The drawing, from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam link, features the Coronation of Rama, an episode from the Rāmāyaṇa (Fig.1). It was produced in Kangra, a small kingdom in the Pahari region (northwest India) and dates c. 1800-1820. Located in the lower foothills of Himalaya, Pahari schools developed in the second half of the 17th century and flourished until the middle of the 19th century. In Pahari paintings, the representations are mostly figure-based and illustrate the Hindu mythological narratives and devotional texts (such as the Rāmāyaṇa, the Devī Māhātmya, the Gītagovinda, the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, etc) as well as vernacular poetry, musical pieces et alia.
In the chapter 128 of the narrative, after 14 years of exile, Rama returns with his wife Sita to the capital of Ayodhya and is installed as a king by the sage Vasistha. On the image, Rama’s brows are being anointed by the Rishi with the sacred mark before the audience constituted of his brothers on the right, the gods, on the left, and noblemen in the bottom part. The gods are identified thanks to their physical appearance and attributes: Shiva with an hair bun and a snake, Brahma with his multiple heads, Ganesha with an elephant head, and Krishna, depicted here as an avatar of Vishnu, with the mace and the chakra, riding his vehicle Garuda, represented with a bird head. Lakshamana, on the right part holds a flywhisk above the head of his brother. Alongside the topic of the painting itself, which has rarely been represented in Rajput painting in general, the drawing contains interesting technical features which highlight the production processes implemented by North Indian artists.
With a closer look, the perforations along the contours of the figures indicate that the drawing was used as a pounce. This is also confirmed by the superficial darkish shade on the surface of the paper support. This is due to the charcoal powder contained in a small pouch, which was used to transfer the design onto a new support in order to create a duplicate of the primary image. The holes are barely visible to the naked eye. But the HIROX-RH-2000 digital microscope image enables us to fully apprehend the fine and extremely regular network of minute holes which might have been done with a thin needle (Fig.2) This aspect highlights the accuracy and dexterity of the artist. Although, the use of spectacles has often been mentioned when talking about the miniaturist technique of the Indian artists, there is no representations of glasses in the contemporary paintings from the Pahari region.
Dabs of colour painted in the various areas of the composition were used as colour indications for the execution of future paintings. Through the 19th century in the Pahari region, it was also a common practice to note on the drawing the names of colours to use or the patterns to execute instead of using licks of colours. Two touches of blue on both of Rama’s hands indicate that the skin of the god had, as usual, to be painted in blue. Two dashes of yellow show that his clothing had to be coloured in yellow (Fig.3). Both colours are pictorial conventions in the representations of the god, therefore it is quite curious to see that they were however indicated. Similarly, touches of blue are seen on Krishna’s arm and of yellow on his dhoti (in the upper left of the assembly). Trees are indicated with dashes of green, and the rest of the image shows licks of yellow, red, orange and pink. Both carpets have licks of blue and orange for the first one and purple-red for the second. It is also interesting to note that Shiva in the right side of second row and two sadhus in the first row, has washes of grey to indicate the ashy colour of their skin (Fig.4).
Along the upper edge, we can notice small spirals, circles and lines in red, black and white inks. These are in fact practising or trials by the painter. Just before engaging his brush, he used to check the flow or the amount of ink, so the support of the artwork served as a blotter to absorb excess of pigment or ink contained in the brush (Fig.5). Performing perfect circles and spirals were the first motives that apprentices needed to master. Therefore, drawing these elements became an automatic gesture for the accomplished artists such as a warming-up exercise. Similar doodles are seen on numbers of drawings from the region, so that certain sketches, left at an abandoned state, were exclusively reused as drafts or blotting sheets.
All of these aspects indicate that the drawing was not a simple sketch but a ‘master drawing’. Colours indications and marginal notes related to patterns were used as aide-memoire for further works. Each master possessed, in his atelier, a collection of models and copies of design, tracings and sketches. This sort of pictorial database, at his death, passed into the hands of his favourite pupil. In that sense, artists played the role of preservers of drawings which transmitted a repository of forms and knowledge.
There are two existing paintings which might have been the finished products of the Rijksmuseum model. One was sold by Bonhams in 2014 link and the other belongs to the National Museum of India in New-Delhi. Both are painted in the Jodhpur style (in Rajasthan) at the end of the 18th or at the beginning of the 19th century. Both show, in the bottom part, a group of servants or attendants carrying colourful flags, with horses and elephants, waiting in front of the gate of the venue. These details are not present in the Rijksmuseum model which was, for some reason, probably cut out along the top of the balustrade and the waists of the noblemen.
If we compare the painted areas in the Bonhams painting with the colours indications of the Rijksmuseum drawing, we can see that these are mostly faithful to the model although some differences are noticed in the robes of some noblemen along the lower edge, in the dhotis of some gods and in the awning above the couple Rama and Sita. But the carpets are indeed painted in red, blue and orange as instructed by the model. The whole composition of the Bonhams painting stands out with its bolt and simple palette. The colours are not nuanced and limited to primary colours such blue, yellow, white, red, black and secondary colours, pale blue, grey, pink and green. The tone of the skins, a sort of creamy hue, is identical for each figure (with the exception of Rama, Krisna and Shiva and the sadhus who are painted in grey as described above).
Now, if we look at the facial traits of the human figures in the Rijksmuseum drawing from Kangra and if we compare them with the Bonhams painting from Jodhpur, we can observe significant differences. The Kangra figures, in profil, are characterised by a much rounder line along the neck, the cheek and the nose than these from Jodhpur. This is particularly prominent in the Rama and Sita’s profiles. In the Bonhams paintings, the faces have elongated almond-shaped eyes, tiny mouths, and long and straight noses, whereas in the Kangra drawing, facial traits are fuller and rounder (Fig.7).
This raises the question of the circulation of templates and models among courtly provincial workshops. We know that, after the decline of the Mughal imperial court situated around Delhi and Agra, artists travelled east and west, to find new patrons by local rajas occupying regional kingdoms. Alongside the migration of official painters emerged a class of native artists who drawn their inspiration from the Mughal repertoire but also from the local models, creating the Rajput paintings. Artists were often travelling from one princedoms to another in the quest of better living or sponsorship. in this artistic and historical context, it seems that the Rijksmuseum drawing travelled from the Kangra to the Jodhpur workshops or associated, and served as a model for another version of Rama’s coronation customised to the taste of the Jodhpur patron (Fig.8).
The faces were modelled according to the standard canon of physiognomy which was prevailing in this specific region and this particular atelier. The coloured dabs in a ‘master model’ were mostly indicators and the Jodhpur painter, while he used the pounce, was certainly limited by the range of pigments available on his palette and was surely guided by his own inspiration and sense of aesthetic. As the result, the Bonhams painting, although faithful to the Kangra model, shows regional features in the human figures and in the coloured tones of the composition.
Cameron A.M. 2015. Drawn from Courtly India: The Conley Harris and Howard Truelove Collection, Yale University Press.
Couvrat Desvergnes A. Indian drawings from the Rijksmuseum: an insight into their production, their purpose and their significance, in Post prints ICON Conference, 3-5 October 2018, A. Bainbridge Ed., March 2020.
Ohri V.C. 2001.The technique of Pahari painting : an inquiry into aspects of materials, methods and history (based upon observation and field-work). Shimla, New Delhi: Aryan Books International Indian Institute of Advanced Study.