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Visual Poetry of Love: Kangra School of Pahari Painting


The moment you read the words ‘Kangra’ or ‘Pahari’, the picture of high-tipped mountains extending far down the valleys conjures up. In Pahari paintings, mountains provide a backdrop to display myriad human experiences and emotions. The Kangra Art focuses on portraits of rulers who patronised them, legends of Krishna, and the most important, intermittencies of the heart. 

Connections Between Poetry and Art

Kangra Painting
Krishna Leela (Source- Aravali)

Connections between art and poetry are drawn quite frequently in art criticism. Erotic symbolism in Krishna-Leela along with the lyrics of Kesavadas aided the creativity of the painters. Works of other famous poets such as Bihari, Matiram, Dev, Kalidas Trevedi, Gang, and Kashiram were also commissioned. In the same cultural background, Punjab also contributed with its Qissas, like Heer Ranjha, Mirza-Sahiba and Sohnai- Mahinwal, which spoke of tragedies of love. In addition to illustrations of romantic poetry, paintings based on the Harivamsa Purana, Bhagavata Purana, Gita Govinda, Devi Mahatmya, Shiva Purana, and Ramayana, etc, are important works of Kangra Art. 

Ram returns in Victory to Ayodhya (Source- Tallenge Store)

Also Read: Krishna Art : How God Krishna’s Painting Inspires Love and Admiration

History of Kangra Painting

Just like any other art tradition, Kangra art developed in a cultural milieu that had been preparing the ground for the emergence of new art forms. Since the 16th and 17th centuries, the Vaishnava cult rapidly spread all across India. In Vaishnavism, the relations of the lover and the beloved symbolised spiritual experiences. Spiritual purity interweaves sensuous delight while religion and aesthetics together examine the nature of reality. 

In Kangra Valley, artists worked under the patronage of Hill Rajas of Guler, Tira-Sujanpur, and Nurpur. In plan areas of Nurpur and Guler, they came in close contact with the Mughals. Pahari Painters were familiar with Mughal paintings from the courts of Jahangir and Shah Jahan. 

Fireworks Display, Guler (Source- Painting In the Kangra Valley, E-book)

Once Aurangzeb dismissed musicians and painters from the Mughal court, they found a home in Rajputana and the hills of the western Himalayas. Kangra painters recreated subjects of the Mughal school of painting, such as Shab-e-Barat, Begum Out Hunting, Fireworks Display, and Mercury Chasing Beauty. 

Ten Sikh Gurus (Source- LACMA Collections)

The most active school of painting was at Tira-Sujanpur under the patronage of Sansar Chand. He commissioned the paintings of ten Sikh Gurus and Guru Nanak. These paintings are attributed to the skills of a Nurpur artist. However, his son, Aniruth Chand, came into conflict with Sikhs. From 1810, the Kangra valley came under the rule of Great Ranjit Singh and Sikh influence on Pahari painting became more prominent. 

Features of Kangra Painting 

The most noticeable feature of Kangra paintings is the delicacy of lines, the brilliance of colours, and the minuteness of decorative detail especially in the jewellery of women and the intricate designs on the architecture. Fine brushes were made with the hair of a squirrel. Human figures, particularly women, were drawn from memory that explains the similarity in their features— gazelle-like eyes, straight noses, and rounded chins. The technique is limited to a set of formulas for the portrayal of human features and landscapes, but the effect a finished painting leaves behind is beautiful. 

Kangra paintings tend to express no self-consciousness of the painters, no studied emotions or attitudes. They are free of exaggerated personality or deliberate individualism, and express simple beauty and startling truth. They exhibit a unique connection with soil such that any element of fantasy does not seem ludicrous. 

Kangra art interweaves music, poetry, painting, and nature together, especially in Ragamala and Baramasa paintings. In Ragamala painting, various musical codes take a visual form. The text of Kshemakarna written in 1570 AD inspired most Pahari Ragamala paintings. Baramasa refers to the tradition of visualising the various seasons in verse. Kalidasa’s Ritusamhara, a work of poetry, is an ode to the six seasons which inspired the finest Baramasa paintings of the Lambagraon branch of Kangra.

Also Read: Ragmala Paintings: An Expression Of Music Through Art

Expression of Love in Kangra Painting

A major theme present in most Kangra paintings is the expression of sentiments of love in a lyrical style, full of grace, rhythm, and beauty. Whether it is the representation of six seasons, musical codes, legends of Krishna, or Shiva- Parvati, the love of man for women and love of woman for man remains a frequent theme. The beauty of women in the painting is of prime importance and the rest is all secondary. 

The Hindi poets of the 16th and 17th centuries were great observers of human nature. To show the passion, desperation, anxiety, and even frustration that comes with being in love, they classified women. One of these poets was Kesavadas from Bundelkhand, who wrote his famous love poem, Rasikapriya in 1591 A.D. This poem became so popular among Kangra painters, that along with visual representation paintings inscribed small portions of the text. 

Ashta-Nayika: Eight Heroines in Kangra School in Art

Kesavadas referred to Ashta-Nayika, the eight kinds of Nayikas in Rasikapriya, the most subject matter for Kangra painters. Svadhinapatika’s husband understands her and is bound in love with her perpetually. Krishna applying henna to her feet illustrates how Svadhinapatika’s husband remains under her command.

Kangra Painting
Svadhinapatika Nayika (Source- Pinterest)

Vasakasajj Nayika decides the time and day for her husband’s arrival, and adorns herself and decorates the house accordingly. She is both anxious and happy, briskly preparing for her husband’s reception.

Vasakasajj Nayika (Source- Brooklyn Museum)

Utka is an anxious heroine whose lover has failed to arrive at the appointed hour. The more he delays, the more uneasy and agitated she becomes.

Utka Nayika (Source- Victoria and Albert Museum)


Vipralabdha throwing away her jewellery (Source- Salar Jung Museum)

Vipralabdh waits throughout the night in vain for her lover, who never returns. She is a disappointed heroine, shown as throwing away her jewellery in disgust. Proshitapatik’s husband is away on business for some time and does not return on the appointed day. She is so sad that her maids are unable to console her.

Kangra Painting
Proshitapatik mourning (Source- Wikipedia)
Abhisarika Nayika (Painting In the Kangra Valley, E-book)

Abhisarika Nayika goes out to meet her lover, hurdled by rain, snakes and a demon. She is classified into different heads by different poets and is a favourite theme with Kangra artists. Khandita’s lover fails to keep his appointment at night but returns at dawn after spending the night with another woman. She is angry and offended by the lover who has entered the courtyard with a guilt-ridden face. Abhisandhita’s separation from her lover is due to a quarrel. The lover tries to assuage her anger but she repulses him, and the moment he is about to leave, she regrets her words, immediately. 

Khandita Nayika (Source- Alamy)
Kangra Painting
Abhisandhita (Source- Tallenge Store)

Also Read: The Indian Monsoon Painting – A Seasonal Tryst Of Traditional Art

A Moment of Reflection

In the past four decades, several books and research papers have focused on Pahari painting. This interest has brought paintings from Kangra Valley tremendous fame. However, the key focus remained on the history of Kangra painting and its patronage. Its aesthetics and artistic merits and association with love poetry needs more appreciation. While teaching or promoting Kangra Art, its rootedness in the sentimentality of love requires more emphasis. Understanding it as a superb expression of the sublime will make it more relevant for contemporary art lovers.

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