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Pahari Miniature Paintings- The Origin and the Great Masters

I have been a college teacher and journalist. As a freelance content writer, I research the subject to write without prejudice and malice.


The miniature paintings of erstwhile states of Punjab Hills in India are known as Pahari painting. The word Pahari means hilly in the local dialect. These paintings began under the Mughal influence during the reign of Aurangzeb. They also bear the impact of the paintings of Nepal, Kashmir, and Rajasthan etc.

The Pahari School of Miniature Paintings consists of the works of a large number of talented artists who contributed to developing this unique style of painting. It was the outcome of family tradition and the centuries of hard work.

Most of the paintings were destroyed in natural calamities, wars, fire etc. The leftover is not very enlightening, though a few contain the name of their creators. But the rest could be guessed by the art historians on the basis of style and nature of work.

The Pahari paintings have different schools or styles because they had several patrons like the rulers of Basohli, Guler, Kangra, Chamba, Tehri - Garhwal, Nurpur, Mankot, Mandi, Kullu, Bilaspur etc.

The Technique of Pahari Paintings

The artists of Pahari paintings had a similar and consistent style. They all followed uniform methods and their techniques were simple and indigenous.

The sheets of handmade paper were joined together to get the desired thickness. The outlines were drawn in light reddish brown or grey-black colors and then a very thin and transparent coating was applied on the sketches. Finally, on the white coating, the colors were filled. For brightness, the painting was burnished with boulder or river stone called golla or glass or agate, etc.

Use of Naturally Made Colors and Poison in Paintings

The unique style of Pahari miniature paintings had been developed under the aegis of erstwhile princely states of Kangra and Guler States.

Typically in these miniatures about 19 natural colors are used. All these colors are particularly associated with the Kangra School of painting.

These colors were produced from the stones and plants found in the valley of Kangra. It takes about a year to create all the required shades of colors because the colors are extracted from the natural resources and vegetation existing at particular seasons throughout the year. The natural color pigments from mineral and vegetable sources were mixed in water, and gum for binding the paints.

Besides these natural colors, gold dust is also used to give the desired shine and glow to different scenes like that of sunset in the miniatures.

Another exquisite feature of these paintings is the use of natural poison to protect the miniatures from decay. This poison is extracted naturally from the poisonous plants and soot of the smoke that gathers at the roofs of temples where the holy fire of Yagna burns continuously.

The paper was also made naturally from the bio-waste of the of pine trees.

The artists used the brushes generally made of the hair of horse, squirrel, camel, etc. and the peacock feather was used as a pencil. The brush used for the painting was also sometimes made from the wings of local birds preferably that of a peacock.

The Basohli School

The credit to begin the Pahari style of paintings goes to Rajah Kripal Pal (1678-1731), of Basohli, who was the first patron in the region. He was a man of aesthetic tastes with a deep understanding of literature. The typical styles of paintings during his patronage have Hindu characteristics as he was a devotee of Lord Vishnu.

It was the first Pahari School because no such painting exists before the times of Rajah Kripal Pal. This style influenced on the neighboring states till 1850’s. Unlike Basohli School, the figures and landscapes in Guler and Kangra style are perfect and natural.

The Masters of Basohli

Devidas, a local tarkhan or carpenter of Basholi painted the landmark illustrations of Rasa Manjari series in 1693 during the reign of Kripal Pal. The common theme of Rasa Manjari was based on an epic written by a 16th-century poet Bhanu Dutta.

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Features of Basohli Style

The facial features of well modeled natural figures in the early Basohli paintings have oval shapes, receding foreheads and large passionate eyes resembling the petals of a lotus.

These paintings have soft, vivid, harmonious and bold colors. They present the stylized landscapes, circular trees with simple and unique composition. The section and figures of the architecture are often painted separately in the square frame which makes the paintings simple but unique and attractive. Unlike Kangra paintings, this style shows a true understanding of the sense of space.

Basohli School

The Jummu School

In the 18th century, a host of painters left the Mughal court for Basholi, Mankot, Nurpur and the surrounding hill states. During the siege of Delhi by Nadir Shah, many more artists left Delhi for the hill states. Some of them saw the rulers of Jammu and Kangra as their patrons. Among them was the family of Pundit Seu, whose two sons started their workshops under the patronage of Raja Balwant Singh, the younger brother of Maharaja Ranjit Dev, the then ruler of Jammu. The masterly and expressive works of Nainsukh find a place in Jammu School. He extensively portrayed his patron Rajah Balwant Singh of Jammu in all walks of life.

The freedom they enjoyed tempted the artists to create fabulous paintings in the Mughal and Rajput styles being conglomerated into the local traditions. This fusion of local cultures and Mughal styles of paintings produced a glowing new form and style which is now known as Pahari Miniature.

The Jummu Paintings

Singing Bout

Singing Bout

The Poonch School

There are also some artists who by their own efforts attained great success. They did not acquire this art by family legacy. In the early 18th century, when the Pahari School was in its cradle for its making, then Poonch, a Pahari state in Kashmir had already become well known for its paintings. The popular paintings of this school bear the names of its artists. Since Poonch was ruled by its Muslim lords, the Muslim artists also emerged among the frontrunners. A few paintings of this school bear the name of Jamil Mussavir. Nothing much is known about him and his family, but his paintings show meticulous weaving of portraiture and scenic views.

The Guler School

It is almost certain that among many of the artists, who migrated from Delhi and Punjab to the hill states was one named “Seu”. Most of the art critics mention him as a pundit, but according to the documents, he was not a Brahmin but a carpenter. The most authentic source is the Bahi Khata or records of pundit Ram Rakha of Hardwar. It contains the writings of one celebrated artist, NainSukh in Dogri script. He was the younger son of Seu who was a Tarkhan or carpenter and not Seu pundit. Seu died in 1740 AD.

From the 1740s until his death, Rajah Balwant Singh (1724-1763) of Jammu was the patron of Nain Sukh. He painted many portraits of the king engaged in different moods and a variety of courtly activities. After the death of Balwant Singh, the famous artist Nain Sukh went to Nurpur with his sons.

Rajah Govardhan Chand (1743–1773), the ruler of Guler had already established a school of painting at Haripur at that time and he welcomed the painter and his family. Some artists had been working there since the times of his father Dalip Singh. Because of the early rulers of Guler viz. Rup Chand (1610-1635), Bikram Singh (1635-1661) and Dalip Singh (1695-1743), too were having a long tradition of miniature paintings due to their association with the Mughals.

But it was Rajah Parkash Chand (1773–1779), the prodigious son of Govardhan who patronized these artists to an extent that he even became bankrupt. His son Rajah Bhup Chand (1790–1826) continues the family tradition.

Nain Sukh got settled in Guler in Vikram Samvat 1820 or 1764 AD, in June or Jyestha. His brother Manku was another artist of Pahari School of paintings.

Seu was blessed with two artist sons, Manku and Nain Sukh, who became the two pillars around which the Pahari School flourished. Manku, the elder brother was the master artist of Guler School.

Manku had two sons, Fattu and Kushal who migrated to Kangra. Some of the paintings of this genre owe a lot to these artists. Manku’s grandsons named Madho Malak and Kashi Ram were two artists of repute.

Nain Sukh and his four sons Ranjha, Kamu, Gourhu, and Nikka were also famous for their paintings. Among the sons of Gourhu and Nikka were Sukhanu, Sutanu, Harkhu, Gokul, and Chhaja, who became popular in the durbars or courts of various hill states. Lal Singh the son of Ranjha was patronized by the feudal lords of Pahari states.

So the descendants of the family were responsible for the beginning and development of this school. The other descendants were Rajoul, Bhupinder, Parkash and Chandulal Rayana. They possessed a script designed on a paper of Sialkot origin, wherein the figure of the goddess of art in the form of Yogini was drawn. She is shown standing on one leg with her fifteen legs spread in all directions. On each arm is written the name of Pahari state, which indicates the artists were patronized by these states.

The states mentioned in these paintings are Guler, Chamba, Kangra. Mandi, Suket, Kehloor, Nadaun, Jaswan, Shiba, Datarpur, Sujanpur, Nurpur and Baskoli, Three names are also mentioned viz. Gurbaksh Singh, Ramgarhia Jassa Singh, and Tej Singh.

Exchange of clothes by Krishna and Radha, Pahari painting in Kangra style in A D. 1800

The Kangra School

Surrounded by the hill states of Chamba, Guler, and Mandi, the erstwhile Kangra princely state had maintained its status among the hill states of repute in the past. The very origin of the state can be traced back to Mahabharata when the Kangra king Susharma sided with Kauravas. The fort of Kangra was prominent in medieval times.

The great Chinese scholar and traveler Heun Tsang had mentioned in the 7th century that Kangra was a part of Kannauj Kingdom. Two hundred years later it was besieged by the ruler of Kashmir.

Kangra witnessed the invasion of Mahmud Ghaznavi when he plundered the Indian plains in search of riches. It remained one of the very few hill states rich in beauty and natural resources even after, and attracted the attention of Muslim rulers like Muhammad Tughluq in the 14th century and later the Mughals after 1600 AD.

Though the Pahari style of miniature paintings originated in the hill states of Mankot, Jasrota, Basholi and Jammu, yet it flourished only in Kangra.

The Kangra style had strong points like the steady brush strokes, selective use of seven colors, pleasing features, well-built beautiful people, different expressions and wide range objects. The use of seven colors is a prominent feature of Kangra School.

Rama at the hermitage of Sage Agastya, Kangra School

The Great Masters of Kangra School

In 1780 AD, Ranjha, Gourhu and Nikka, the three sons of NainSukh, except the fourth son Kamu, reached the kingdom of Kangra from Guler. At that time the Katoch King Raja Sansar Chand was the ruler. He was a great patron of art and very fond of artistic pursuits. His passion for miniature was never satiated. It was during his reign that the Kangra and Guler Schools flourished. These schools were later adjudged as supreme among all the Pahari styles.

It was during his reign that the Kangra and Guler Schools flourished. These schools were later adjudged as supreme among all the Pahari styles.

There was another celebrated family of artists, though not of the same stature as that of Seu clan. But this family of artists also made a remarkable contribution to the Kangra School of painting. It was the family of Dhuman or Ghuman. He had two artist sons named Purkhu and Fattu. Among his grandsons were Ruldu and Chandanu, the sons of Purkhu, who were renowned for their works.

Other famous artists of Pahari School were Vasia, Padmu and Doukhu. Vasia was one of the most popular artists in the court of Raja Sansar Chand of Kangra state.

In 1929, J.C. French visited Kangra, and he discovered four Pahari artists viz. Nandu, Hazari, Gulab Ram and Lachman Das, still working on their paintings. Lachman Das was the great grandson of Vasia, who lived in Samloti during the visit of J.C. French.

The Inspirations for the Artists

The ladies in the family were the main inspirations behind the works of the artists. They practiced drawing different facial expressions on the wooden planks for years together and were supervised by the old ladies when the menfolk were generally out of the house attending their jobs in different courts. On coming back they would scrutinize the progress. It was only years later that they were allowed to paint on paper. The caricatures were sketched by the elder artist and the younger ones had to fill in appropriate colors. Afterward, the young artists were allowed to try their imagination on canvas.