The beauty of drawings epitomizes the artist’s first intention and his immediate gesture. A simple of sheet of paper conveys an array of small sketches, visual testimonies of an artist’ creativity or simple representations of his daily artistic routine.
Indian painters from the Pahari lands are not exempt from this practice and the drawings from the Museum Volkenkunde showcase various doodles and sketches which echo the artist’s manual exercises in the consolidation of the usual and known forms and his personal exploration and apprenticeship of new motives. One of the most common patterns are lines, circles and spirals encountered in the margins or in the verso of some drawing supports. Brushes were most often made with squirrel hairs whose natural curve allow the tracing of perfect rounded shapes. Before beginning his work, the artists drew swirling motives with the tip of his brush, as a warming-up exercise. Non only spirals and circles were traced, but spontaneous motives such as florets, arabesques, any small scribbles were also quickly executed like our modern automatic phone-conversation-doodles.
Not all of the drawings were meant to be finished pieces and have an everlasting existence. If some uncomplete works came down to us today, it is because they were kept in the family of the workshop as répertoire de formes for future generations of painters or as testimonies from an artist’s hands, unless they were simply stored and forgotten on some shelves or casket. These unfinished works represent today an inestimable sources to document artist’s practices and workshop patterns. Many supports from the collection are double-sided and show various representations at the recto and verso. Every bit of material was used and recycled to make most of the available working surface. For example, the verso of a representation of Manini Nayika features a Jackson-Pollock-like-network of paint lines. As part of his working routine, the painters also used some areas of the support as blotting surface: just before engaging his brush, the artist was 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.
RV-3025-59 – representation of Manini Nayika at recto and traces of brush wiping and small sketch of a monkey at verso, circa 1810-30, Kangra style.
Among this colourful graphic virtuoso, a cursive monkey was drawn, recognisable thanks to his long tail and rounded muzzle. Monkeys were usually depicted in the illustrations of the great epic, the Ramayana, in which Rama has to save his lover Sita, abducted by the terrible king of Lanka, Ravana, with the help of Hanuman, the monkey god, and his army of apes. The episodes of the Ramayana were often painted in Pahari workshops.
Therefore, the artist’s training included the practice of drawing and painting monkeys. The Museum Volkenkunde holds two series of Ramayana drawings, the first one made in the Chamba and the second one in the Kangra workshops. In the Kangra series, the drawings illustrate some episodes from the Kishkindha Kanda book, which takes place in the kingdom of the ape king Sugriva. The delightful representations are the occasion to visually explore the various poses and features of the animals who act like humans.
A few works show intriguing doodles which are difficult to decrypt. One of them shows Krishna, as one of the incarnations of the Vishnu, standing on a throne in a flute-playing posture. He is surrounded by milkmaids and shepherds holding offers and peacock feathers fans, Rajput worshipers standing on either side of the god. The verso shows a sketchy image of a god holding objects in his ten hands. These are difficult to decrypt due their cursive rendering but the close observation reveals that the attributes are the same as those painted at the recto in Krishna’s hands: the lotus flower, the discus, the spear, the garland, the mass, the bow, the conch, the knot and the flute. On his side, a short milkmaid is presenting a tray loaded with offering. This doodle represents a schematised version of Krishna, fully detailed at the front side. It is unclear if it was made by the painter himself or later by another artist or a previous owner of the works. Often, believers outlined rapid sketches of their favoured god either to invoke his fortune and protection or to procure well-being and soothing relief.
RV-3025-30, recto: Krishna as a flute player, verso: a small doodle of Krishna and a milkmaid, circa 1820, Chamba style.
Some drawings have more elaborate composition on their back side. It is a case of a representation of Vishnu sitting on his vahana or animal vehicle, Garuda the eagle, accompanied by two goddesses. By flipping the sheet, we discover a very detailed depiction of a water wheel powered by two bulls conducted by a god wearing a crown.
RV-3025-24, recto: Vishnu flying on Garuda with two goddesses, verso: representation of a water wheel moved by two bulls. First half of the 19th century.
Another Mughal drawing from the collection, illustrating Sheikh Sa’adi with his disciples, features the same water wheel, in the top right corner.
The water wheel called sāqiyah is a mechanical water lifting device, similar in function to a scoop wheel which uses buckets, jars, or scoops fastened either directly to a vertical wheel, or to an endless belt activated by such a wheel. The vertical wheel is itself attached by a drive shaft to a horizontal wheel, which is traditionally set in motion by animal power (oxen, donkeys, etc.). The technical parts of the mechanism are precisely drawn and provide us with an accurate description of an everyday device. At the bottom right, the same bulls are roughly sketched with yellow ink. This piece was probably a working document which may have served for the execution of a finished work.
Engraving depicting a Persian wheel, also known as the Sakia or sāqiyah 19th century. Source: World Wide Archives. Photography of a “Persian wheel” c. 1905, Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd.; Times of India (Firm) Library Of University of Houston.
Similarly, other drawings feature everyday life scene and objects. A portion of a folio depicts a particularly lively scene of carpenter at works. Pahari artists belonged to the cast of painter-carpenters called tarkhan and received as treatment a piece of lands to cultivate and a pension whose amount was dependant on the patron’s good will. Artisans at work, showing their skills and craft was certainly of common scene that Pahari painters encountered in their daily life. Here, this representation gives us the opportunity to explore the tools and postures of the craftsmen, The latter, sit on the floor, using their toes to wedge a piece of wood or to stretch and hold a string. The artisans handle saw, hatchet, chisel, hammer and a plane, while an elderly smokes the hookah in the bottom left corner of the scene.
At the verso of a scene featuring Krishna combing Radha’s hair, we encounter a sketch of a folding chair. It seems that the painter struggled to represent the chair with its perspective. White wash was applied to correct the inaccurate lines of the legs. As often raised, the perspective was not a standard convention in Indian miniature painting, it was introduced and gradually adopted by the Indian artists alongside the importation and dissemination of European works such as engravings. Foldable and transportable chairs are reported to be in use since Nordic Bronze Age, Ancient Egypt, Minoan Greece and Ancient Rome. However, we can assume that these were not broadly used in rural India.
RV-3025-26, recto: Krishna combs Radha hair, verso: detail of a folding chair, circa 1820, Kangra style.
Graphic representations mostly depict rulers, courtiers and gods sitting on a carpet, on a platform fitted with cushions and bolsters, on a throne or on a sort of stool. Craftsmen, as seen above, sat on the floor to work. Today, in shops and galleries throughout north India and Rajasthan, artists still perform, in front of the visitors, while sitting on the floor.
RV-3025-76 scene of domestic happiness, first half of the 19th century, Guler style. The man and women newly married sit on a yellow carpet.
RV-3025-34 Shiva and Parvati sitting on a gilded throne and a lotus flower.
However, gilded chairs fitted with elegant armrests began to occur in official paintings showing Sikh rulers. In the courtly collective portraits of the members of the Sadawalia clan, skilfully executed by the painter Chajju, the most important figure, the Sikh Sardar Visava (Bisawa) Singh, is portrayed, resting in one of this delicate gilded armchair while his courtiers are sitting on the floor of the terrace.
The last aspect covers the doodles of portraits and figures. The borders of several works show rapid but dynamic depictions of human faces, mostly shown in profile. The Pahari artist often had to paint his patron in an official pose with his royal attributes: hookah, sword, dagger, books, etc. Likeness and individuality were mostly the tendency although some princes were rendered in more flattering manners, to please their eyes and their taste ! Here, some drawn sketches, executed in a naturalistic style, seem to be rather faithful to their originals: hooked nose, wrinkled mouth, bushy brows and fury moustache. Some others are more sketchy and reflect the usual habit of the artists for automatic doodling of small motives and human profiles. Others are very elaborate and testify of the intention to depict a realistic portrait in the aim for a further complete painting.
A paper sheet featuring the detailed and coloured portrait of Sardar Jawahir Singh viewed in three quarter profile, also shows, in the left hand part, two portraits of European ladies, painted in three quarter profiles, both wearing garlands of pink flowers in their hair.
One of them is framed in an oval medallion. It is unsure that the three figures are from the same hand, but the women have squinching eyes, an amusing ocular flaw, which is often seen in many full-face portraits. The pictorial convention in Indian painting was to depict humans and gods in strict profile, therefore artists were not used to paint full-face portrait with accurate eye alignment. Other works from the Museum Volkenkunde point out to similar ocular glitches.
However, the representations of western women united on the same sheet of paper as a well-known Sikh personality seem a surprising reunion. Sardar Jawahir Singh (1814 –1845) was wazir of the Sikh empire from 14 May 1845 until his assassination in September of the same year. He was involved in several political intrigues and contributed to the complex history of the region during this particular time-period. The oval format of the lady portrait, at the bottom left, recalls Victorian miniature portraits painted on ivory and kept in small oval or circular frames, en vogue throughout the 19th century. Such portraits reached India via British officers and traders and the format was rapidly adopted by Indian rulers to immortalise their family members. Many sets of ivory miniatures are today holdings of western collections and depict the lineage of Sikhs rulers led by Ranjit Ranjit Singh, the iconic warrior and founder of the Sikh Empire. Most portraits were posthumous and were executed from earlier models or collective memory.
Interestingly, the verso of the same features a scene from the Hindu mythology: Vishnu sitting on a chair in a relaxing position, a lady massaging his left foot, while the other, standing behind the seat, a flywhisk above his head, both being certainly Sarasvati and Lakshmi. It is fascinating to see that a single sheet of paper gather motives from different traditions which became intertwisted by History: Sikh, Muslim, Hindu and western cultures.
My husband’s doodles when he attends zoom meetings.