Rajasthani Miniatures at The Drawing Center
The Welch Collection from the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Harvard University


Although Rajputs shared religious beliefs and cultural ways, they were divided into rival clans, each with its own territories, customs, and often its own school of painting. Mewar, Kotah, Bikaner, and Kishangargh - to name a few of the Rajasthani schools represented among the over seventy images that make up this exhibition - shared many characteristics, and sometimes artists, but the provenances and dates of each remain distinctly recognizable to scholars.

During the five centuries covered in the exhibition, the character of Rajasthani pictures changes to reflect shifting balances of power. Prior to the 17th century, Rajput pictures were typically bold and expressive, depicting gods, humans, and nature as experienced through visions. The ascendancy of the first Mughal emperor, Babur (reign 1526-30) brought profound ramifications for the art of the Rajputs. Rajput artists were increasingly influenced by the more naturalistic art of the politically dominant Mughals, and the resulting images blended the imagined with the perceived - for example, rulers began to be depicted as individualized figures with true-to-life qualities rather than generalized figures identifiable only by their official attributes. Influences came from outside sources as well; when the second Mughal emperor Humayun (1508-56) returned from a period of exile at the Safavid court of Iran with several great Iranian artists, the result was a brilliant new artistic synthesis. But regardless of outside influences, each Rajput kingdom fostered its own artistic style.

Subject Matter and Stylisitic Traditions

Miniatures were often stored by subject matter, and categories included religious sets, portraits and historical scenes, hunts, science, erotica, and medicine. By the end of the 16th century, when Akbar controlled most of northern India, secular subjects were added to the Rajput artistic repertoire and the traditional Indian sacred vision gave way to naturalism. Likewise, Mughal imperial taste for the exotica of Europe and China flavored its own arts as well as those of its feudatories, the Rajputs. By the first quarter of the 17th century even religious pictures from Mewar - the proudest of the Rajput kingdoms, and the last to yield to Mughal authority - reveal Mughal influences.

Techniques and Ateliers

Although materials differed slighly, all Rajput miniatures share a seemingly simple technique: essentially, opaque watercolor on paper. Paper was prepared with a coating in white, then dried in sunlight. Once dry, the white surface was placed upside down on a flat burnishing stone and rubbed with an egg-shaped rock crystal or agate. Drawing began with brush or reed pen in lightly colored pigment. As the work progressed, stronger lines and colors were added. Frequent burnishings set and smoothed the pigment. Passages in precious metals and raised whites were added last.

Grand courts - and the grandest was that of the Mughals - could afford lavish papers and pigments, the best quality lapis lazuli, fine gold, and pure colors made from crushed insects, earth, or rare stones. The Mughal emperor Akbar's ateliers maintained hundreds of painters, of whom a dozen or so were classed as great masters, whereas even the most productive Rajput workshops could boast no more than a few masters and several assitants. Artist's wages were on a par with those of soldiers and they received bonuses for outstanding work: perhaps a splendid robe, a sumptuous dagger, an elephant, land, or even a village. Some of them were received at court and enjoyed comradely closeness to their patrons. Artists who made miniatures also painted on walls, designed metalwork, sculptures, textiles, architectural elements, or entire buildings. The names of a few of these artists have been passed down to us but many remain unknown.

click on the images...