the bundi-kotah school of miniature painting in kotah’s garh palace

Me: Kotah Palace jaanaa hai. [I want to go to Kotah Palace.]

Auto rickshaw driver: Palace hotel?

Me: Nahin. Sirf palace. Jahaan rajah maharajah rehtey they. [No. Just palace. Where the kings used to live.]

Auto rickshaw driver (confused): Par vahaan toh koi Indian nahin jaataa! Sirf gorey log jaatey hai! [But Indians don’t go there! Only white people do.]

Me: Haan, vahin jaana hai, jahaan gorey log jaatey hai. [My deep gratitude to Caucasians at this point for appreciating the treasures hidden in India’s midst.]

Auto rickshaw driver (laughing): Chalo, aaj yeh bhi dekh letey hai. [Sure, let me see this place too, today.]

It’s chaotic and crowded. I had just got off a rickety bus from Bundi. My train to Delhi, deep into the night, was a good few hours away. The plan was to spend the time in-between devouring the miniature painting frescoes of the Kotah Garh Palace.

Kotah Garh Palace and its collection of miniature paintings

I was not expecting much when I walked into the palace. I had been brainwashed enough in Bundi of Kotah’s lesser role in the scheme of things. “Bundi is the parent city.” “Bundi’s frescoes are the original masterpieces.” All of Kotah was dismissed as a poor copy by the veterans in Bundi’s narrow alleys.

The fact that the palace’s majestic stone walls were “whitewashed” as I walked through the monumental gateways further went against its favour. I almost cringed out aloud in disappointment. But my gloom was short-lived. Down a few corridors, up a string of stone steps, Kotah’s walls assured me “why” it still charmed travellers from far and wide across the globe.

Like Bundi, the walls are covered with frescoes in the miniature style. But the anomaly here is that many appear “framed” and, thus, closer to the format commonly associated with miniature painting. The colours are brighter. The hunting scenes more vivid. The facial expressions more emotive. To top it off, shards of glass and mirror create a 3-dimensional collage effect befitting royal living.

As I wandered around in the silence, I lifted curtains to find doors behind them, opening into pictorial vistas crammed into their four walls. Some were dilapidated. Some still stunning. And before I knew it, a woman guard came to me and gently tapped my shoulder. “Paanch bajney waale hai. Neechey aur hai. Who bhi dekhna. Museum bhi zaroor jaanaa.” [It’s going to be 5 pm. There is more downstairs. Do see them. And do visit the museum too.]

[Note: Click on any of the below images and it will display the set in a gallery with captions. Use the arrows to navigate through the images.]

Bundi-Kotah School of Miniature Painting

Indian miniature painting originated in Persia and the imported miniature painting workshops of Mughal rule. The Hada Chauhan Rajputs, along with other princely states across the sub-continent, were quick to absorb this artistic style into their own aesthetics, each adding their own distinctive personalities to their mix. And thus, took birth the Deccani [in the south], Rajasthani [in the west], and Pahari [in the hills of the north] schools of miniature painting.

Often clubbed together with the Bundi School of Miniature Painting which bloomed on the walls of Bundi’s royal private rooms, the Bundi-Kotah School of Miniature Painting found expression in Kotah. Together, they formed a branch of the Rajasthani school.

There is enough similarity between the two to warrant the conjunction—they both use extremely fine fluid brush strokes and rich colouring to portray multifaceted complex emotions and the vibrancy of nature. Their trademark—hunting scenes against a backdrop of dense forests, flowing rivers, and green fields—are painted using local mineral and vegetable colours. Almost serendipity, wouldn’t you say. 🙂

Kotah: The story of Bundi’s offshoot

Bundi’s offshoot, Kota [christened Kotah] on the opposite bank of the Chambal river was created way back in 1579. Its primary purpose, together with the lands around it, was to serve as a realm for the king’s eldest son. The practice, however, came to a halt in 1624 when Rao Raja Ratan Singh’s second son, Rao Madho Singh and the 1st Rao of Kotah (1631 – 1648), asserted his autonomous rule over it.

Kotah’s fate as an independent state was further sealed in 1631 when Shah Jahan, the 5th Mughal emperor, issued his proclamation recognising its sovereignty. The gesture was the emperor’s way of saying thank you to Rao Madho Singh for his military services to the Mughal empire.

Built in the first half of the 17th Century, Kotah’s crowning glory was, as was the norm back then, its Garh Palace. Every ruler of Kotah, thereafter, added to the edifice right up to the time it was absorbed into free India post-independence. Whether it be the Hathian Pol Gateway or the painted zenanas, concepts were transferred from Bundi’s palace to the newer, bigger, brasher palace in Kotah.

Paradoxically, whilst Bundi, the parent city, remained a small, exquisite, rural town over the ensuing centuries, Kotah, younger, cruder and rougher around the edges, grew to become a large, prosperous, and industrial hub.

But “art” is always authentic, timeless, and pure. Whether it be from Bundi or Kotah in the Bundi-Kotah School of Miniature Painting. As I learnt one summer afternoon in Kotah, despite prejudices. ❤

[Note: Click on any of the below images and it will display the set in a gallery with captions. Use the arrows to navigate through the images.]

Travel tips:

  • Timings: 10:00 am – 5:00 pm.
  • Ticket: Rs. 100 for Indians; Rs. 500 for foreigners; Photography charges: Rs. 50.
  • The Palace’s Maharao Madho Singh Museum [ground floor] has a collection of miniature paintings [on paper], arms and armoury, royal regalia and modes of transport, stuffed animals, and old photographs.
  • Getting to Kotah: I took the train from Delhi to Kotah.

the painted palaces of bundi

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A woman looks brazenly across the room. Her perfect profile decorated with jewels is tilted in anticipation. On the wall opposite, a royal damsel is being dressed by her lady-in-waiting whilst a Rajput prince slyly peeps from behind the curtains in blatant lust. Two women on a side wall make erotic love to each other.

The gods and goddesses are no less immune to the dynamics of the room. A series of frescoes have Krishna dancing in gay abandon with Radha and her sakhis in the raas leela. In another, he is perched atop a tree with the stolen garments of the gopikas.

Painted using a palette of turquoise green, black, and white, the colonnaded open-sided hall with private rooms leading out of it, was once the maharaja’s pleasure room. It is befittingly called Chitrashala—chitra meaning picture, shala meaning house or abode. The abode of pictures.

What makes these paintings, and those in Bundi’s other royal palaces unparalleled, is they comprise some of the finest examples of the Bundi School of Miniature Painting. A style normally associated with paint on paper, the Bundi school found its way in its parent city to the walls of the ruling family’s private rooms to create visual extravaganzas of colour and storytelling tipped with gold. Continue reading

global travel shot: the prehistoric rock paintings of bundi

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The image above is that of an antelope in a forest, next to a trap waiting to catapult it to its death. Nope. This is not somewhere in the interiors of France or Spain, more commonly associated with prehistoric art, or even in Bhimbetka where India’s prized rock art collection lies.

It is instead on the insides of a cave lining a tributary of the river Chambal in Gararda, Rajasthan, 35 kilometres from Bundi, my base a fortnight ago.

Painted 15,000 years ago in mineral colours, very few people know of it. Just a handful come from the far corners of the world to marvel at its beauty, and timelessness.

And if it were not for a local sweetmeat-shop-owner-turned-archaeologist, we would not know of it either. He discovered the site in 1997 and has passionately been creating awareness of it ever since, unearthing 101 caves festooned with prehistoric art to-date. His name is Kukkiji. Continue reading

national museum, new delhi – 90 minutes at the museum

The National Museum, New Delhi makes the herculean task of experiencing India’s monumental heritage spanning 5,000 years—doable. You could always spend 3 minutes looking at each object in its 210,000 piece collection. But that would take 14.5 months with no sleep or meals inbetween. Or you could do an audio tour and spend a day exploring its glorious galleries through 64 masterpieces. And if you have just one and a half hours, then why not feast your eyes on its very best.

Earlier housed in the Rashtrapati Bhawan [President’s residence], the collection has its roots in 1947 when the Royal Academy, together with the governments of India and Britain, decided to hold an “Exhibition of Indian Art” in London. Selected artefacts from museums across India were collected for the showing.

Before returning the exhibits to their respective museums, it was decided to display the exhibition in Delhi as well. What a huge success it turned out to be! The overwhelming response led to the idea of a permanent National Museum being set up in the capital with its very own building by India Gate which it moved into in 1960.

The National Museum has it all. From the iconic Harappan Dancing Girl to elegant Gandharan Buddhas, from exquisite miniature Mughal paintings to luscious Tanjore compositions, from Chola bronzes to 20th Century decorative arts, from medieval sculptures of voluptuous Hindu deities to diamond and emerald regalia of its once-upon-a-time royalty. The Museum has all these, and much much more.

Here are my 15 favourite pieces collated after rambling through its collections and meditating over its audio tour. Doable in 90 minutes. 🙂 Continue reading

the mythological frescoes of nandalal bose in vadodara

In the heart of Baroda, now called Vadodara, within the royal Gaekwad family’s once sprawling grounds is the Kirti Mandir or Temple of Fame. The gigantic stone cenotaph was built in 1936 to ensure their ancestors’ posterity. A sun, moon, and a map of undivided India etched on a bronze globe are perched on top of its shikhara—a sovereign declaration of the spread and timelessness of Gaekwad rule.

But the cenotaph is weathered now and forgotten. It is visited on the rare occasion when a royal family member passes away and is brought to the adjacent cremation grounds to be burnt and then transposed into a plaster-of-paris bust placed in one of the rooms lining the passageways.

A lone 70-year-old guard, who has spent the last 60 years serving the royal family, with his one-year-old grandson’s arms wrapped around his neck unlocks the large doors should perchance a traveller land up at the temple’s doorstep. But this post is not about the royal family. I will write about them on another date. This one is about the art and artist whose mythological masterpieces decorate the walls inside Kirti Mandir. Continue reading

global travel shot: champaner, a 500-year-old indo-saracenic poem in stone

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“Look up, at the ceiling.” I am broken from my reverie, as I drift through a forest of 172 stone pillars, by my guide Manoj’s voice prodding me to halt in my tracks and raise my eyes, heavenwards.

High up, inside a dome above the main mihrab is the most exquisitely carved sculpture I have seen to date. And I find myself gasping in awe. Is this for real? I am not too sure what stuns me more. Its immense size, the fineness of the swirling leaves, or its incongruous placement—I am in a 500-year-old mosque in Champaner in Gujarat, 50-odd kilometres outside Vadodara, and the sculpture is Hindu-Jain in style and content. Continue reading