In the 8th century AD the Rajputs moved into India from central Asia, settled in the North West and integrated with the Hindu caste system. The term Rajput simply means 'son of Raja (King)'. Rajputs were famous fighters and maintained their Hindu courts unconquered for centuries. Rajput court paintings originated from the Jain illustrated manuscripts but each Rajput kingdom developed its own painting style. The original Rajasthani art was religious, but over time Mughal influence became increasingly evident so court scenes, histories and hunting scenes became popular.
From the early 16th century, painting was adopted as a court hobby and although the Mughal concept of realistic art was gradually introduced into their pictures, the Rajputs still incorporated traditional symbols, poetic metaphor and hidden meaning. They began to paint portraits, often equestrian, but they were warmer and less formal than the Mughal style. Often the theme was imaginary, rather than the historical themes of the Mughals. The colours were still flat and bold and the figures continued to be stiff and stylised, sometimes still showing the projecting eyes inherited from Jain manuscripts. Paintings often depicted the popular Hindu god Krishna and his consort Radha. Or they sometimes illustrated musical modes (Ragas) in paintings known as Ragamala (meaning 'garland of melodies') which were popular in the 17th century. Ragamalas often show the influence of Mughal art with increased realism, attention to detail, and quiet atmosphere, but with simple lines of clouds and flat background colour of Indian style.
During the 17th century there was constant experimentation between realism and imaginary subjects, formality and spontaneity, elaborate detail and direct simplicity, shaded modelling and flat patterns. These contrasting styles make the paintings lively and full of interesting detail. Portraits, court scenes and hunting scenes were then common.
Rajasthani Schools represented within the Sainsbury Collection
The Ajmer School lasted from1630-1800. Its style can be very direct; the later works seem to have more delicacy. It is thought that Ajmer artists passed their skill in painting elephants on to Kotah - a school that became famous for painting wonderful elephants.
The Mughals conquered Bundi in 1616 and although the Bundi School of painting lasted from 1590-1800, it was finest in the 17th century after the Mughal conquest. At that time both Indian (Mewar-like) and Mughal styles were used. There were many court scenes, often illustrating the grace of Bundi manners, the background typically showing lush landscape. Sometimes themes were passionate, such as elopement, or lovers meeting (including Krishna and Radha). Shading on the faces is typical of the Bundi School. Gold is widely used and rows of raised white dots represent strings of pearls.
From the 16th - 19th centuries there were many equestrian portraits and durbar scenes. Often the characteristic fort at Jodhpur, built on a massive rocky outcrop and towering over a flat semi-desert landscape, is shown in the background of these paintings and can help to identify them.
Kishangarh means 'Fort of Krishna'. This school lasted from 1720-1850 and centres around the artist Nahil Chand who worked for Raja Savant Singh (1699-1764, ruled 1747-57). Raja Savant Singh wrote poetry dealing with Radha and Krishna under the name of Nagari Das. Nahil Chand developed a beautiful style of painting stories about these lovers, who are usually seen as small figures in a geometric lattice-work building which gives an air of mystery and privacy. The pictures show an idealised court life, mannered and rather stiff, the figures elongated and sophisticated. From 1757-70 some paintings were very large (eighteen inches or more), especially those worked on cloth.
Kotah split off from Bundi in 1625. Kotah painters captured movements in animals, particularly elephants, better than any other artists. Although they made their elephants lively, they also managed to indicate massive bulk and strength. They concentrated on the huge energy of the animal, rather than the impressive decoration seen in Deccani painting of elephants. In the 18th century the favourite royal sport was tiger hunting from mounted elephants through lush jungle, and pictures of these hunts are the most exciting Kotah paintings, especially between 1720 and 1870. They tend to show large, looming foliage amongst which are portraits of the Raja and his courtiers.
Some of the earliest Buddha sculptures were made in Mathura in the 1st century AD. Subsequently, it developed into an important centre for both sculptures and paintings illustrating scriptures from the Buddhist, Jain and Hindu religions.
Early Mewar works were in 'Indian style' and by the 17th century the artists had become famous for illustrations of the Krishna stories from the Bhagavata Purana, and also for illustrations of the 12th century love poem, the Gita Govinder. But under Raj Ragat Singh (1628 - 52) artists also produced typically Rajput paintings with strong colour schemes, illustrating secular subjects such as festivals, hunts and even narrative landscape pictures rarely seen in Indian painting. By the 18th century these landscape paintings were often very large, rendered from a high-view point, showing hundreds of people and providing an excellent history of Rajput life.
Raghogarh was an outlying court on the Rajasthan/ Madya Pradesh border south of Bundi and Kotah. It had painting studios from the late 17th onwards. Their paintings usually had a flat background made with a wash of plain colour. Often insignificant people, servants etc., are depicted disproportionately small.
Nathdwara is a great pilgrimage centre 24 miles north of Udaipur. There is a famous black stone image of Krishna there.