. The Bikaner School, or ‘shaili’ as they were referred to, features a blend of Deccan influences with a Mughal touch. This school rose to fame due to the expertise of two painter clans: the eminent court painter Ruknuddin belonged to one of them.

In this blog, we dive into the early life and experiences of Ruknuddin, along with the influences that punctuated his painting style.

Ruknuddin: Early Life and Training

Gujari Ragini: A Lady With a Vina Seated on a Bed of Lotus Flowers.  By Ruknuddin
Gujari Ragini: A Lady With a Vina Seated on a Bed of Lotus Flowers. Image credit: The New York Times

We know very little about the early phase of Bikaner painting, but Ruknuddin’s career sheds light on the artistic evolution of the region.

Many scholars believe that when the ruler Karan Singh invited artists from the Mughal atelier to paint for him, Ruknuddin studied under one such visiting artist: Ali Raza of Delhi. Many consider him Raza’s ‘successor’. Ali Raza’s Mughal influence obviously wore off on the Miniature artists of Bikaner, but his style seems to have particularly influenced Ruknuddin.

Ruknuddin’s close contact with the Mughal shaili gave his personal style a romantic and delicate quality. His illustrious career saw him rise to prominence, especially under the patronage of Anup Singh, who ruled Bikaner from 1669 to 1698. He soon became an established artist, and also worked as the director of an atelier for a while.

Ruknuddin: Influence on the Bikaner shaili

Krishna playing with the gopis, folio from a Rasikpriya. By Ruknuddin, dated 1686.
Krishna playing with the gopis, folio from a Rasikpriya. By Ruknuddin, dated 1686. Image credit: Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art

As a director of the painting workshop, Ruknuddin was highly respected both for his skill and his innovative approach to Miniature painting. His influence extended beyond his lifetime, shaping the trajectory of the Bikaner school in the second half of the seventeenth century.

While we have a lot of information about the Bikaner School, the documentation of the inner workings of artist workshops was not as extensive as the study of artist families and the gradual development of the painting style. A large number of paintings ascribed to Ruknuddin display wildly different styles, which suggests that he may not have been the sole artist behind them.

Asavari Ragini: Folio from a Ragamala Series. Ruknuddin, ca. 1694.
Asavari Ragini: Folio from a Ragamala Series. Ruknuddin, ca. 1694. Image credit: Saxonian Folkways

Thus, we can infer that less famous artists worked in the workshops of Bikaner, and the finished pieces that were based on sketches by the master artists were often attributed to them. Certain paintings that Ruknuddin’s son Ibrahim painted were likely attributed to him as well.

Ghost-painting? How scandalous. It was all too common in such workshops, where famous painters created sketches that younger artists worked on. This is also why some paintings ascribed to him aren’t as ‘polished’ as most of his work, like the below example. It is ascribed to ‘Ruknuddin or a follower’.

Woman and Attendant. Image credit: Brooklyn Museum

Ruknuddin also travelled to the Deccan, accompanying the rulers of Bikaner on military campaigns. His work there closely references Mughal portrait painting while incorporating the Deccan influences that he picked up on these journeys.

Ruknuddin: Famous Artwork

Ali Raza recorded one of Karan Singh’s dreams in a painting in 1650, and Ruknuddin would paint the same composition thirty years later. Unsurprisingly, Ruknuddin’s version is better known than the original.

Vishnu with Lakshmi Enthroned on a Roof Terrace, Ruknuddin,
dated 1678. Image credit: Ebay

This 1678 piece features Vishnu with his consort Lakshmi, and closely imitates Ali Raza’s original composition. However, Ruknuddin’s adaptation changes the setting entirely, placing the scene on a terrace. Eleven maids wait upon the deities.

Stylistic Choices

Along with his brushwork skills being simply ‘divine’, he was also innovative in his use of colours, shapes, and patterns. He paid attention to every detail and used patterns and subtle shading techniques to create interesting variations in texture.

Ladies of the Zenana, 1660 (dated by association). Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

The above painting shows the zenana, or the queen’s palace. Only women could enter this palace, with the exception of the king and the royal princes. Several scholars have accused Ruknuddin of pandering to the male gaze. This painting does indeed seem to cater to the male gaze, allowing men a view into a woman’s space through the male fantasy. It is a glimpse into the unknown, or the forbidden, positioning the sole objective of the women of the zenana to exist for male viewing pleasure.

Stylistic Choices

Ladies of the Zenana (Womens’ Quarters) on a Terrace at Night. Attributed to Ruknuddin,

Ruknuddin loved painting beautiful women. His paintings from the 1660s and 1670s feature subtle and delicate shading of skin and faces, giving them a porcelain-like effect. This technique is more reflective of the Mughal school’s soft shading techniques.

Maharaja Anup Singh of Bikaner (reigned 1669–98) receives a Courtier, c. 1690. Image credit: Cleveland Museum of Art

Even his informal studies and sketches display the extent of his mastery. His lyrical style is primarily Rajasthani, with a strong Mughal influence and a personal penchant for bright colours and intricately detailed clothing, jewellery, and decorations.

The Evolution of the Bikaner School

Bikaner’s artistic tradition evolved into a hybrid style that seamlessly integrated influences from both the Mughal workshops and the remote Deccan. We are able to closely trace the evolution of this school due to the bahis, or daily accounts, of the royal archives. These, along with the inscriptions found on many paintings, recorded the names of the artists, the date of the painting’s creation, and sometimes the occasion of the work’s commission and the place where it was produced.

Ruknuddin’s long and immensely successful career lasted from 1646 to 1697. His paintings left a clear mark on the world of Indian Miniature painting, and his style and skillful techniques are studied even today.

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By Melissa D’Mello

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