Bani Thani: A Jewel in the Crown of Kishangarh Paintings

Article of the Month - Feb 2024

This article by Prakriti Anand

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“I drank with my eyes the beauty of this glamorous woman who stood near Bihari Lal in ecstasy”. 

These lines are from the poem of Nagari Das aka Maharaja Savant Singh of Kishangarh, the poet-prince who is associated with the conception and origin of one of the most popular and unparalleled figures in Indian art- Bani-Thani or the “bedecked woman”. Emerging as the “Monalisa of Indian Art”, Bani-Thani is the representative of the luxurious and expressive art of Rajput school and a gem in the crown of Kishangarh paintings. 

Bani-Thani or Radha by Nihal Chand (Source: Wikimedia Commons) 

The identity of Bani-Thani has been a reason for rich discussion amongst devotees, artists, historians, and writers. Some see her as the amalgamation of all literary descriptions of Krishna’s beloved Sri Radha, while others associate her with Savant Singh’s lover, “Vishnupriya” who according to the Darbaar records was also called Bani-Thani. Whatever her “true” identity might be, Bani-Thani has reigned for centuries in the hearts of art lovers across the globe, which makes her the perfect lens to experience the beauty of the Kishangarh style of painting. 

Kishangarh: The Heart of Rajputana

Located between Jodhpur and Jaipur, the state of Kishangarh is a symbol of the marvelous culture of Rajputana. In the medieval period, the state was established by Maharaja Kishan Singh, who was a follower of the Vallabha Sect of Nathadwara and worshipper of Krishna’s form as “Nritya-Gopala” or dancing Krishna. Rup Singh (1643-1658) started the ritual worship of Kalyan-Rai, the tutelary deity of the royal family, strengthening the tradition of Krishna-bhakti in Kishangarh. Nurtured by the Pushti-Maarg or path of grace which developed around Srinathji (a childhood form of Krishna) and the Bhakti traditions of Brija, Kishangarh for a brief period in the history of Indian culture was home to some of the best artists, including the immortal devotee-king Savant Singh, who took the title of Nagari Das and wrote evocative poems in praise of Krishna and Radha. 

Savant Singh (Nagari Das) and Bani-Thani

The eldest son of King Raj Singh (1706-1748), Savant Singh from his early days was a fine youth, well-versed in the art of war and poetry. Amongst his famous writings are Manoratha Manjari (1723), Rasika Ratnavali (1725), and Bihari Chandrika (1731), all filled with the rasa (nectar) of Krishna’s Prema and Bhakti. 

Raja Sawant Singh and Bani Thani as Krishna and Radha Strolling in a Palace Garden by Nihal Chand (Source: Wikimedia Commons) 

A turning point in the life of Savant Singh came when his stepmother, Bankavatji took a young girl in her zenana (Haram or female retinue), who was trained as a singer or gayika and had a natural flair for writing verses, which she signed as “Rasik Bihari”. The girl was none other than Bani-Thani (she who is dressed up or bedecked, a term of the local language), who soon caught the eye of Savant Singh. In 1757, when Savant Singh took refuge in the land of Sri Radha and Krishna, Vrindavan, Bani-Thani accompanied him, traveling by his side, performing worship at the Krishna shrines and after his death in 1764, continued to follow him, passing soon after in 1765. Chatari (memorials) have been erected for the couple in Braja, close to the temple of Nagari Kunj. 

The lovers throughout their lives worshipped the lotus feet of Radha and Krishna in the most delicate words of their poetries. Even their names, Nagari-Das (the servant of Nagari or Radha) and Vishnupriya (the beloved of Vishnu, whose incarnation is Krishna), is an ode to their supreme love for Radha-Krishna. But beyond their writings, Savant Singh and Bani-Thani are eternally lighting up the realm of art as the originator and model for the classic “Bani-Thani” paintings of Kishangarh. The question remains- whether Bani-Thani is a representation of Radha, painted by keeping the human beloved of Savant Singh as a model or is it the mortal Bani-Thani made transcendental by the skills of the royal painters? While one might not be able to give a definitive answer, it will be an enriching experience to delve deeper into the Rasa-sagar (ocean of nectar) of Kishangarh paintings, through the case of Bani-Thani.  

Bani-Thani: Femininity in Art at its Peak

Raja Savant Singh and Bani-Thani as Krishna and Radha, by Nihal Chand (notice the hint of a mustache on the blue-skinned Savant Singh’s face) (Source: Wikimedia Commons) 

With sensuous eyes, brows arched like the Dhanush or bow of Kamadeva (the lord of passion and love), sharp nose, and red lips curving inwards in a playful smile, the image of Bani-Thani is not something one can easily forget. Her charm is accentuated by the queenly pearl ornaments, luscious locks with strands of hair framing her moon face, a proud yet graceful pose, and a diaphanous veil that hides and highlights her transcendental beauty simultaneously. 

Her comparison with the beloved of Sri Krishna, Radha is a natural one. In the Krishna-bhakti traditions, especially the ones based on the Gita-Govinda of Jaideva, Sri Radha also known as Swaminiji (queen, who rules the heart of Krishna) emerges as the pinnacle of feminine beauty and virtues. Bhakti poetry of Riti Kal (the period of mannered poetry) describes the gorgeousness of Sri Radha in great detail, alongside Krishna, making the divine couple the supreme Nayaka and Nayika (hero and heroine). At its peak, Bhakti poetry merged with Rajput paintings where Nayika-bhed (different forms of heroines in love) and Nayaka-Nayika paintings were in vogue. Radha and Krishna virtually replaced every romantic couple in art, to the extent that every hero, belonging to every folk or regional romantic legend was Krishna and his lover was Radha. Depiction of Radha-Krishna in Nayika-bheda paintings, Baramasa (twelve months), and other themes of love carried the Sringaar Rasa or the emotion of romance which is a recurring element in religious and secular poetry of India for long. 

Many thus believe that Savant Singh in the depths of his devotion, felt himself to be Krishna and expressed his love towards Bani-Thani as Radha. His writings on the gracefulness and charm of Bani-Thani are seen as expressions of his devotional love for Sri Radha. Even in the writings of Bani-Thani, it is the divine romance of Radha-Krishna more than the human love between her and Savant Singh that features more prominently- “ Today, there is a colorful night in the Kunjas of Vrindavan, please enter! Shri Radha, the colorful bride, and Shri Krishna, the colorful beloved who are the reservoirs of unlimited bliss”. 

Kishangarh Paintings: Eyes that Catch the Eye

It could be suggested that the poetry of Savant Singh, Bani-Thani, and herself, the poets that came before them, and the imagery of Radha in Bhakti tradition all combined in different amounts in the making of the final motif of Bani-Thani. These written words were best translated into the paintings of the master artist Nihal Chand. Savant Singh himself was an avid painter, who experimented with various styles and techniques. An interesting discovery in the 1898 Nagari Sammuchaya is the fact that Savant Singh found a unique technique for depicting the divine and human forms in art. His sketchbook was supposedly filled with various depictions of stylized and accentuated eyes, which remain distinctive and alluring elements in Kishangarh painting. 

What meets the eye when one looks at a Kishangarh painting are the eyes of the subject. Curved, with a balance of stylization and liveliness, the eyes of Bani-Thani are what caught the attention of art connoisseurs and historians. But why the eyes? Many believe that it is because of the attention given to the eyes of Nayan/Naina in the Bhakti poetry around Radha-Krishna. The collyrium (kajal) filled eyes of both Radha and Krishna have been described in enchanting details in the poetics of devotee writers. In the Sringaar-poetry or romantic poems, supreme beauty is often described in terms of the lotus-shaped or almond-shaped eyes, that are enough to pierce the heart of the onlooker with arrows of desire. The eyes of the deity have also been the center of love-laced devotional poetry, that talks about the moment of Darshana (seeing the divine), when the eyes of the devotee meet the eyes of the deity, causing a sprouting of love in the heart and union with the Lord. “Naina-chaar hona” (two pairs of eyes meeting, to become chaar or four), is a significant moment in romantic tales, when the lovers see each other for the first time, also mentioned in the tales of Sita-Ram and Radha-Krishna, combining romance with a moving devotional element. Even in the ritual of Pushti-Marg, the devotee is “given” a pair of eyes at Praan-pratishtha, during a ceremony that literally means “opening the eyes”, after which the idol is seen as a living entity, infused with the divine presence. 


Krishna playing Holi with Radha by Nihal Chand (Source: Daily Art Magazine) 

Beyond the enchanting eyes, Kishangarh paintings show meticulous attention to fine lines and colors. The subjects are stylized yet have a true-to-life quality and even with the two-dimensional profiles, have a realistic presence on the canvas. Developing between the Mughal miniatures and Rajput schools of painting, Kishangarh paintings have a style of their own, which is why they are treated not as an off-shoot of Mughal art or Jaipur Kalam, but as a distinctive aesthetic gem. 

As the piece-de-resistance Bani-Thani with her pristine beauty and mysterious history shines most brilliantly in the treasure of Kishangarh School. In addition to the popular profile painting, Bani-Thani is also a classic example of the Vasaksajja Nayika, one of the Ashta-Nayika or Eight Nayikas described in Natyashastra, who is dressed up and waiting for the moment of union. “Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder”, is a famous line, but in the case of Bani-Thani, it is the eyes of the subject herself, her sideward gaze inviting the beholder, which seem to be carrying the beauty of three realms.  

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