Chaitanya Basotra
Nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas is a peaceful little village called Jasrota. Located in the Jammu region of present-day J&K UT, it once housed a kingdom. Founded in 1064 AD, the Dogra principality is long gone. However, close to the village is an old, decrepit structure eponymously called the “Fort of Jasrota”.
All that remains of the once magnificent and imposing structure is a collection of rocks, which some might call columns, and a generous growth of weeds and shrubs all around. Even a Google search would tell a curious mind that the fort has seen better days.
One might then ask why is this fort still relevant today? Why is this once prosperous small Dogra principality even worth mentioning? Why do we even know this place?
The answer to these three questions would be – art – beautiful art as well. What is interesting about this once independent state is that it was not immortalized by its warriors or its kings, but rather by a painter, whom some call “one of the most original and brilliant of Indian painters”. British painter Howard Hodgkin called him “India’s first great modern artist. This extraordinary genius was a man called Nainsukh or “joy in the eyes”. is impregnated and given him a new course.
At Guler’s
Born in 1710, in the mountainous principality of Guler, he was exposed to Mughal and Pahari art forms from an early age. His father and brothers educated him in the Pahari traditions of northern India. As Sunil Khilnani noted in Incarnations: India in 50 Lives, “It’s a tradition characterized by simplified landscapes and interiors, flat monochrome backgrounds, and stylized, often quite static portraits in the foreground.”
The surroundings in which Nainsukh found himself proved to be fertile ground in which the seeds of artistic poise and virtuosity were sown. In fact, his older brother Manaku turned out to be another skilled practitioner and exponent of the Pahari art form.
However, it should be mentioned that it was also a period of evolution in the field of Pahari art. A stasis of convention on the one hand and the dynamism of the modern and the new on the other, was grasped with both hands by Naisukh. Eventually leading to further experimentation that created a synthesis of the two.
We glimpse the physical constitution of the painter as well as the inspirations that drew his brush, from the self-portrait he drew at the age of 20, while he was still at Guler. It shows a “lean face with a thin mustache and a clean-shaven head with just a tuft of hair under a turban, quite visible front teeth too. Accuracy is far more important to him than vanity. His left hand supports the takhti, the wooden drawing board, and his right hand holds a brush lodged above the blank paper just as one begins to draw. His expression is intense as if he were staring at an image in his mind”.
Find your “muse” – Jasrota
It is not known why but in 1740 he left Guler for the mountain principality of Jasrota, possibly in search of a new patron. Here in Jasrota he worked for various patrons, the most prominent being Raja Balwant Singh, the local ruler. Sunil Khilnani calls the Raja, Nainsukh’s muse, metaphorically speaking of course. The cause of this metaphor, however, is well founded. Nainsukh drew many works of art depicting the Raja.
A glimpse of his work there
His first paintings were drawn with the restraint of the traditional attributes of the Pahari style. However, this has changed over time. He began to experiment with “the restrained use of color and its celebration of black and white space and especially in the way he depicted his patron”.
The Raja is depicted trimming his beard, writing a letter, performing a Puja, smoking a hookah and inspecting a painting. Nainsukh puts forward an almost modern “Instagram-like familiarity” when he paints his patron imitated by a performer. In one scenario, he is painted curled up under a depressed blanket and in another, writing a “shirtless letter in his tent while his hand-whipped fly-whip assistant dozed off in the hot afternoon”.
BN Goswamy, one of India’s leading art historians, points out that Nainsukh became “attached” to this raja in more than one way. In his words, “he [Nainsukh] is like the shadow of Raja, maybe he[the raja] is the shadow of Nainsukh, and he has no trouble showing it and Balwant Singh has no problem with it either”. According to Goswamy, here is a painter, who has “recorded” things that no one in the Indian context before him has done.
Raja Balwant Singh watches the performers
Khilnani points to VS Naipaul’s criticism of Indians that “they don’t see what’s around them”. But, Nainsukh has seen a lot. He saw not only the comedy, that is, the grand facade of court life, but also the nuances and textures that vary through an individual’s domestic life.
In one of his paintings, now in the Victoria Albert Museum in London, Balwant Singh is seen watching the performance of a group of dancers and musicians. Nainsukh, however, does not leave his description of this scene to a few dancers. It adds to the humanity of the scene by depicting a man mimicking the raja with a paper hookah in his hands.
What’s even more interesting about the painting is something you would need a magnifying glass to see. The lead singer, wearing an orange turban, “has smallpox marks on his hands” and it immediately takes you into the world Nainsukh occupied, the people he was around and the friends and companions he made. was done.
The last years of Nainsukh and Basohli
After the death of his patron, Nainsukh left Jasrota for the mountain principality of Basohli in 1763. Here we see the ruler, Raja Amrit Pal, leaving an indelible mark on what the artist was to produce. Instead of scenes of everyday life, Nainsukh painted scenes and stories from the Indian epics, based on a frame taken from the experimentation that craved his most interesting works in Jasrota.
You see dark colors give way to brighter colors. You see bright shades of green all around, but you also see the subtlety give way to a certain sense of casualness. Although Nainsukh was still capable of producing a masterpiece, it was quite obvious that Jasrota was now a thing of the past.
The paintings, which can be described as the “Basohli period”, are incongruous with the creative stasis they undergo, due to the way shadows are used by Nainsukh. Here is what BN Goswamy says about a night scene painted by Nainsukh:
“The way his studies reflect the reflections and, you know, how the shadows fall, it’s extraordinary and it’s a unique painting in the whole range of Indian art. There are people who have done night scenes, but it’s not a night scene as such. It’s his way of telling you that this is how the light falls. He does it so extraordinarily subtly, and subtlety is the[his] meaning”.
His Art – The Wealth of the Dogras
The world of the Dogras, royal and common at the same time, comes to life in the artistic expressions of Nainsukh. There is a dearth of literature not only on the ancient but also medieval history of the Dogras. Judge Gajendragadkar, in his 1968 report, said that the history of the Dogra people before that of the arrival of Ranjit Dev remains the trustee of an “ancient past”.
In the Nainsukh paintings, however, we see the cultural life of the Dogras in the 18th century come into full bloom. “Our” painter was a contemporary of the great Raja Ranjit Dev and although various scholarly works have been written about him, for example by Professor Sukhdev Singh Charak, I have always wondered what life in the hills of Jammu would have been like in that time, felt like, seemed.
As a Dogra therefore, Nainsukh’s paintings are an eternal source of pride and affection for me. In his paintings are the traces of our glorious past, a tribute to what we were, rather to what we were as people. What the Dogras looked like, how they dressed, how they laughed, how they sang, how they listened but above all, how they painted.
This is how Sunil Khilnani begins his episode on Nainsukh:
“There is a game you can start playing after looking at hundreds of Indian miniature paintings – call it Mughal miniature bingo. Is there a prince with a very straight back – check. Pavilions – check. Musicians , courtiers gathered, gardens glorious – check, check, check. Game over”.
This is how most Indian miniature paintings looked like. They were in many ways “press releases” for their patrons and for their kings. In the paintings of Bichitr, Manohar and Abul’ Hassan, this becomes all the more true.
In Bichitr’s depiction of Shah Jahan receiving his three sons (Shahnama plate 10), you see a rich, almost blindly bewildering mixture of colors, shapes and forms. Human sensibility gives way to the politically more gratifying act of portraying imperial splendour.
This is where the painter we are considering departs from these other giants of the miniaturist tradition. Here is a painter whose works are incredibly human, rooted in etchings of the human soul and the human struggle around existence. It is special because it shows that it is possible to “pay homage to the tradition from which one comes, the classic, and then to free oneself from it”. “The extraordinary precision of his lines and his bold use of white space” make him a legendary practitioner of his craft.
Amit Dutta in his 2010 film completes Nainsukh’s genius by infusing him with the instruments of modern cinema. The film is shot amidst the ruins of Jasrota Fort, and in the vicinity of these ruins, Dutta recreates and reinvents the outlines of these Pahari paintings through light, camera, sound and staging.
The gentle but rapid flow of a river, the dance moves of a courtesan, the cries of hunting men are all depicted with the same eagerness and awareness of the human condition, which Nainsukh conveys through his paintings.
Many other things can be said about this great artist, but I will limit my position on the man to this – the romantic poet Shelley talks about the temporary nature of kings and civilizations in his poem “Ozymandias”, but here is a man who brings this tiny principality of the Himalayas out of the darkness and immortalizes it with the power of his brush and his imagination.