Navin Kumar Gallery

Techniques and Practices

Court Paintings of India
Table of Contents
0 Preface & Acknowledgements
1 Introduction
2 Techniques and Practices
3 The Visual Revolution
4 Mughal Paintings
5 Deccani Paintings
6 Rajput Paintings in the Plains
7 Rajput Painting in the Hills
8 Notes
List of Illustrations

Indeed, one of the principal reasons why the surface texture of Hamzanama paintings is so different from other early Mughal pictures must be the fact that they were painted on coarse cotton. It also appears from Johnson's study that whenever the painting demanded a large proportion of gold paint, the support was left ungrounded in order to increase the intensity of the gold.

Pigments too can contribute significantly to the distinctiveness of a style. In contrast to pre-Mughal paintings, those of the Mughal and Rajput schools reflect an enormous increase in the range of colours. While earlier Indian paintings were restricted primarily to ochres, kaolin, vermilion, terre verde, carbon black, malachite and azurite, the Mughal palette included, in addition to all of these, lead white, lapis lazuli, minium, litharge, madder lake, indigo and of course peori, about which more will be said presently. The brilliant blue of the Mughal pictures is due to the application of lapis lazuli as opposed to the earlier azurite. Lapis lazuli was not unknown in earlier Indian painting and may have been used in the Buddhist murals at Ajanta and some illuminated manuscripts, both Buddhist and Jain. Not native to India, lapis lazuli was imported from Afghanistan and Persia, and, as it was an expensive commodity, it was used only by the rich Buddhists and Jains and later by the Mughals.

Presumably the Mughal artists introduced the very distinctive yellow known as peori or Indian yellow. This colour is as distinct as the "Bolus red" is in the ceramic ware produced in sixteenth century Isnik in Turkey. An organic yellow, peori is obtained from the urine of cows fed only on mango leaves and water. The collected urine was first allowed to cool and then heated. The fine sediment was formed into lumps, and then dried first over charcoal fire and then in the rays of the sun. Apparently it was manufactured in a village in the Monghyr district of Bihar but it is unknown who discovered it and when. This technical discovery was important, for the peori gives the yellow in these paintings a brilliant intensity unmatched by the more usual orpiment. While in Rajput pictures, this yellow is often employed for the background, in Mughal works we note its use for the garments of Krishna, thereby creating a strong contrast with his deep blue complexion. It is perhaps appropriate that the garments of the cowherder god should have been painted with pigment derived from the urine of his favourite animal.

Without the use of expensive material such as lapis lazuli, gold and silver, Mughal paintings would not elicit the admiration that they do, especially for their sumptuousness. Apart from the use of gold and silver, the surface texture of a painting was occasionally varied by the use of a thin layer of "impasto" and, in certain areas, enriched with dazzling beetle wings (as in seventeenth century Basohli pictures) and even real pearls (as in some eighteenth century Rajasthani portraits). Indeed, the interest in subtle surface qualities to achieve a rich, visual effect is certainly what distinguishes the Mughal aesthetic from the earlier Indian tradition. Apart from the interaction of gold with the paper fibers, as Johnson tells us,

the paper texture is also contrasted to different paint textures and matte and glossy areas are often juxtaposed. Punch and tool work in gold is frequently used and often reminiscent of Byzantine and early Italian gold tooling. In jewelry and floral design a "low impasto" is very effective in accenting points of ornamentation, and finally, in architectural elements and occasionally in figures incising sometimes occurs. 10

By and large the binding medium in Indian pictures was gum arabic, although occasionally animal glue was also used. Although the pigments have an opaque quality, it appears, according to Johnson's study, that no opacifier was employed. Thus, Mughal-Rajput pictures were painted neither by the tempera nor by the gouache techniques. No traces of egg (for tempera) or zinc white (for gouache) have been found and the pure pigments or their mixtures were ground in water to which gum Arabic was added as a binder. Basically, these pictures are pure watercolours, and their opacity is "due to the method of application rather than to the inherent character of the medium."11 Once again, therefore, we note that technique had a good deal to contribute, if not to the style, then certainly to the aesthetic quality of the pictures.

Although at first glance we are struck by the glowing and vivacious colours of these paintings, as we continue to admire them, we are impressed by the deftness of the outline and the certitude with which the details were rendered. Drawing was of prime importance to the painter and the method was no different in Persia than in India. Not only was he expected to have "a delicate hand and a sharp-seeing eye," but "so as to acquire great dexterity of hand," he was "obliged repeatedly to copy models."12 This is easily corroborated by the frequent copies of the compositions of the masters and the large quantity of Rajput drawings and patterns that have survived. We also know that under Akbar and Jahangir the Mughal artists assiduously copied European prints and engravings. It is also well-known that certain artists were specialists in outlines, others in drawing figures and still others in colouring, so that often a picture was the composite work of several artists. Some, such as Kesu, were better than others in copying European works; others, such as Bishndas or Govardhan, excelled in portraiture; while Mansur was the marvel" of the Mughal world in his ability to recreate nature's marvels. All this accomplishment was the result of several years of relentless training. "By this constant practise the details and minutiae of the various figures became graven on his brain, and when his studies had reached this stage, the artist was deemed capable of tracing with exactitude all the forms he desired."'13

Tracing by means of pouncing and transfer was often resorted to both for the purpose of study as well as for mass production. Thus master drawings, especially of popular subjects, were kept in the family and these were repeatedly used (often long after the death of the principal artist) with slight modifications. This, of course, can create problems for the art historian. However, this method had a salutary effect on increasing the popularity of painting; the artist could more easily meet the greater demand, particularly for religious works sought after by pious Hindus. While the honest descendent was able to use the patterns kept in the family to learn directly from a departed master's original, the less scrupulous might have been tempted in other ways. Knowing the reputation of a Mansur, one is not surprised that his animal studies were repeatedly copied by successive generations of lesser artists who tried to pass them on as works of the master.

This brief discussion of the techniques and practices of the Mughal Rajput artist is meant simply to indicate the need of further work in this area and also to contribute somewhat to the better appreciation of this particular tradition. Certainly a knowledge about materials and techniques is not without significance, for changes in both technique and practice had much to do in bringing about the Mughal pictorial revolution. Without lapis lazuli or peori Mughal pictures would have been less resplendent; without frequent burnishing from the back (with an agate), the pigments would have been less compact and lustrous; without the use of fine brushes made from squirrel's tail, the details would not have been as fine as they are. It was some of these technical accomplishments of Mughal pictures that appealed to the seventeenth century Dutch master Rembrandt, who owned several examples. And just as a Kesu or a Bichitr was busy sketching from European models in late sixteenth century Delhi or Agra, so also Rembrandt studied and copied his Indian originals. In this Rembrandt was not motivated by idle curiosity for the exotic but for him these works were "perpetual stimulants," without which the creative process of art cannot rise above mediocrity.'4 The milieu of the imperial Mughal karkhanas served the same purpose, and only by constantly exposing their minds and eyes to fresh experiences did the Mughal artists succeed in creating a new style and a different aesthetic sensibility from that of their forebears.