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The devotional artworks produced by the Kangra School is one of the finest gifts of India to the art world. Named for the region of its origination, Kangra, Himachal Pradesh, being the former princely state who patronized the founding artists of the school.
As the Basohli School of painting began to dwindle in the mid-18th century, the Kangra School soon became prominent, producing such a magnitude in paintings, both in depth of content and number of individual works, that the broad Pahari School itself came to be known as Kangra. Pahari paintings, as the name suggests, were executed by artists living in the hilly regions of India, in the sub-Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh. The Kangra School emerged from their development and modification of Pahari paintings. Under the patronage of Maharaja Sansar Chand (c. 1765-1823), it became the most important center of Pahari painting.
This great art originated in the small state Guler, in the Lower Himalayas during the early 18th century, when a family of Kashmiri painters trained in Mughal style sought shelter at the court of Raja Dalip Singh (r. 1695-1741) of Guler. The rise of Guler paintings began in what is now characterized as the Early phase of Kangra Kalam. These new painters began to associate with the local artists and were greatly influenced by the natural environment. Instead of painting flattering portraits of their patrons or other contemporary scenes, these artistes adopted themes of the transcendental pastimes of Sri Sri Radha and Krishna. Their miniature paintings were naturalistic and employed cool, fresh colors. The pigments were extracted from minerals and vegetables, and possessed an enamel-like luster.
Lord Rama’s Soldiers
Kangra, Late 18th c.
This style reached its zenith during the reign of Maharaja Sansar Chand Katoch (r.1776-1824), who was a great patron of Kangra art. Being a liberal patron, the painters working at his atelier received large commissions, while others accepted a permanent settlement in the form of lands. Maharaja Sansar Chand was an ardent devotee of Krishna and commissioned various artists to paint scenes of the Lord’s pastimes.
The Guler-Kangra art is the art of drawing and the drawing is precise and fluid, lyrical and naturalistic. In these styles the faces are well modeled and shaded so judiciously that they possess almost porcelain-like delicacy.
Themes and Features of Kangra Style
The focal theme of Kangra painting is Shringar, the loving sentiments of Radha and Krsna. The bhakti cult was the driving force for the artists producing these works, and the Divine Couple was the source of their devotional work. They also inspiration from the Bhagvata Purana and Jayadev’s Gita Govinda.
In some miniatures, Sri Krishna is seen dancing in the lush woodlands and every maiden’s eye are drawn to him.
Kangra paintings influenced by the Bhagavad Purana portrayed incidents from the life of the young Krishna, painted against the groves of Vrindavan and the River Yamuna. Other popular themes were the stories of Nala and Damayanti, and those from Keshavdas’s Baramasa. While Krishna-lila scenes predominate, other themes sprang from the nayaks and nayikas, and baramasa.
One of the most striking features of Kangra School paintings is the verdant greenery depicted in them. The style is naturalistic, and great attention is paid to detail, at quite an amazing scale in the miniatures. The foliage depicted is vast and varied, showing great personality amongst even these living entities. Flowering plants and creepers, leafless trees, rivulets and brooks all join the scenes as though personal observers.
Later Kangra paintings also feature nocturnal scenes, storms and lightning. Aside from the genre of miniatures, many Kangra paintings were large in size, and these often had complex compositions that featured many figures and elaborate landscapes. Towns and house clusters were often depicted in the distance. Today, using digital tools, these small scenes can be enhanced and reframed, and are found to be so detailed as to stand alone as a complete study.
While the Kangra School nearly faded from existence, today there is a resurgence of this great devotional art form, and organizations such as the Kangra Arts Promotion Society work to promote both curatorial efforts of the history Kangra pieces as well as encouraging contemporary artists to take-up the Kangra style. Fortunately, Sri Krsna’s pastimes are eternal, and will ever serve as inspiration to the artists taking up this noble work.