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Miniature Masters: Sahibdin and the Evolution of Mewar Miniature Painting

An Introduction to Master Artist Sahibdin

Behind every school of Indian Miniature painting is a master artist whose skill and unique style set the standards for what good art ought to look like. These artists rose to great heights and oftentimes supervised the work of younger artists at royal workshops or ateliers. Just as we’ve looked at the lives of painters like Nainsukh and Nisaruddin, today’s blog delves into the work of the Miniature Master Sahibdin.

One of the most prominent painters of the Mewar School of Rajasthani painting, Sahibdin’s distinctive style paved the way for Mewar Miniature painting. It combined Hindu themes, Mughal influences, and the pre-existing Rajasthani style.

Sahibdin: Style Inspiration and Influences

Couple seated on a throne in a palace, 1628. By Sahibdin. Image credit: San Diego Museum of Art

His style, like that of many other famous Rajasthani artists, was a unique blend of the pre-existing Udaipur style and Mughal influences. We can observe similarities between his style and that of his predecessor, Nisaruddin. His style also features a rich colour palette and a simplified spatial awareness characteristic of the Chunar Ragamala of 1561. Like Nisaruddin, Sahibdin was also exposed to the Mughal style at the Udaipur palace.

Sahibdin’s style shows some influence of Mughal naturalism and attention to painting minor details that were previously not seen in Mewar Miniatures. He incorporated elements from the earlier Gujarati manuscript paintings as well as elements like mountainous terrain from Mughal art.

Sahibdin: Themes and Versatility

Sahibdin painted many themes, some secular and some religious. His secular works include the musically themed “Ragamala” series and illustrations of the poem Rasikapriya, wherein he captures themes of love and emotion with unmatched finesse.

Religious illustrations and mythological themes were all the rage in the 17th century. Granted, they were always popular, but they really stole the limelight in this period and made up a huge chunk of paintings produced in the royal ateliers of Udaipur. Sahibdin rose to prominence during this period, under the patronage of Jagat Singh I.

Sahibdin: Notable Works

Indrajit binds Rama and Laksmana with magic serpents, c. 1650–52. From the Yuddha Kanda of the Ramayana. By Sahibdin. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

One of Sahibdin’s biggest projects is also one of his most notable works. He and fellow contemporary Manohar Das headed three groups of artists and embarked on a truly ambitious project: to illustrate the entirety of the Ramayana. For context, the Ramayana is 480,002 words long, which are divided into 24,000 shlokas and seven cantos (kaṇḍas). Sahibdin and the team of artists managed to illustrate six of the seven kandas, or books. Some illustrations from the Yuddha Kanda, the sixth kanda, are attributed to him.

Krishna and Radha in a Bower: Page From a Dispersed Gita Govinda, ca. 1665. By Sahibdin. Image credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Sahibdin created two Gita Govinda folios, one in 1629 and the other in 1635. The later version contains remarkable depictions of forest scenes with highly detailed leaves and flowering plants. This level of detail had not been seen previously in Rajasthani Miniature painting. In the late 1600’s, he began painting Hindu religious imagery in landscape format.

His Suryavamsha painting from 1645 started the unique traditional practice of painting the Sisodia ancestry in paintings. Other notable works of his are a Rasikapriya (c. 1630) and a Bhagavata Purana dated 1648 that is now in the collection of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune.

Sahibdin: His Journey and Artistic Career

Malavi Ragini, from a Ragamala series, 1628. By Sahibdin. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

We learn a lot about Sahibdin’s rather long career by studying the inscriptions on his paintings. He rose to fame because of the first Ragamala series he painted in 1628. The newly crowned Maharana Jagat Singh I commissioned this series. Sahibdin created all of his works during the reign of his royal patron. His first work (that we know of) is the Ragamala he created in 1628, and the last is a Sukaraksetra Mahatmya from 1655. We also speculate that he was not just an artistic successor but also a blood relative of Nisaruddin.

Sahibdin dominated the Mewar atelier for about thirty years. He showed a lot of versatility in the themes he chose, which range from religious themes like the Ramayana, Mahabharata, and Gita Govinda to romantic themes like Ragamala and the Rasikapriya.

Sahibdin implemented Mughal-style compositions in his work and created a Mewar style that was mature and soulful. He developed Nisaruddin’s colour palettes to new heights and worked on perfecting the emotional quality, or rasa, of his art. He also set the standards for manuscript painting and illustration that stuck for the next few decades, at least.

Is Religion Relevant In Miniature Painting?

A King with two small boys arrives on an elephant. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Indian Miniature painting displays a unique characteristic: it was extremely secular in nature. It was not uncommon for a Muslim painter to paint Hindu religious imagery, and vice versa. Painters such as Sahibdin, Nisaruddin, Ali Raza, and many others that were associated with the Rajasthani School of painting were all Muslims. Many Rajasthani and Pahari rulers employed Muslim artists to paint Hindu religious and mythological themes. Similarly, Mughal Emperor Akbar was a Muslim but employed many Hindu artists in the creation of his famous Hamza-nama.

It was not uncommon for Miniature artists to defy religious boundaries in pursuit of artistic expression. Sahibdin was no exception.

Sahibdin’s Lasting Impact on Mewar Miniature Painting

Shiva and Gauri. By Sahibdin. Image credit: The San Diego Museum of Art

Sahibdin’s oeuvre marks a turning point for Mewar Miniature painting. The ease with which he drew upon traditional painting techniques and perfected them is noteworthy, as is his illustrious career, which spanned three entire decades. This Miniature master is one of the few Rajasthani painters we know by name. But why is that the case? Well, most Rajasthani artists were anonymous and did not enjoy a high social status like Mughal artists. It is precisely due to this reason that while we identify Mughal artists by name, we categorise Rajasthani Miniature painting into geographical and regional categories.

Self-portrait of Sahibdin, c. 1750-1775. Image credit: National Gallery of Canada

Back to Sahibdin: he is one of the few artists of the Rajasthani School to be mentioned by name and one of the only three of the Mewar School (the others being Nisaruddin and Manohar Das). Learning more about the lives of the Miniature artists of yesteryear helps us simplify the seemingly complicated art form of Indian Miniature painting.

Want to learn more about the Indian Miniature artists? Download the Rooftop app from Google Play or the App Store to learn more and stay tuned to Rooftop blogs. Follow us on Instagram @rooftop_app for updates on upcoming Indian art courses and workshops.

By Melissa D’Mello

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