Gurdeep Kaur/ Pahari and Sikh Miniature Paintings: A comparative Study

Gurdeep Kaur

Research Scholar, Dept. of Fine Arts,

Lovely Professional University


To analyze and compare the origin and association of two neighbours; the northern hills and plains and their impacts in terms of supremacy, belief, social and economic formations, cultures and arts are a significant concern for art critics and historians of India. This study is centred on a comparison and association between two styles of miniature paintings; Kangra-Guler and Sikh styles of miniature paintings flourishing from the Punjab Hills towards Punjab Plains at various local centers during 18th-19th centuries. The northern hilly area was a part of erstwhile greater Punjab and the cultures and traditions developed on hills and plains; both had influenced one another. Maharaja Sansar Chand (1766-1823) and Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780-1839); two great Indian sovereigns were the icons of their age. One was the lord of the hills and another was the hero of the plains. Both were ascending the throne in young age and were the great patrons of arts and culture of their own. A place full of natural beauty with curved mountains and plantains; Kangra was the most significant centre of arts and culture in 18th century during the reign of Maharaja Sansar Chand built after the conquest of Kangra by Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1809, Sikh influences and trends became popular at hills and Punjab plains too could not remain no longer devoid of influences of the Kangra style of miniature painting. Kangra- Guler style and Sikh themes merged and evolved a new style which is known to us today as Kangra- Sikh style, but with the simplicity, loneliness and formalism are the distinct features of Sikh style  which separate Kangra miniature paintings from Sikh miniatures till the end of the 19th century.

The most significant centre of miniature art in the hilly areas of northern India where a great style was developed in the 18th century was Kangra. The great patron of Kangra painting was Maharaja Sansar Chand (1766-1823). The period 1786-1805 was a glorious chapter in the history of Kangra.[i] ………he (Sansar Chand) was regarded as the Hatim of that age and in generosity, the Rustam of the time.[ii]  On the other hand Lord of the Punjab Maharaja Ranjit Singh was a great personality with simplicity. Because of his extraordinary qualities as a fighter, conqueror and an empire-builder, Ranjit Singh is often compared with Napoleon Bonaparte, Bismarck and Akbar.[iii] Maharaja Sansar Chand was a Rajput warrior and Maharaja Ranjit Singh was a Sikh warrior, but they both were of aesthetic sense.

The principal centres of Pahari painting were Basohli and Chamba situated on the banks of the river Ravi, Jasrota, east of Basohli and Mankot and Jammu (on river Tavi), both northwestwards of Basohli; Hariput-Guler on the Banaganga river and Kangra, some twenty miles away from Guler, on the Beas river. To the east of Guler and Kangra are Mandi and Kulu. Tehri-Garhwal on the river Alaknanda also drew painters who came to settle from Guler-Kangra in the mid-18th century.[iv]

 At the contrary, every new conquest has changed the racial pattern of Punjab plains. Out of this blend of blood and tongue were born the Punjabi populace and their phrases. At the end of the seventeenth century, the region fell into three rough divisions-the Punjab Plains, the

  Punjab Hills and a tract of broken country between them.  It was part of the Mughal empire and was administered by Mughal governors.[v] Late in the 18th century, Sikh rulers had control of both the plains and the hills of Punjab ………….Other Sikh states that were established in the mid-or late-18th century had their  capitals at Patiala, Nabha, Jind and Kapurthala.[vi]  As an upshot of a Sikh takeover at the Punjab hills the connection between Sikh patronage and Pahari art was recognized. The prominent centres of Sikh art and culture were Lahore, Amritsar and Patiala where Pahari artists evolved a new style out of their parentage style for new patrons in which they were habitual.s

Inspiring by Vaishnavism, Shaivism and Saktism paintings were began to paint at the Rajput courts of the Rajputana and the hill states of northern India inspiring by Mughal influences. Kangra miniatures present the glimpse of Hindu deities Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh (Shiva); who are the symbols of creator, operator and destroyer. Other Hindu divinities are the incarnations of Vishnu and Mahesh. Associate deities and Devi cult were also inspired the Kangra artists. Vaishnavite themes inspired by the lives of two incarnations of Vishnu; Lord Krishna and Lord Rama are dominantly visualizing in Pahari miniatures.  The Kangra Qalam is characterized by the tenderness and delicacy of its female types and generally soft colouring, though this was not always the case. Each hill state had its own idiom of the Kangra Qalam…………….Men and women seem to move in another world, a far-away world from reality, where love reigns supreme ever remembering the legend of the blue god. The hill river becomes the Jamuna, a hill prince is Krsna, a hill princess is Radha, and the hill forests become the groves and woodlands of Vrndavan.[vii]

Dreamlike and mystic world of divine romance of the blue god of the hills, Krishna; the incarnation of Vishnu and the milkmaid Radha is sitting, lying or playing in the lap of Nature painted by artists. Poetic and emotional lines, sensitive and expressive colours with the natural symbolic sense are used. Sacred love of Radha and Krishna with intense delight and amusement present the glimpse of the conventional Indian visuals but with new charm and splendour. The lyrical and graceful qualities of line are done for reaching a sense of rhythm for urging the world of imaginations. Bright and pure colours also tell many stories in Kangra miniatures. Pure red, yellow, blue, green and saffron are given to the Hindu divinities and its concern with Hindu philosophy is very deep-rooted.

The blue colour of deep oceans, rivers and sky is the symbol of eternity, peace and pureness depict Krishna; the lord of love. In Rajput paintings Krishna is the hero or nayak is drawn with nayika or Radha who is the symbol of ideal beauty. Krisna represents perfection of beauty and Radha stands for perfect love[viii]. Nayika or Radha in red, saffrons, blue or yellow was very popular in Kangra. Life giving warm colours connected with sun and fire which depict purity, love and divine and have given to Hindu goddesses mostly. Radha and Krishna playing at the bank of river Yamuna or seeing clouds or rainy sky or their meetings in the forests surrounded by various plantains and birds, animals, curved mountainous backgrounds with mounds are all present rhythm, conscious and  eternal participants of the divine love and pleasure. Facial expressions, gestures, enunciation, and the attitude of body and limbs everything revealed moods of affection. Greenery of plants symbolises realisations, novel openings and evolution. All are full of breath and blossom. Krishna’s love dramas not only with Radha, but also mother Yashoda, father Nand, his friend Sudama and other milkmaids are the instances which teach us how to justify the worldly associations which are portrayed above all by poets and painters.

Beside the divine romance the icon of Shakti; goddess Durga; consort of Shiva and her nine incarnations and dramatic scenes of raudra or ugra Devi’s battles with demons or asura is the represent the supremacy and the glorification of the feminine as Hindus assume triumph of womanly will power over masculine egos and ills. Worship of Devi by other divinities after glorious tasks are very expressive visuals painted Kangra artists. Kangra art is fully inspired by Hindu mythology and medieval literature, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, Devi Mahatamay, Markandey Purana etc., but mostly by Krishnaism because Vaishnavism was the principal religion in Hill states during 18th to 19th century.

However, Sikhs have no myths and their philosophy is refined and cultured by ten great Gurus against myths and Brahmanism. Primarily, the first warmth of Sikh art can be seen in the hagiographies narratives of Guru Nanak, were in style as janamsakhi[ix] illustrations in Punjab. There are several Janamsakhis of various traditions like Bala and puratan tradition.[x] Sikh art was growing in janamsakhi practises. Guru Nanak; the originator of the Sikh piety as a sufi pir[xi] rosary in his hand with his two lifelong followers Bala and Mardana was used to drawn in janamsakhis.  The stories of Guru Nanak’s magnificent journeys and instances followed in his lifespan inspired the artists in Punjab plains. The Janamsakhi illustrations were beginning to paint by Pahari artists and Pahari influences are clear and obvious but with some variances of elements according to Sikh needs.

Janamsakhis are the chronicle of Sikh metaphysics and ideologies. These works are the perfect presentation of emblematic association between the biography of Guru Nanak and his Bani[xii]. Often every day scenes of rural Punjab of medieval era envisage in Janamsakhis. Guru Nanak was as a universal traveller portrayed sitting or standing with historical figures of that time. Multiplicity of culture also represented in Janamsakhis by Pahari artists.

Guru Nanak was painted as spiritual messenger of the Divine. He endures vertical red tilak[xiii] on his forehead, which is unified with Vaishnavas as well as turban and expressive lined robe allied with Muslim Sufis. He is connected with ethnic multiplicity meeting with Kabir, Sheikh, Pathans, sadhussanyasis[xiv] and others reflecting them with his piety and theology. Symbolic use of forms, colours, space, perspective, gestures; everything reveals Guru Nanak as a dynamic juncture between a historical person and timeless reality. He always showed a long robe of either saffron or yellow accepted as most sanctified and symbolizes purity and pursuit for light.

In Kangra miniatures we observe a kind of romance with naturalism and bloom. Space divided into foreground and background is full of naturalistic conventions, but Janamsakhis illustrations consist flat plane space with a strip of blue sky in the background and treated generally as a scenery for the foreground. Simplified forms of natural backgrounds and forms with less efforts express the steps of developments by Pahari artists to fulfil the needs of new patrons as well as the simplicity of the patrons also. Use of saffron, green, blue like the paintings of Kangra creates a freshness in Sikh miniatures for their ease to fulfil the wishes of the Sikh community. Kangra miniatures also present the ideal glimpse of shringara, raudhra, veer rasa, but Sikh Janamsakhi illustrations are the presentation of shanta rasa.

Mythical stories and imaginations have a significant role in Kangra miniatures. The personification of nature supremacies and spirituality known as prakriti, sakti into divinities with meaningful symbols and icons is very ancient in Indian culture, but Guru Nanak’s teachings are against myths, superstitions of Brahmanism but he adore Ekonkar (One who is timeless) and preach through kudrat or prakriti not to kudrat. Mountainous backgrounds, different types of plantains, animals and birds like cow, dog, deer, elephant, peacock, babiha, falcon, etc. are always undivided part of Pahari as well as Sikh miniature paintings. In Janamsakhi paintings are mountains and plains as well as greenery according to the needs of themes are painted showing a variety of geography and ethnicity of contemporary Punjab plains.

……….a considerable change can be discovered in the works executed under the patronage of the Sikh rulers. The splendid, richly coloured and vigorous representation of the myths and legends in the Kangra painting was replaced by a formalist pattern, in which the figures, trees and atmosphere were treated, and conventional colour schemes used without achieving that vigour and intensity vested in the deep emotions of the pahari artist.[xv]

Besides Janamsakhis the most spirited and determined depiction of tenth Guru; Guru Gobind Singh as a saint soldier. The equine portraits of the tenth guru, hunting scenes and doing baptized the first five disciples, Guru Gobind Singh was shown in gracious character. The illustrators were influenced with their distinct character and beside the development of iconography of the ten Sikh gurus and other Hindu sadhus as well as Muslim pirs and sufis of medieval age were evolved. There are numerous identifiable portraits and paintings can be seen, but all are more ideal than contemporary.

Along with these themes Barahmasa; the imaginary pictures of seasons, nayikabheda, a division of heroines, ragas; personification of musical moods is imagined and visualized by pahari artists. Krishna is portrayed in Barahmasa and nayikabheda miniatures as a popular hero. The use of colours according to changing seasons and musical moods is appreciable. The form visualized in these miniatures are influence by local folks of hill. The contribution of Krishna themes in Pahari miniatures is immeasurable like the contribution of Janamsakhi themes in the evolvement of Sikh miniatures and their individuality.

After that come the portraits, court scenes, domestic life and processions of Maharaja Sansar Chand, who was a great patron of art and culture in Kangra valley. Hill rajas were often shown in the audience, while chiefs were portrayed reclining on terraces with dancing girls or musicians attending upon them.[xvi] Sansar Chand and other hill chiefs smoking hookah in the Courts, seeing performances of girls or boy dancers and flattering portraits were very common practice during Maharaja Sansar Chand. Smoking hookah communal in Rajput tradition is restricted in Sikhism, so it separates Sikh portraits from Pahari themes. The festival of colours, Holi in Phagun is common in love scenes as Radha and Krishna playing Holi with colours. Maharaja Sansar Chand, his ranis and his courtiers also visualize in participating Holi. Busy and crowded scenes of the Rajput courts changed into aloneness of Sikh chiefs. Single as well as multiple portraits can be seen in Kangra and Sikh miniature paintings. The iconography which is  developed for Hindu myths and Rajput legends were used for Sikh Gurus and nobles. Their costumes and other objects were drawn in miniatures with some influence of Punjabi culture. Long parasol, halo and attendants, use of saffron, green, blue are common in the portraits of Sikh Gurus as well as aristocrats show the contemporary Hindu-Sikh popular culture of Sikh rule. Maharaja Ranjit Singh was represented usually in saffron, yellow and green dresses sitting on either golden throne or on horseback as a political and religious representative symbol of his affluent age which can associated with Sikh ethnicity. Mostly inscribed portraits of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and his aristocrats interpret about their characters more than written explanations.

The marital relations of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Heera Singh and Majithias with Rajput Kangra beauties also inspire Pahari artists and as a result the soft and decent ladies of Kangra are also portrayed with Sikh heroes in love scenes and domestic visualization of life.


Sikh chiefs merely stretched the artistic traditions established under the Mughals and Rajputs. Sikh art was incapable to mature its individuality. It can be appreciated as inheritor of prior refined art cultures and customs.

So we can conclude easily that Kangra art style is dynamic and vibrant part of Indian a  culture but Sikh art is not less significant.

Kangra miniature art started under Rajput patronage influenced by Rajput culture and practises, but the influence of Sikhism is evidently clear on miniature paintings employed under Sikh patronage. Art is liberal and generous at every phase to inspire by the surroundings, but the religion and matter of patronage of the art which are two significant factors which influenced themes and styles. Even Kangra art also motivated through Mughal and Guler style of paintings, but later it grew with characteristics of its own. But annexation of Punjab by British rule may be the major cause that Sikh art could do less developments of its own individuality



[i] Randhava M. S., Maharaja Sansar Chand the Patron of Kangra painting, Roopa-Lekha, Vol. XXXII No.2,1961, AIFACS, pg. no.15

[ii] Archer W. G., Indian Paintings In The Punjab Hills,1952, H.M.S.O., London, pg. no. 44

[iii] Singh Mohinder and Singh Rishi, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, National Institute Of Punjab Studies, New Delhi, 2002, pg. no. 15

[iv] Chakraverty Anjan, Indian Miniature Painting, 1996, Lustre Press, Roli Books ,Pg. no. 105-106

[v] Archer W. G., Paintings of the Sikhs, H.M.S.O., 1966, pg. no.2

[vi] Singh Kavita (Editor), New Insights into Sikh Art, Marg Publications, Vol.54 No.4, 2003, pg. no.10

[vii] Khandalawala Karl, The development of style in Indian painting, Heras institute of Indian history and culture, 1974, S B N-33390 0456, pg. no.95-96

[viii] Banerjee P., The Blue God, 1981,Lalit Kala Akademi, India, pg. no. 11

[ix]Biography or life stories of Guru Nanak is identified as Janamsakhi.

[x] Bala Janamsakhi was recorded by Bala Sandhu in sambat 1592 at aspiration of the second Sikh Guru; Guru Angad Dev. Puratan Janamsakhi was written in 1635 A.D. and compiled by Bhai Vir Singh and first published in 1926.

[xi] Spiritual persons are termed as Sufi or Pir in Islam.

[xii] Hymns of the Guru.

[xiii] According to Hindu religion a mark worn on the forehead by men and women shaped in vertical or round.

[xiv] Holy men.

[xv] Aryan K. C., Punjab Painting, Punjabi University, Patiala, 1975, pg. no.15

[xvi] Archer W. G., Indian Paintings In The Punjab Hills,1952, H.M.S.O., London, pg. no. 5

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