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Miniature Maestros: Nisaruddin, the Pioneer of Mewar Miniature Painting

Studying the Work of Miniature Maestro Nisaruddin

This Miniature Maestro attained fame under various different names. Though scholars may not be able to agree on a single iteration of his name, Nisar-ud-in, Nasiruddin, or Nisaruddin, all refer to the mysterious Miniature painter of Mewar who painted the famous Chawand Ragamala.

Not much is known about the life or work of this painter. The Chawand Ragamala is the only series that is credited to him. Let’s explore the life, style, and influence of Nisaruddin, a luminary in the evolution of Mewar art.

Nisaruddin’s Life and Artistic Journey

Let’s trace Nisaruddin’s journey back to his early artistic influences.

Many painters who had previously gathered at Abd al-Samad (Akbar’s atelier) to complete the Hamzanama migrated to Rajasthani and Deccan courts post its completion. Some of them were active at the royal court of Udaipur, where Nasiruddin had been finishing an apprenticeship.

During this time, he came into contact with the courtly Mughal painting style. He later served at Chawand, which had become the temporary capital of the Mewar kingdom, where he worked for Rana Pratap Singh and his son, Rana Amar Singh, from 1585 to 1609. It is speculated that he returned to Udaipur after this. We have no information about the later periods of his life, or his work from those times.

Chawand was the centre of the Rajputs that still resisted Mughal rule. Amar Singh surrendered to the Mughals in 1615. This event was recorded in the Jahangirnama and illustrated by the artist Nanha.

Nisaruddin’s Legacy: The Chawand Ragamala

Varati Ragini. By Nisaruddin, from the Chawand Ragmala. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Chawand Ragamala marks the transition from the Rajput style to the distinctive Mewar style. Dated to 1605, it exudes vibrancy, emotion, and a narrative richness that sets it apart. It is the earliest documented Rajasthani Ragamala series. It is also one of the most famous Mewar Miniature paintings ever produced. The series contains inscriptions that accredit the work to Nisaruddin. However, it does not mention the name of the patron. Historians deduce that it was most likely commissioned by Rana Pratap Singh, Rana Amar Singh, or someone else who was part of the small (exiled) court at Mewar.

Nisaruddin’s style, while distinctive, wasn’t solely his own invention. He painted in the already well-established Rajput style: visible in the Caurapancasika series, the Bhairavi ragini, and the Vasanta Vilasa (Festival of Spring) that date back to 1451. Similar to these previous paintings, the Chawand Ragamala is primarily concerned with the expression of romantic sentiments and erotic imagery.

The Distinguishing Characteristics of Nisaruddin’s Work

Gunakali Ragini, Nisaruddin.
Gunakali Ragini of Malkos. By Nisaruddin, from the Chawand Ragmala. Image credit: The Cleveland Museum of Art

That wasn’t to say that Nisaruddin wasn’t inventive at all. The Chawand Ragmala was a first in many categories. It deviated from the horizontal pothi layout that marked previous Rajput works like the Caurapancasika. Instead, Nisaruddin painted this series in a vertical format, similar to Mughal Miniatures or the Islamic codex book. He also introduced many novel pictorial devices from the Mughal style to Rajasthani art.

Although the Mughal school had reached its zenith at this time, Nisaruddin made no attempt to emulate its delicate naturalism, elegant pastel colour palettes, and carefully composed realistic subjects. He stuck to the bold Rajasthani style with its vivid primary hues, large swatches of single colour, and exaggerated stylisation.

Nisaruddin’s Style of Miniature Painting

Nisaruddin’s Chawand Ragamala can be said to have laid the foundation for the realm of Rajasthani Miniature painting. His colour palettes are bold and filled with bright jewel tones. Earthy olive and ochre hues play against vivid scarlet and dark blue bursts of colour. His compositions were angular and two-dimensional. These compact scenes coincidentally resemble Egyptian papyrus paintings.

The Chawand Ragamala communicates its messages through the gestures and postures of its subjects. Nisaruddin does not arrange compositions to make them more believable; rather, he positions them for maximum drama. Stylistically, it shares a lot in common with the Caurapancasika.

Iconography and Influences in the Chawand Ragamala

Malashri Ragini, Nisaruddin. A woman is being fanned by female attendants.
Malashri Ragini, Third Wife of Bhairava Raga. By Nisaruddin, from the Chawand Ragmala. Image credit: Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Trees, birds, and deer populate the pages of the Chawand Ragmala. The backgrounds are filled with the lush vegetation and fertile landscapes of Mewar kingdom. Bunches of flowers, stylised flora and fauna, and Persian style terrain complemented the typical Mewar composition.

Nisaruddin sketched all the figures in with bold and confident red strokes, a far cry from the delicate Persian and Mughal paintings. Human figures were often drawn in profile view, with oval faces, long noses, and only one elongated, fish-like eye visible. This characteristic is similar to the previously popular Apbhramasa style. Women are smaller and shorter than male characters.

Nisaruddin drew the women in typical clothing of that time: ghagras (long and loose skirts), cholis (blouses), and odhnis (transparent veils). Male figures wear loose tunics with turbans and embroidered patkas (belts).

The Evolution of Mewar Miniature Art

The Chawand Ragamala not only signifies the end of the Rajput style but also heralds the dawn of the Mewar style’s artistic evolution. Nisaruddin’s successor, Sahibdin, took his style and further refined it. This led to the evolution of the mature Rajput court style that would dominate Hindu court painting across various artistic groups and shailis.

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By Melissa D’Mello

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