Pahari art is essentially a folk form with themes that are either romantic or religious. Here is a book that throws light on this medieval tradition.

In 1739 when the marauding hordes of Nadir Shah descended on Delhi and virtually ended the era of the Great Mughals, the artists who had flourished under their patronage dispersed to the small Rajput kingdoms of the Western Himalayas. Collectively these painters were called ‘Pahari', and divided into schools named after principalities such as Basohli, Kangra, Guler and so on.

B.N. Goswamy, however, suggested that it would lead to a better understanding to classify them according to their family lines, which were the true sources of their distinctive artistic traditions. In the 1990s, in collaboration with Eberhard Fischer, he gave shape to this concept in an exhibition of the work of 14 painters, with an authoritative catalogue that has become a classic on the subject. The present book is an Indian reprint, competitively priced and updated to include recent findings.

Though enough is now known about the provenance of Pahari miniatures and their context, there is a paucity of information about the artists themselves who are therefore the focus of this work. While Mughal painting was dramatic and concerned with heroic people and events, theirs is essentially a folk art, imaginatively effusive, down-to-earth, and appealing to all classes of society. Their themes are either religious or romantic, with a thin dividing line between.

In Pahari Masters, the approach is both lucid and systematic. The work of each painter is introduced under the headings of “The Evidence”, involving smart detective work about the identity of a painter, his origins and so on; “The Work”, describing the subjects; and “The Style”; followed by the paintings themselves. There are 170 of these, reproduced in colour and interpreted with a wealth of scholarly detail that alone are worth the price of the book. The insipid half-painting shown on the cover does little justice to them.

Unknown masters

The opening chapters are devoted to the unknown masters who preceded Devidasa. In these early miniatures the background is flat and the figures are stiff and short-necked, with heavy faces and elongated eyes. When we come to the work of Purkhu almost three centuries later, the idiom is light and lyrical. Graceful women, their faces delicately wrought as if in porcelain, move through these paintings, their clothing fluttering and swirling as they go to meet their lovers, and men quarrel and confer and flaunt their martial prowess, while amorous escapades are depicted with an unabashed sexuality that would make our moral police squirm. The backgrounds are exuberantly filled in with flora, fauna, mountains and banks of rolling clouds, and above all that, marvellous foliage with individuated flowers and leaves in jewel-like clusters that is the hallmark of the Guler-Kangra style.

The change was heralded earlier in the work of Pandit Seu and his sons Manaku and Nainsukh. No paintings can definitely be attributed to the father, but Goswamy and Fischer believe that the series known as the Guler Ramayana should be ascribed to him. The 12 miniatures displayed at the Exhibition show clear departures from the early Pahari mode.

The most animated one has hillmen, perhaps inebriated, dancing with wild abandon at a fair, arms raised, feet stamping, scarves flying. Of the seven dancers and four musicians each one is differentiated in terms of age, clothing and facial features. There are no gods here, no mythical theme or characters. The only remnant of the old style is the flat background, coloured a bright red.

Nainsukh continues from where Seu left off. He began by copying or adapting from the Mughals, learning how to capture likenesses and use spatial effects in his compositions. More importantly, like his father, he imbibed their fluent naturalism but went beyond, subsuming it into a deeper humanism.

The 17 miniatures by this prolific and versatile painter show his remarkable powers of observation and clean, uncluttered lines. We see his patron Raja Balwant Singh as he examines a painting, smokes a hookah or relaxes quietly by the fire. A variety of techniques is used, for instance, 20th century Minimalism is strangely anticipated in a brush drawing in which the ruler with four retainers approaches a palace at night. The enormous gate is shut and huge walls tower over the tiny figures, dwarfing them and creating an air of mystery.

Outdoor scenes

Nainsukh excels in outdoor scenes. His special skills find expression in exhibit 122, where the Raja goes on a lion hunt. The open, treeless countryside forms a backdrop, highlighting the tumultuous action taking place in the foreground as a lion suddenly appears out of nowhere and attacks the royal elephant. Attendants on horseback and on foot rush to the rescue with weapons poised while one falls to the ground, and the elephant curls his trunk round the lion's body to crush it. The Raja in the centre leans out of the howdah with drawn sword, dominating the picture.

The sons and grandsons of Manaku and Nainsukh produced a significant body of work without any clear ascriptions. They are therefore grouped together in the penultimate chapter, with 30 paintings representing the acme of the Kangra-Guler style. The authors have examined a single painting in detail as typifying the best in this idiom. Reproduced here in black and white, this reviewer was privileged to see the original of this exquisite piece in glorious colour in the Bharat Kala Bhavan, Benares.

Radha sits in a grove of trees on a riverbank waiting for Krishna with her companion. The authors have taken every detail of their posture and clothing into account--their heads turned to the right as they listen, one with eager curiosity the other with longing; Radha's diaphanous garments and jewellery contrasting with the companion's simpler and coarser dress; and the background setting the mood. A creeper in the foreground is twined round a tree trunk while pairs of birds gaze at each other and flowering plants blossom everywhere. The delicacy and richness of this painting resonate in the mind, as does the brilliance of the analysis. Art criticism does not get better than this.

Pleasingly written, Pahari Masters is a seminal study so packed with information and fresh ideas that one needs time to mull over and digest it. The reviewer who works to a deadline can barely scratch the surface. However a magnifying glass should be supplied as a freebie to facilitate reading of the tiny print, and as for the notes, a microscope perhaps? And, to voice an idiosyncratic aversion, why are the pages formatted in columns? The eye runs more easily on a continuous line, and it's nice to feel that you're reading a book, not a newspaper or dictionary.