Miniature Paintings of India – Transcending Intricacies

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Miniature Paintings of India – Transcending Intricacies


Miniature Art is an art genre that entails intricate brushwork, great expertise in craftsmanship and the mastery of many different techniques. As such, one painting will represent the work of specialists in several fields—not only what we usually consider as “art” (composition, colour and so forth) but also the creation of the painting surface itself and the many natural pigments, as well as each of the many steps between the initial sketch and the finished masterpiece.

Indian Miniature Paintings (Huntings Scenes of The Mughal Period)

These paintings originated not as independent pieces but rather as narratives or illustrations for manuscripts or books. The tradition bloomed primarily as a means to reveal the Divine. It gained momentum with the revival of Vaishnavism and the growth of the Bhakti Movement in the 18th century. Devotional literature like Gita Govinda, Bhagvat Purana and Surasagara became the source of inspiration for the Indian artists. Even the paintings commissioned by the Hindu princely courts were an act of respecting the sacred scripts and religious epics. Eventually, there was some external influence as well. Here are some of the most prevalent miniature artforms that have survived the test of time.

Miniature Paintings of Rajasthan

An art form brought by the Mughals in the sixteenth century, with Akbar and Humayun playing key roles in the development and promotion of the art in the subcontinent. The art has with time evolved as per the tradition and mind of the Indian artists over the generations. The king of kings riding along the dense jungle path, with his raised sword gleaming in the moonlight and bow and arrows hung from his sinewy shoulders as the horse on which his proud girth is positioned gallops towards the unknown. The dark sky glittered with stars as if alive, and the whitening foliage and shrubs in the background add a mystic beauty to the otherwise darkness of the night we all are aware of. The moon shaped as a distinct canoe bestows its blessing to the brave king, who has braved both the night and the forest to hunt another king, famously termed as king of beasts.

Every painting, whether portrayed on the walls of palaces, paper, ivory, wooden tablets, textiles and even marble, has a story to tell starting from great adventures, ideal romances, passionate bonds, myriad facial expressions to day to day conducts between royalty as well as the common man.

The surrealism and magic of miniature paintings that have enriched our history, especially that of Rajasthan and also has the potential to enrich our lives was brought to the land of India by the Mughals. The Mughals brought the art form from Persia, with trained artists from that region mentoring the many budding Indian artists who had with time evolved the art form as per their culture and tradition. Like many scenes from the Mahabharata and Ramayana have also been depicted through the medium of this art form. The story of Radha and Krishna which is best expressed in Bani Thani paintings with a unique style involving exaggerated features such as long necks, almond-shaped eyes and long fingers that convey a sense of divinity to the observer is another example that brings to light the adaptation of the Persian art form by Indian artists. The creation of the art form Bani Thani has an interesting tale behind to tell. In Kishangarh kingdom of Rajasthan, during the 18th century, the ruler of the province Raja Sawant Singh had fallen in love with a slave girl whose name was Bani Thani. He was so inspired by the bond they shared that he ordered his artists to portray them as Radha and Krishna in their miniature paintings. The depictions involved portraiture of the two lovers with different backgrounds such as garden, court, music parties, naukavihar (lovers on a boat), along with many other Indian festivals like Holi, Diwali, Durga Puja and Dussehra.

Mughal Procession 

The paintings were brought to life keeping in mind the minute details, and the harmony of colours and patterns that made the paintings stand out and appear almost real. Multiple perspectives were taken into account while preparing the art that reflected both the past and the present, unlike their European counterparts. The colours were painstakingly derived from nature, and days of toil would lead to extraction of a very small amount of an exquisite colour. For example, the colour red was derived from the dried fruit of Peepal tree, orange from the flower known as Palash, and green extracted from leaves and black from stones. The colour yellow, quite interestingly, was acquired from the dried urine of a sick cow. The crystallised gold or silver colours were acquired by boiling metal with camel husk and water. It would then be rubbed on a plate or ground by hand for consecutively 2-3 days resulting in a very minuscule amount of pristine concoction.

After the processes of extraction had been completed, the colours were then mixed with water and natural gum to make them all set for application. The artist had to be extra careful and make sure that the colour is uniform because if it is even the slightest out of place the painting would get spoiled as due to its extremely small size.

Unlike Mughal painting which is primarily secular, the art of painting in Central India, Rajasthani and the Pahari region etc. is deeply rooted in the Indian traditions, taking inspiration from Indian epics, religious texts like the Puranas, love poems in Sanskrit and other Indian languages, Indian folk-lore and works on musical themes. The cults of Vaishnavism, Saivism and Sakti exercised tremendous influence on the pictorial art of these places. Among these the cult of Krishna was the most popular one which inspired the patrons and artists. The themes from the Ramayana., the Mahabharata, the Bhagavata, the Siva Purana, the Naishadacarita, the Usha Aniruddha, the Gita Govinda of Jayadeva, the Rasamanjari of Bhanudatta, the Amaru Sataka, the Rasikapriya of Kesavadasa, the Bihari Satasayee and the Ragamala etc., provided a very rich field to the painter who with his artistic skill and devotion made a significant contribution to the development of Indian painting.

Pala Miniature Painting

Pala School represents the earliest examples of miniature painting in India. The Buddhist monasteries (mahaviharas) of Nalanda, Odantapuri, Vikramsila and Somarupa were great centres of Buddhist learning and art.

The paintings are in the form a large number of manuscripts on palm-leaf relating to the Buddhist themes. The images of Buddhist deities at these centres which also had workshops for the casting of bronze images. Students and pilgrims from all over South-East Asia gathered there for education and religious instruction. They took back to their country examples of Pala Buddhist art, in the form of bronzes and manuscripts which helped to carry the Pala style to Nepal, Tibet, Burma, Sri Lanka and Java etc.

The extant illustrated manuscripts of Pala Empire mostly belong to the Vajrayana School of Buddhism. Pala style is naturalistic and resembles the ideal forms of contemporary bronze and stone sculpture, and reflects some feeling of the classical art of Ajanta. The best example is the manuscript of the Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita. After the Muslim invasions, many of the monks and artists escaped and fled to Nepal, which helped in reinforcing the existing art traditions there.

Jain Miniature Painting

Jain art is one of the important branches of medieval art in India. Jain monks and scholars of medieval India wrote thousands of manuscripts related to their religious philosophy and teaching. These manuscripts contain some beautiful miniature paintings. In fact, Jains are the pioneers of miniature paintings in India.

Although Jain literature goes back to 5th Century before Common Era, the earliest known miniature paintings are from 11th Century. However, it is assumed this art might have started as early as 9th Century. These paintings are from Kalpasutra text. This art of miniature paintings flourished in next few centuries, especially in Gujarat, Rajasthan and Deccan. This art started to decline after 16th century.

Jain Vastrapatas (Jain Paintings on Cloth and Paper)

The significant feature of Jain miniature paintings is the stylish figures of the women in the paintings. The artists used strong colors and liked to show enlarged eyes of the persons in the paintings. The artist also liked to decorate the persons with ornaments. Jain miniature paintings are found mainly in old Rajasthani, Gujarati, Hindi, Marathi and Kannada manuscripts. In early era, they were painted on palm leaves, later Jains started to paint on paper. The colors were made especially from vegetables, minerals and even from gold and silver.

Other branches of Indian art were greatly inspired by Jain miniature paintings and they adopted the style of Jains. Other branches include Rajasthani, Mughal, Odissa and some other schools.

Western Indian Miniature Paintings having Persian Influence

During the 15th century the Persian style of painting started influencing the Western Indian style of painting as is evident from the Persian facial types and hunting scenes appearing on the borders of some of the illustrated manuscripts of the Kalpasutra. Introduction of the use of ultra­marine blue and gold colour in the Western Indian manuscripts is also believed to be due to the influence of the Persian painting. These Persian paintings, which came to India, were in the form of illustrated manuscripts. A number of such manuscripts were copied in India. Some colours used in these types of copies can be seen in the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington and an illustrated manuscript of Bustan of Sadi in the National Museum, New Delhi. The Bustan was executed for Sultan Nadir Shah Khilji of Malwa (1500-1510 A.D.), by one Hajji Mahmud (painter) Shahsuwar (scribe).

An illustrated manuscript of the Nimat Nama (Cookery Book) which exists in the Indian Office Library, London is marked by a new trend of painting at Malwa. The manuscript was started in the time of Ghiyasaldin Khilji of Malwa (1469-1500 A.D.). A left of this manuscript is illustrated here. It shows Ghiyasaldin Khilji supervising cooking being done by maids. In the Nimat Nama style the Persian influence is visible in the scroll like clouds, flowering trees, grassy tufts and flowering plants in the background, female figures and costumes. Indian elements are noticeable in some female types and their costumes and ornaments and colours. In this manuscript one can notice the first attempt towards the evolution of new styles of painting by the fusion of the Persian style of Shiraz with the indigenous Indian style.

Indian Miniature Painting

The finest examples of painting belonging to the first half of the 16th century are, however, represented by a group of miniatures generally designated as the "Kulhadar Group". This group includes illustrations of the 'Chaurapanchasika' - " Fifty Verses of the Thief by Bilhan, the Gita Govinda, the Bhagavata Purana and Ragamala. The style of these miniatures is marked by the use of brilliant contrasting colours, vigorous and angular drawing, transparent drapery and the appearance of conical caps 'Kulha' on which turbans are worn by the male figures.

An example of the Chaurapanchasika miniature shows Champavati standing near a lotus pond. This miniature belongs to the N.C. Mehta collection, Bombay. It was executed in the first quarter of the 6th century, probably in Mewar. The style of the painting is purely indigenous derived from the earlier tradition of the Westen Indian art and does not show any influence of either the Persian or the Mughal style of painting.

Two manuscripts of the Laur Chanda, an Avadhi romance by Mulla Daud, one in the Prince of Wales Museum, Bombay and the other in John Rylands Library, Manchester seem to have been painted at Muslim courts between 1530 to 1540 A.D. They show a mixture of Persian and Indian styles like the Nimat Nama of Malwa. The other two important manuscripts of this period are the Mrigavati and the Mahapurana, a Jain text. They are executed in a style related to Chaurapanchasika style.

The Deccani Schools of Miniature Art (Circa 1560-1800 A.D.)

Though no pre-Mughal painting from the Deccan is so far known to exist, yet it can safely be presumed that sophisticated schools of painting flourished there, making a significant contribution to the development of the Mughal style in North India. Early centres of painting in the Deccan, during the 16th and 17th centuries were Ahmednagar, Bijapur and Golconda. In the Deccan, painting continued to develop independently of the Mughal style in the beginning. However, later in the 17th and 18th centuries it was increasingly influenced by the Mughal style.


of the Ahmednagar painting are contained in a volume of poems written in praise of Hussain Nizam Shah I of Ahmednagar (1553-1565) and his queen. This manuscript known as the 'Tarif-in-Hussain Shahi and assigned to a period 1565-69 is preserved in the Bharat ltihas Samshodaka Mandala, Poona. One of the illustrations depicts the king sitting on the throne and attended by a number of women. The female type appearing in the painting belongs to the northern tradition of Malwa. The Choli (bodice) and long pigtails braided and ending in a tassel is the northern costume. But the long scarf passing round the body is in the southern fashion. The colours used in the painting being rich and brilliant are different from those used in the northern paintings. The Persian influence can be seen in the high horizon, gold sky and the landscape.

Some other fine examples of the Ahmednagar painting are the "Hindola Raga" of about 1590 A.D. and portraits of Burhan Nizam Shah II of Ahmednagar (1591-96 A.D.) and of Malik Amber of about 1605 A.D. existing in the National Museum, New Delhi and other museums.


In Bijapur, painting was patronised by Ali Adil Shah I (1558-80 A.D.) and his successor Ibrahim II (1580-1627 A.D.). An encyclopaedia known as the Najum-al-ulum (Stars of Sciences), preserved in the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, was illustrated in 1570 A.D. in the reign of Ali Adil Shah I. This manuscript contains 876 miniatures. The ladies appearing in the illustrations are tall and slender and are wearing the South Indian dress. One of the miniatures illustrated here shows the "Throne of Prosperity". There is influence of the Lepakshi mural painting on the female types. The rich colour scheme, the palm trees, animals and men and women all belong, to the Deccani tradition. The profuse use of gold colour, some flowering plants and arabesques on the top of the throne are derived from the Persian tradition.

Ibrahim II (1580-1627 A.D.) was a musician and author of a book, the Naurasnama., on the subject. It is believed that a number of the Ragamala paintings were commissioned in various museums and private collections. A few contemporary portraits of Ibrahim II are also available in several museums.

Golconda Art

The earliest paintings identified as Golconda work are a group of five charming paintings of about 1590 A.D. in the British Museum, London, painted in the period of Muhammad Quli Quta Shah (1580-1611) Golconda. They show dancing girls entertaining the company. One of the miniatures illustrated shows the king in his court watching a dance performance. He wears the white muslim coat with embroidered vertical band, a typical costume associated with the Golconda court. Gold colour has been lavishly used in painting the architecture, costume, jewellery and vessels etc.

Other outstanding examples of the Golconda painting are "Lady with the Myna bird", about 1605 A.D. in the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, an illustrated manuscript of a Sufi poem (1605-15 A.D.) in the British Museum, London and a couple of portraits showing a poet in a garden and an elegantly dressed young man seated on a golden stool and reading a book, both signed by a certain artist Muhammad Ali in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Early Deccani painting absorbed influences of the northern tradition of the pre-Mughal painting which was flourishing in Malwa, and of the southern tradition of the Vijayanagar murals as evident in the treatment of female types and costumes. Influence of the Persian painting is also observed in the treatment of the horizon gold sky and landscape. The colours are rich and brilliant and are different from those of the northern painting. Tradition of the early Deccani painting continued long after the extinction of the Deccan Sultanates of Ahmednagar, Bijapur and Golconda.


Painting in Hyderabad started with the foundation of the Asafjhi dynasty by Mir Qamruddin Khan (Chin Qulick Khan) Nizam-ul-Mulk in 1724 A.D. Influence of the Mughal style of painting on the already existing early styles of Deccani paintings, introduced by several Mughal painters who migrated to the Deccan during the period of Aurangzeb and sought patronage there, was responsible for the development of various styles of painting in the Deccan at Hyderabad and other centres. Distinctive features of the Deccani paintings of the 18th and 19th centuries are observed in the treatment of the ethnic types, costumes, jewellery, flora, fauna, landscape and colours.

A miniature showing a princess in the company of maids is a typical example of the Hyderabad school of painting. The princess is reclining on richly furnished terrace covered with a canopy. The style of the painting is decorative. Typical characteristics of the Hyderabad painting like the rich colours, the Deccani facial types and costumes can be observed in the miniature. It belongs to the third quarter of the 18th century.


A style of painting characterised by bold drawing, techniques of shading and the use of pure and brilliant colours flourished at Tanjore in South India during the late 18th and 19th centuries.

Stunning Ganesha Tanjore Painting With Large Wooden Traditional Door Frame

A typical example of the Tanjore painting, in the collection of the National Museum, is an illustrated wooden panel of early 19th century showing the coronation of Rama. The scene is laid under elaborately decorated arches. In the middle Rama and Sita are seated on the throne, attended by his brothers and a lady; In the left and right panels are seen rishis, courtiers and princes. In the foreground are Hanuman, Sugriva who is being honoured and two other vanaras opening a box probably containing gifts. The style is decorative and is marked by the use of bright colours and ornamental details. The conical crown appearing in the miniature is a typical feature of the Tanjore painting.

The Pahari Schools of Miniature Art (17th To 19th Centuries)

The Pahari region comprises the present State of Himachal Pradesh, some adjoining areas of the Punjab, the area of Union Territory of Jammu in the Jammu and Kashmir State and Garhwal in Uttar Pradesh. The whole of this area was divided into small States ruled by the Rajput princes and were often engaged in welfare. These States were centres of great artistic activity from the latter half of the 17th to nearly the middle of the 19th century.

Kangra School of Pahari Painting

17th to nearly the middle of the 19th century.


The earliest centre of painting in the Pahari region was Basohli where under the patronage of Raja Kripal Pal, an artist named Devidasa executed miniatures in the form of the Rasamanjari illustrations in 1694 A.D. There is one more series of the Rasamanjari miniatures painted in the same style and almost of the same period but appears to be in a different hand. The illustrations of the two Rasamanjari series are scattered in a number of Indian and foreign museums. The Basohli style of painting is characterised by vigorous and bold line and strong glowing colours. The Basohli style spread to the various neighbouring states and continued till the middle of the 18th century.

An illustration from a series of Gita Govinda painted by artist Manaku in 1730 A.D. shows further development of the Basohli style. The miniature which is in the collection of the National Museum, depicts Krishna in the company of gopis in a grove on the bank of a river.

Radha Krishna in the Basholi Idiom

There is a change in the facial type which becomes a little heavier and also in the tree forms which assume a somewhat naturalistic character, which may be due to the influence of the Mughal painting. Otherwise, the general features of the Basohli style like the use of strong and contrasting colours, monochrome background, large eyes, bold drawing, use of beetles wings for showing diamonds in ornaments, narrow sky and the red border are observable in this miniature also.


The last phase of the Basohli style was closely followed by the Union Territory of Jammu group. of paintings mainly consisting of portraits of Raja Balwant Singh of Jasrota (a small place near Union Territory of Jammu) by Nainsukh, an artist who originally belonged to Guler but had settled at Jasrota. He worked both at Jasrota and at Guler. These paintings are in a new naturalistic and delicate style marking a change from the earlier traditions of the Basohli art. The colours used are soft and cool. The style appears to have been inspired by the naturalistic style of the Mughal painting of the Muhammad Shah period.

At Guler, another State in the Pahari region, a number of portraits of Raja Goverdhan Chand of Guler were executed in circa 1750 A.D. in a style having close affinity with the portraits of Balwant Singh of Jasrota. They are drawn delicately and have a bright and rich palette.

Nainsukh of Guler – A Great Indian Painter from a Small Hill-State

The finest group of miniatures done in the Pahari region is represented by the famous series of the Bhagavata, the Gita Govinda, the Bihari Satasai, the Baramasa and the Ragamala, painted in 1760-70 A.D. The exact place of origin of these series of painting is not known. They might have been painted either at Guler or Kangra or any other nearby centre. The Guler portraits together with the Bhagavata and the other series have been grouped under a common title of "Guler Style" on the basis of the style of the Guler portraits. The style of these paintings is naturalistic, delicate and lyrical. The female type in these paintings is particularly delicate with well-modelled faces, small and slightly upturned nose and the hair done minutely. It is very likely that these paintings are in the hand of the master-artist Nainsukh himself or by one of his competent associates.


The Guler style was followed by another style of painting termed as the "Kangra style", representing the third phase of the Pahari painting in the last quarter of the 18th century. The Kangra style developed out of the Guler style. It possesses the main characteristics of the latter style, like the delicacy of drawing and quality of naturalism. The name Kangra style is given to this group of painting for the reason that they are identical in style to the portraits of Raja Sansar Chand of Kangra. In these paintings, the faces of women in profile have the nose almost in line with the forehead, the eyes are long and narrow and the chin is sharp. There is, however, no modelling of figures and hair is treated as a flat mass. The Kangra style continued to flourish at various places namely Kangra, GuIer, Basohli, Chamba, Union Territory of Jammu, Nurpur and Garhwal etc. Paintings of the Kangra style are attributed mainly to the Nainsukh family. Some of the Pahari painters found patronage in the Punjab under Maharaja Ranjit Singh and the Sikh nobility in the beginning of the 19th century and executed portraits and other miniatures in a modified version of the Kangra style which continued till the middle of the 19th century.

Deepak Raga (Kangra Painting)
Kulu - Mandi

Along with the naturalistic Kangra style in the Pahari region, there also flourished a folk style of painting in the Kulu-Mandi area, mainly inspired by the local tradition. The style is marked by bold drawing and the use of dark and dull colours. Though influence of the Kangra style is observed in certain cases yet the style maintains its distinct folkish character. A large number of portraits of the Kulu and Mandi rulers and miniatures on other themes are available in this style.

A miniature from the series of the Bhagavata in the collection of the National Museum was painted by Shri Bhagwan in 1794 A.D. Illustrations show Krishna lifting the Goverdhana mountain on his little finger to save the people of Gokula from the wrath of Indra who has let loose heavy rains. The dark clouds and rain in the form of white dotted lines are shown in the background. The drawing of figures is bold though rather stiff. The painting has a yellow floral border.

Another example of the Kulu painting is of two girls flying kites. The miniature is in the folk style of the late 18th century and is marked by bold drawing and dark and dull colour scheme. The background colour is dull blue. The girls are wearing the typical costumes and ornaments which prevailed in the Kulu region in that period. Two flying parrots indicate sky in a symbolic manner. The miniature belongs to the collection of the National Museum.

Orissa School of Miniature Painting

This school came into existence during the 17th century AD. Most of the paintings depicted the love stories of Radha and Krishna and also stories from ‘Krishna Leela’ and ‘Gita Govinda’. These paintings were rich in colour and often depicted the majestic landscape of the eastern parts of India. The strokes used were bold and often expressive.

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