Indian Paintings from the Punjab Hills (A Survey and History of Pahari Miniature Paintings)by W. G. Archer

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  • Indian Paintings from the Punjab Hills (A Survey and History of Pahari Miniature Paintings)by W. G. ArcherReview by: Milo Cleveland BeachThe Art Bulletin, Vol. 56, No. 4 (Dec., 1974), pp. 592-594Published by: College Art AssociationStable URL: .Accessed: 14/06/2014 03:00

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  • Book Reviews

    W. G. ARCHER, Indian Paintingsfrom the Punjab Hills (A Survey and History ofPahari Miniature Paintings), London and New York, Sotheby Parke-Bernet, 1973. Vol. I : pp. 480o; Vol. 2: 935 ills. $84

    This is an awesomely informative and thorough study of painting in the pahari or hill regions of northwest India; specifically, in the thirty-five Rajput (Hindu) states that comprise what was once popularly termed "the Punjab Hills." Bordering Kashmir and the Himalayas, the territory is still remote and difficult of access. In addition, its cooler climate, varied topography, and proximity to non-Indian (particularly Tibetan and Central Asian) peoples and cultures have always made the arts of the area different from those of the subcontinent proper.

    Pahari paintings were the first Indian "miniatures" (a term commonly accepted, but not always justified by either the tech- nique or the size of the works) to become popular in the West, largely through the writings and collections of both the late Anan- da Coomaraswamy, early in this century, and William G. Archer, the author of the present volumes. Archer served in the Indian Civil Service for sixteen years, after which (in 1949) he became Keeper of the Indian Section at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, of which he is presently Keeper Emeritus. While he has written on many areas of Indian art and culture, pahari painting has always been his chief interest, and even without the present publication, his writings in this field know no rival. The present book is no mere re-hash of old theories and publications, however, but an encyclopedic survey that discusses new as well as familiar material, and presents frequently revised conclusions and eval- uations. While it will be indispensable to any further serious re- search on the subject, the author clearly recognizes that despite the staggering amount of information that he has assembled for us to draw upon for the basic task of dating and attributing paint- ings to specific states, patrons, or artists, the role of the work is to provoke and encourage further inquiries as much as to propose final solutions.

    After a brief and sensitive introduction, which discusses subject matter and cultural background, the relation of painter to patron, the evolution of Western understanding of the works, and the difficulties facing the art historian, the author organizes the material around each of the thirty-five states, presented alpha- betically and including even those for which no present evidence of interest in painting exists. The information Archer draws upon is wide-ranging, but seldom irrelevant; and it is laid out method- ically by numbered sections, so that one can easily compare, for example, the religious affiliations of the rajas of Basohli with those of Kulu, to choose two place names at random. Since religious texts are the basis for the majority of the illustrations, the particu- lar religious enthusiasms of the various rulers, when reflected in subject matter, become potentially important sources for identi- fying provenance. As well, geographic characteristics of each state are described, and often highly entertaining nineteenth-century accounts of local scenery and customs are frequently quoted. Such information helps to place the paintings in an inclusive cultural context that serves to make this study useful well beyond its seem- ingly art-historical focus; it is, in addition, a study of the coming to the hills of the ardent sects of Vaishnavism ( a branch of Hindu- ism concentrating on often ecstatic personal devotion to various forms of the god Vishnu) and a chronicle of Western contact with, and interpretation of, India and Indian art.

    For each state, the foregoing information is placed in an intro- duction, and this is followed by "Historical Notes." Here the history of the state is recounted, reign by reign, and known por-

    traits of each ruler are listed, followed by a consideration of the conclusions that can therefore be drawn in regard to the develop- ment of painting in that specific territory. The third section is a carefully cross-referenced critical bibliography of all books and articles that relate to, or are specifically concerned with, painting in the state; as an exhaustive survey of all previous writings on pahari painting it is particularly useful, considering the difficulty of obtaining many of these early publications. The concluding fourth section is the author's final reconstruction of painting in the state concerned, together with a comprehensive catalogue of known works that can be so attributed. Each painting is described, discussed, and carefully related to other works. Most helpfully, the more than nine hundred paintings catalogued are well repro- duced in a second volume of black-and-white plates (and each volume has a color frontispiece). The nucleus of the catalogue is the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, for which Archer has been himself so largely responsible, and which is here catalogued in its entirety. This is not simply a one museum cata- logue, however, for many other works, in both public and private collections, are given equal prominence.

    Archer's method of organization of this vast amount of material alphabetically by state was not chosen arbitrarily. "Court art- ists," the author contends in his introduction, "might be recruited from other states, but in most cases they were drawn from local families. The norm for the master-artist ... was to remain attached to one court for most of his life." And painting at each court is seen as possessing a local flavor that makes works executed there distinct from those anywhere else. The evidence for these asser- tions, however true though they may be, is not immediately clear, for Archer himself notes that among the hordes of pahari pictures available for study, only twenty-six at most bear inscriptions giving the name of the painter, patron, and/or date, and very few state the place of execution. In addition, little attempt has been made anywhere to relate groups of works convincingly to the same specific artist (even without associating such a group with a name) on the basis of visual characteristics. Therefore, it seems that the assertion of the centrality of the court to the definition of style can only be proved by the strength of the attributions Archer argues; it should not be taken as the basis for attribution. Indeed, the situation in regard to pahari pictures is very different from that of the Rajput schools of Rajasthan, in the desert regions to the south, where signed, dated, and otherwise inscribed material abounds. This is a contrast that cannot yet be successfully explained. It may well have to do with different attitudes toward artistic personality and individuality in the two regions, but these are interests the importance of which we have only begun to recognize. In any case, to be more specific, inscribed paintings tell us that Rajasthani painters (especially at minor, not particularly wealthy or important courts) did tend to move around. A certain Mira Bagas, for example, trained at Bundi, took up residence at Uniara in the mid-eighteenth century; when he died, his place as court artist was taken by a painter trained at Jaipur, and the works of the two are so different that it is virtually meaningless to discuss an Uniara style. Indeed, without contemporary inscriptions on the works themselves, we would simply assume that these were Bundi and Jaipur paintings, and our understanding of the sources of styles would be significantly off the mark. The situation is re- peated by the artist Kavala, who studied and painted at Devgarh with his father, Bagta, but then moved to nearby Badnor, con- tinuing to paint there in the same manner. To assume, therefore, that each court had a specific unique style demands for each a self-contained workshop of several painters sharing a common and distinctive outlook; otherwise we are dealing with individual, not

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    regional, styles. For many major Rajasthani courts, this com- munality was indeed the case; but minor courts often employed only a single painter (as at Devgarh), or else took on whatever artists they could, whenever they were available (as at Uniara). In the latter circumstance, there was little way for a consistent or unique local style to develop, and it therefore becomes impossible to view local stylistic traits as of primary importance. Moreover, in some cases, painters may well have been independant of sus- tained patronage, taking commissions from whomever they were offered; we know of Mughal painters who worked in this manner. If, therefore, the situation in the hills is truly as different as Archer's method assumes, then the situation must be carefully explained and documented. It should be pointed out, too, that within several of the groups of pictures attributed by the author to particular hill states, there are sudden, violent shifts of style that seem to contradict, or at least confuse, the author's assertion of consistent local characteristics. It therefore seems that Archer is relying on a highly intuitive, personal sense for the definition of styles - and few people are as sensitive as he to the nuances of each work - that both belies and compliments the scientific, objective format of the book.

    In recent years, through the researches of B. N. Goswamy, the most outstanding among the younger generation of Indian schol- ars of Indian painting, an alternative system of classification of pahari works has been proposed, based on the family allegiance of the artist (painters being a caste group, usually, sons learning the profession from their fathers), rather than the actual provenance of execution. In the eighteenth century, painting in the Punjab Hills is dominated by the descendants of Pandit Seu of the state of Guler, and these artists are known to have worked at many differ- ent courts, throughout the area, and to have occasionally changed residence and patron. This immediately places in question the statement that "in most cases ... [painters] were drawn from local families," for Pandit Seu's offspring constantly refer to themselves as "of Guler," no matter where they were living at any particular time. Far more significantly, Goswamy believes that the styles of any two members of Pandit Seu's family working contempora- neously at different courts tend to have more in common than the styles of two painters from different families at the same court. Goswamy's argument has been as carefully worked out as has Archer's, although it is not yet nearly so well documented in print. I do not mean to suggest that this is necessarily a superior pro- cedure, only to point it out as an alternate. Each method illumi- nates important elements of the working of style in pahari painting.

    One further aspect of Goswamy's researches that is worth men- tioning, and that bears upon much previous work in the area, is the sources upon which he has been able to draw for his recon- struction of the genealogies of painters' families, for he has exten- sively examined records in the possession of family priests at major shrine centers in India, documents out-of-bounds to most Indians and all Westerners. Such records, together with palace inventories, payroll records, and historical diaries still in the collections of the descendants of the former ruling chiefs, will eventually provide the type of explicit documentation that we need so decidedly for further study of these works Yet it is very doubtful that such records will ever be made readily accessible to Western scholars, who are justifiably viewed with suspicion by orthodox elements of Hindu society. The Western student of Indian painting necessarily works at a disadvantage in this regard.

    For most readers, the major interest of the study will not be such information as that given in the arguments defending the attribution of paintings to such "new" courts as Bhoti or Datarpur (among others), but the reconsideration of such long-standing and unresolved questions as precisely when, where, and how painting began in the hills, or how one defines and recognizes works from such familiar states as Basohli, Guler, Jammu, and Kangra. Yet here, despite the fact that this is the most meticulously researched and painstakingly constructed study ever published on Indian painting, we continue to be frustrated by the lack of cold, hard evidence to corroborate visual judgments.

    Painting seems to have begun in the hills in the mid-seventeenth century, with works of an already distinctive and highly sophisti-

    cated artistic outlook for which a phase of development must have existed for which no evidence has appeared or been recognized. Archer rightly notes its basic kinship to pre-Mughal (early six- teenth-century) Rajput painting in Rajasthan (and therefore, we might add, to pan-Indian folk-level traditions generally as well), although specific historical or visual evidence of contacts is un- known. This is not a problem, however. We do know that Raj- asthan somehow acted as a catalyst for painting in another hill area, Nepal, in the mid-seventeenth century; an Astasahasrika Prajna-paramita Ms in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, executed in 1682, demands mid-seventeenth-century Mewar (Udaipur) as an exact source for its style, and it is probable that a similar situation occurred to the west in the Punjab region. The earliest pahari style is related to the court...


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