Vedic Art: Indian Miniature Painting, Part 2


BY: SUN STAFF - 2.6 2023

Mahipala era, c. 983 A.D.

A serial presentation of India's artistic legacy in paintings, sculpture and temple architecture.


11th to 12th Centuries (Continued)

India's earliest examples of Miniature paintings are found in the Pala School, in which the art reached a pinnacle during the rules of two early Pala kings, Dharmapala (c. 781-821 A.D.) and Devapala (c. 821-861 A.D.), when two artists from Varendra in North Bengal attained eminence. These artists, Dhimana and his son Vitapala, were masters in stone and metal work as well as painting.

The son's style differed from the father's. While Dhimana pursued the "eastern style", Vitapala painted in a style termed "middle-country", which referred to Magadha or South Bihar, and imagery in the Buddhist tradition.

The paintings out of eastern India during the Pala period demonstrate a recognized style, with two distinct regional expressions -- Varendra and Magadha. To understand the character of these paintings, it is necessary to refer to the classical painting of Fifth to Sixth Century India.

Indian art reached a zenith during the days of the Imperial Guptas (c. 320-675 A.D.) and their immediate successors. The murals of the period, including the images found at Ajanta, Bagh and Badami caves, are famously known as some of the best examples of Indian classical painting due to their technical mastery and aesthetic superiority. The main stylistic characteristics of the classical paintings are the uninterrupted flow of rhythmic line and the fully developed modelling. The latter was achieved by the application of colours in terms of light and shade, and deft manipulation of line.

The sculpture and painting of the classical period pursued the same artistic ideals and both emphasized plasticity and linearism. There is reason to believe that Dhimana and Vitapala revived classical art under the Palas, for Taranath records that Dhimana was a follower of the "Naga" style. One of the centres of Naga power was Mathura in North India, and that city is well known as the epicentre of Indian classical art.

The figures of the Pala Miniatures show a similar emphasis on sculputesque modelling and rhythmic linearism. In fact, if the tiny miniatures are blown up they will show almost the same features of the classical murals with continuous lines and modelled forms, and for that they are clearly distinguished from the European Miniatures which exhibit, among others, broken minute lines.

The other significant aspect of the Pala Miniature is that they follow artistic ideals similar to their contemporary images made in stone and metal. Because Pala School Miniatures were painted over the spam of a number of centuries, they did not remain the same in style. Coming from different centres of the Pala Empire and belonging to different eras, they illustrate a range of trends in style and pictorial composition.

The Pala rule in eastern India, which continued for about four hundred years (c. 750-1200 A.D.), saw the first consolidation of Bengal culture. In this period, Bengali genius expressed itself in various creative mediums: architecture, sculpture and painting. Since no painting of any earlier periods has been discovered, and since the practice of Miniature painting persisted throughout the Pala period and continued in a diluted style even after the fall of the dynasty, Pala painting is considered to be virtually synonymous with early Bengali painting.

The Pala kings were Buddhists, but quite liberal in their attitude to other faiths. In the days of the Palas, the Mahayana cult of the Buddhist faith developed its Tantrayana-Vajrayana-Kalachakrayana aspects, and the Pala Miniatures stand as a visual expression of these cults.

Mahipala era, c. 983 A.D.

The earliest examples of Bengal painting are the twelve extant Miniatures delineated on the palm-leaves of a manuscript of the Buddhist text, Astasahasrika-prajnaparamita, dated in the sixth regnal year of the Pala King, Mahipala (c. 983 A.D.) This rare manuscript is now in the possession of The Asiatic Society in Calcutta. There are two more painted manuscripts which belong to Mahipala I's reign, but they are later in date.

Many more manuscripts with paintings belonging to the following two centuries have come to light. Since they were painted in a period when the kings of the Pala dynasty were ruling the region, they are also known as Pala Miniatures. Technically, these Miniatures are so well done that it is impossible to believe they are the earliest expression of the art in Bengal. They represent a mature style that could only have evolved through generations. But, lamentably, since painting is a very fragile medium, no extant specimens have thus far been discovered in Eastern India that are ascribable to a date earlier than that of the above-mentioned Palas.

There is, however, a story in the Vitashokavadana section of the Buddhist text, Divyavadana indicating that painting was practised in Bengal as early as the third century B.C. According to it, the Nirgranthi-upasakas of Pundravardhana, a city in North Bengal, drew a painting showing Lord Buddha as prostrating before the feet of Makkhali Goshala, a rival of the Buddha's and leader of the early Jain sect of asthetics known as the Nirgantha. North Indian Sanskrit texts refer to these opponents of the Buddha. For the audacious acts of these rebels, they were totally annihilated by Ashoka.

Whatever the historical value of this early narrative may be, it marks the prevalence of the art of painting in Bengal even in the pre-Christian period.



Sources: Excerpted and paraphrased from:
Ministry of Culture, Government of India
Sarasikumar Saraswati, Palyuger Chitrakala, Calcutta, 1978
Jeremiah P Losty, The Art of the Book in India, London, 1982
Asok Bhattacharya, Banglar Chitrakala (Bengali), Calcutta, 1994
Claudine Bautze-Picron, 'Buddhist Painting During the Reign of Harivarmadeva in Southeast Bangladesh', Journal of Bengal Art, 1999