Miniature Painting In India: Yet Another Lost Art

Posted on March 24, 2011 in Culture-Vulture


By Amritapa Basu:

Like many other forgotten art forms of India, Miniature Painting is yet another on the list apart from the Tanjore paintings (of South India), Gond tribal painting (by tribes of Madhya Pradesh) and Madhubani painting (of Bihar). Contrary to the popular belief that Miniature Painting was brought by the Mughals to India, this art form has been existent in India since before 11th and 12th century and was enhanced by the Mughals.

Miniature Paintings are examples of superb and skilled talent exhibited by the Indian artists by doing exemplary painting work on palm leaf. Considering the small size of the palm leaves, the images were comparatively small in size and had to be coloured, thus the name ‘miniature’ painting. Much intricate and detailed work was involved in miniature paintings and is worthy of great appreciation and value.

The themes of the paintings were generally taken from the scenes of Indian epics and religious books like Ramayana, Bhagvad Puran, Git-Gobind, Sursagar and many more. Images from folk legends and royal court scenes were also beautifully illustrated in the paintings. Mughals were responsible for introducing Persian tradition in the Miniature paintings. Though palm leaves served as manuscripts for these paintings initially, later glass, fabric, marble, paper, silk, leather and ivory panels also were used as canvas for the paintings.

Much of the art, culture and lifestyle of ancient and medieval India are best revealed through Miniature Paintings. Crafted by the regional artists, these paintings narrate the stories of bygone dynasties. These vibrant hand-made paintings were outcome of some dazzling minerals and vegetable colours. Gold and silver powders, conch shell powders and tiny pieces of semi-precious stones were used in a miniature painting to make for the extra appeal. It is for the innate beauty, luminous capacity and meticulousness of the paintings that attracts the most.

Miniature Paintings involve much effort and an artists’ cue. Choosing the colours is the basic step. A court scene requires different colour combinations from the legends of Krishna. Outlining the figures, colouring them and then using a dry brush to accentuate certain parts of the painting follow next. An artist has to blend to merge the colours with the surrounding areas. Then the painting is washed in diluted paint to deposit colour in the folds and low points of the painting. Next staining follows which highlights and shades at the same time. The penultimate step is layering in which paint is applied progressively over dried layers, the first layer being of the darkest shade of the basic colour and the last is the lightest. Next is the application of gold highlights, to give an appearance of richness and the painting is burnished, that is, painting is laid face down on a hard surface and stroked firmly by a stone to give a firm texture.

My readers, I am sure, remember coming across the term ‘miniature paintings’ in their history textbooks of standard 7-8 about Mughal rule, Akbarnama (Akbar’s biography) to be specific. This beautiful hand-made art form has become history now and survives in the printed versions of a connoisseur’s table calendar or a foreigner tourist’s souvenirs’ from India. Could we do something about the few Miniature Paintings that survives and work towards reviving and popularizing this art form?