Garhwal Painting

Garhwal Painting

Garhwal Painting

Garhwal Painting

Excerpt

In the last quarter of the eighteenth century, the State of Garhwal1 in Northern India presents us with a series of intriguing problems. Lying on the south-east fringes of the Punjab Hills, it had for long preserved its feudal independence. Its capital, Srinagar, lay deep into the hills--a week's march from the plains--and although it had nursed a traditional feud with its neighbour, Kumaon, and kept an uneasy watch on the Gurkahs of Nepal, it had, for many years, escaped the havoc of a major war. Its isolation, in fact, was the secret of its quiet, the cause of its freedom and the excuse for its slender cultural achievement. In 1658, a Mughal prince, fleeing from his uncle the emperor Aurangzeb, had brought to Garhwal a Mughal artist and his son. These artists had been as much goldsmiths and courtiers as actual painters and remaining at Garhwal after the prince had left, they had been granted a substantial pension. Their work as artists, however, had been distinctly mediocre and when we come to 1771, the latest representative of the line, a certain Mola Ram, although still painting, was commanding a woefully poor and unimpressive style. Yet despite this lack of fertile antecedents, despite also its general isolation, there matured at Garhwal a style of painting only equalled in romantic charm by that of another Punjab Hill State, Kangra. In place of drab prosaic portraiture, poetry was accepted as the true theme of art. Technique achieved a new delicacy. Passionate romance was treated with innocent grace while line itself was used to express a sense of musical rhythm. For centuries backward and aloof, within a decade Garhwal had made one of the greatest contributions to Indian painting.

This sudden development can only be explained on one assumption--that outside artists had reached the court; and for determining the date of their arrival, we are fortunate in possessing some unusual kinds of evidence--the writings and pictures of the local artist, Mola Ram himself. Although striving to be a painter, Mola Ram (c. 1750-1833) was also a poet and collector of pictures. The latter were by several artists but in his collection, as it still existed in 1900, there were a number in similar style, all inscribed in Mola Ram's handwriting and notable for their harshness and crudity.2 In several cases, verses describe the actual pictures and declare that Mola Ram painted them. None of these pictures shows any sensitivity while in more than one case an exquisite prototype exists which proves that Mola Ram's versions are only clumsy copies.3 Yet, despite these mediocre accomplishments, so provincial was the Garhwal atmosphere that Mola Ram seems to have rated his productions highly and even to have thought himself a great artist. And it is this circumstance which probably explains his reactions when suddenly there arrived some superior painters. Their presence was clearly very unpalatable and it is significant that in the years 1769 and 1775, he wrote two poems each expressing a sense of bitter disillusion. In the first dated 1769, he wrote 'These are hard times. The officials and courtiers tell lies. Their eyes lie. The clerks lie. The paper lies. The ink lies. Everything is lies', while six years later, he declares 'What are thousands and lakhs?4 What are gold and villages? Mola Ram cares only for appreciation.' We do not know the exact circumstances in which these poems were written. But it is significant that both were written on pictures5 and bearing in mind Mola Ram's artistic pretensions, we can hardly doubt that they are related, in some way, to his fate as painter. If outside artists had been welcomed in Garhwal in 1769, the shock to Mola Ram's self-esteem could well explain the first embittered outcry. He would naturally attribute their position not to merit but to flattery, intrigues and 'lies'. He would argue that their success was only transitory and that he, Mola Ram, would triumph in the end. He would hesitate to abandon his current style and hence in 1771, his first fully dated picture6 still shows only the prosaic dullness of a provincial Mughal manner. If, however, a little later, other artists received encouragement or if the newcomers were now established, not only would Mola Ram be stung to fresh bitterness but he would realise that he must either desist from painting or adopt the new and fashionable technique. And this is precisely what appears to have occurred. In the poem dated 1775, he still pines for appreciation but the picture to which it forms the head-piece7 is the first of a series in crude but obvious line with the new Garhwal style. Such reactions point to only one conclusion--that certainly by 1775 and probably six to seven years earlier, the new school had come into being.

If this vital migration is assigned to the years 1769 to 1775, from what centre, then, can the artists have come? At first . . .

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