Exploring Indian Miniatures


Nanda Consults with the Elders of Gokul
17th c. Guler
[ Click for larger version ]

Dec 29, USA (SUN) — The body of artworks known as Indian Miniatures is a rich vein of devotional art imagery. Works in this genre include watercolors, drawings, and sculptures that span more than 400 years of Indian history.

Two major painting traditions are typically found in the Miniatures: Rajput and Mughal. The Rajput art emerged in the eighth century with the migration of Asian tribes into India. Rajput paintings tend to focus on devotional themes, and were generally painted in a traditional Indian style with flat, bold colors. Both Hindu and Jain deities are found through these Rajput miniatures, and some of the earliest works were illustrations of Jain and Hindu manuscripts. Many of these paints depict scenes from Ramayana and the Mahabharata, while a smaller group is found depicting Krsna's Vrindanan lila pastimes.

The establishment of the Mughal dynasty in 1526 ushered in a new realm of Miniatures, which departed from the religious themes, following the Persian styles of composition and content. Many of these pieces were battle or hunt scenes, or portraits of famous personalities.

In this Sun series, we'll naturally focus on the Indian Miniatures with a Vaisnava theme. Because Miniatures very often depict expansive scenes, they are particularly difficult to present online. While it's preferable to see the entire image so the context of the painting is clear, the result is a loss of the detail in these beautiful artworks. When it comes to paintings of Lord Krsna and his transcendental pastimes, it is unfortunate to miss even the smallest details.

In this series we will present a select group of Indian Miniatures in full format, also extracting sectional studies that are rich in devotional content. The first Miniature in the series is a 17th century Guler painting, "Nanda Consults with the Elders of Gokul".

In Gokul, a few kilometers from Mathura, Sri Krsna grew up under the care of Nanda Maharaja and Mother Yasoda. The most notable structure in Gokul today is the Chaurasi Khamba (84 pillars), known as Nanda Maharaja's house. Mud temples are situated all around on the hillsides, marking the places where Krsna killed demons during his youthful pastimes.

Because Gokul was regularly disturbed by demons, Krsna and the cowherds moved to Nandgaon, Barsana and Vrindavan. In today's Miniature painting, we see a scene where Nanda Maharaja is consulting with the elders of Gokul about the problem of the demons. Nanda sits with four of the elders while Mother Yasoda sits nearby, and Rohini plays with Balaram and Krsna.

One of the most striking elements of this painting are the unusually bold red and black stripes on the verandah floor covering. Lord Krsna's blue-tinged skin is muted against his ocre kurta, while Balarama's light skin and bright blue kurta are prominent.

Aside from the meeting that is taking place, this expansive scene is filled with village buildings and the courtyard. Another of the village women offers water to the cows, which she pours from a jug into a charaku. The cows and calves are looking on peacefully as the meeting between Nanda and his associates takes place nearby.

For those interested in the technical aspects of Indian Miniature painting, the following overview of traditional materials and techniques will give the reader a sense of the artist's process and tools.

The Support

The support for a miniature painting is wasili, a board composed of three or four sheets of paper glued together using laii, a flour paste. A sheet of paper is wet with water, then laii is applied and worked into the surface. Trapped air bubbles and excess laii are worked out to the edges of the paper by hand. This process is repeated as more sheets of paper are added. Finally, a decorative piece of paper (tea-stained, marbled, a page from a book, etc.) may be used for the top layer of the wasili.


The wasili is taped to a flat surface using strips of paper coated with laii. The paper strips prevent the board from curling as it dries. They can be removed later, or left on the wasili as decorative elements. After the board is completely dry, the surface is burnished using a shell. The thin layer of laii that was left on the final sheet of paper is polished to a very smooth, hard surface for painting.

The Brushes

In addition to the artist’s fingers, several sizes of brushes are used in miniature painting. The smallest are made by hand from the hair of a squirrel’s tail. The hair is collected from a certain part of the tail, sorted, individually inspected, shaped, bound together, then set in the base of the shaft of a pigeon feather. The handle is created by whittling down a bamboo splinter.

Types of Painting

There are two types of miniature painting. The first, siyah qalam, is a transparent watercolor technique using only sepia-colored paint. The paint is made by mixing gum arabic and very finely ground pigment powder. The second type, guddrang, is similar togouache, in that white pigment is added to make the paint opaque. In both types, gold leaf and gold paint are often used to embellish the surface of the painting.


Indian miniature painters mix their paint in mussel shells and use their fingers as both palette and paintbrush. They achieve a sense of shading through the use of tiny parallel brushstrokes, filling in the spaces between the strokes until there is a very even transition from light to dark. In the guddrang technique, color is first laid down in a flat, very even wash. Shading is done over the top of this solid area of color. Jewelry and other details are added at the end. Artists traditionally work while seated on the ground, supporting the wasili on a knee or a small board.


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