At Phool Mahal Palace, the world slows down. The sounds of traffic are replaced by the gentle lapping of water and the cries of teals and big-beaked pelicans. As I look at the heritage site perched on the monsoon-fed Gundalao Lake in central Rajasthan, with the imposing Kishangarh Fort behind it, I intuitively know that I will see more than just the miniature-style paintings that were promised as the highlight of my trip.
Founded in the 19th Century, Phool Mahal is a bright example of how Rajasthan’s rich cultural past continues to inform the present. The original pleasure gardens that once bloomed at the foot of the fort inspired many famous miniature artists — you can identify it in paintings from the 17th Century. After the palace was built, painters continued to create in its studio.
We are here for a preview of Path of Grace, an exhibition of Kishangarh miniatures that will be launched at Bikaner House in New Delhi, on April 28. We meet Vaishnavi Kumari, from the erstwhile royal house of Kishangarh, over lunch in a room lined with miniatures and paintings of Krishna and Radha. Later, she takes us on a tour, showing us a few acrylics on canvas that are rendered in the detailed Kishangarhi style.
“What is special about these is the bright colours that I have infused them with and my special laughing cow, which is unique to the Kishangarhi style,” says Vaishnavi Kumari, who trained as a painter at the National Institute of Fashion Technology, Delhi and SOAS University of London.
The Kishangarhi school is a vivid synthesis of Mughal artistic idioms with the conventions of the provincial schools of Rajput Rathore from the 18th to the late 19th centuries. It is known for its slightly elongated forms, lyrical and delicate, yet exaggerated treatment of human figures. The large almond eyes are inspired by renditions of Shrinathji, the deity of the Vaishnava sect.
A modern take
Kishangarh paintings are specially dedicated to the Vaishnava bhakti (devotion), or the love of Krishna and Radha, unlike other schools. In fact, Radha Bani Thani is the most celebrated work of the school. According to popular culture, Raja Samant Singh’s (1748–1758) romance with a singer and concubine, Bani Thani, is said to be the inspiration behind the local paintings.
The contemporary works from Vaishnavi Kumari’s atelier — founded in 2010 to inject new patronage in the traditional art form — carry the traditional stylisations, but with the addition of contemporary strokes and a brighter colour palette. The works often take inspiration from art in the royal collection, architecture of the forts and palaces of Kishangarh, and devotional poetry.
As we continue conversing, Vaishnavi Kumari introduces us to her father, Brajraj Singh from the erstwhile ruling family. He regales us with stories of Punjabi and Rekti poetry and the royal family’s love for music and art. He also shows us a line of portraits, of the kings of Kishangarh, that goes back to the 1800s, with a painting of the 15th Maharaja of Kishangarh, Prithvi Singh (r. 1840-1879). The early renditions are not realistic; they are painted in the typical miniature style with the young kings portrayed in profile. The portrait gallery ends with Brajraj Singh’s own photograph, and I am left wondering if Vaishnavi would change history by introducing a portrait of herself in this long line of male rulers.
Path of Grace opens at Bikaner House, New Delhi, on April 28 and will be continue till May 6.