Friday, August 23, 2013

The Basohli Gita Govinda Set of 1730 A.D – A Reconstruction

basohli painting
The miniature painter in India was a submerged creature; he survived beneath the surface of history. Occasionally, an artist with the panache of a porpoise would through the momentum of his own talent, leap through the surface creating ripples of contemporary interest and then, having glistened briefly in the light of adulation, would fall back into obscurity.

Like his Renaissance counterpart in 17th century Italy, the painter in India received his encouragement and support from the princely houses of his time. He was an employee of his prince and fulfilled a function akin to that of a courtier, flattering the whim of his patron with his palette as did the witty courtier with his tongue. The artist’s fortune was allied to that patron, whose approbation of his protégé’s work was often as much as commendation of the painter’s skill as an admission of his discriminating good taste. The Emperor Jehangir’s admiration, for example, as revealed in his Memoirs, for the painter Abu’l Hasan upon whom he bestowed the title Nadir-al-Zaman – Wonder of the Age – can be construed as both patronly and patronizing appreciation.


To date, the paintings from Basohli set have been considered and written about as if they were separate paintings instead of a series of illustrations to a versified text. This was unfortunate and in its Gita Govinda poem, the appropriate verse of which was inscribed on the reverse of each picture. An added precaution for the maintenance of the correct order, each folio bore a number in Devanagari. The numerical sequence of the poem and by following it the viewer would admire with each successive folio the virtuosity of the illustrator in bringing to visual realty Jayadeva’s melodic, expressive poem.

Read more about Indian Miniature Painting

Ethnic Miniature Painting

By the 18th century, the earlier tradition of reinforcing the written text by the inclusion of a few pitchy pictures had been replaced by a dominant pictorialism. The text became subordinate to the illustration of it. Instead of the text being read before the picture was noticed,, the latter took precedence. The very format of the Basohli folios, set in a bold commanding border of deep red, asserts that they are paintings primarily. Unlike the Hamza-nama illustrations of Akbar’s time which were of a size to be viewed by a largely illiterate public from a distance while the text of the story inscribed on the reverse was being read out to them, the Basohli paintings were intimate in character and in execution.

Construction of Basohli Set

The Foreground


In some of the folios, the setting is on the banks of the river Yamuna. The river appears as a horizontal panel in the immediate foreground of the picture, with tufted edges of a grass where the water meets the banks. The water is painted in brown, grey or silver paint. Only if the latter color has been used are the lines simulating ripples incised into the paper. A similar precaution has been resorted to in the application of gold paint used for the jewellery of the female figures, though these cases the paint has been impressed in dotted points rather than in continuous lines.

More about Indian cultural heritage art

Fresco Paintings in Nagaur Fort, Rajasthan

The Background

The background is a broad plane of color, relieved by occasional symbols of verdant society. In the earlier folios there is a noticeably partiality for the color yellow, ranging in tone from an opaque creamy yellow to a searing orange. Greens are also favored, sometimes in the dark shade found in Folios or in the lighter apple-green of individual folios.

Composition, drawing, portraiture and the act of painting – each activity which we today regard as contributing to the whole of a work of art was to the miniature painters a separate and specialized skill in itself. It would not have been unthinkable in those days for painters to have collaborated on a set as extensive as the Gita Govinda commission, each bringing into play his personal aptitude.


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