The pictorial art of Kangra is one of the finest gifts of India to the art-world. This great art originated in a small hill state ‘Guler’ in the Lower Himalayas in the first half of the eighteenth century when a family of Kashmiri painters trained in Mughal Style of painting sought shelter at the court of Raja Dalip Singh (r. 1695-1741) of Guler. The new arrivals mingled with the local artists and were greatly influenced by the atmosphere of the hills. Instead of painting flattering portraits of their masters and love scenes, the artistes adopted themes of eternal love between Radha and Krishna. The paintings were naturalistic and employed cool, fresh colors. The colors were extracted from minerals, vegetables and possessed enamel-like luster. Verdant greenery of the landscape, brooks, springs were the recurrent images on the miniatures.
This style reached its zenith during the reign of Maharaja Sansar Chand Katoch (r.1776-1824) who was a great patron of Kangra art. Being a liberal patron, the painters working at his atelier received large commissions while others accepted a permanent settlement in the form of lands. Maharaja Sansar Chand was an ardent devotee of Krishna and used to commission artists to paint subjects based on the loves and life of Krishna.
The Guler-Kangra art is the art of drawing and the drawing is precise and fluid, lyrical and naturalistic. In these styles the faces are well modelled and shaded so judiciously that they possess almost porcelain-like delicacy.
The focal theme of Kangra painting is Sringar (the erotic sentiment). The subjects seen in Kangra painting exhibit the taste and the traits of the life style of the society of that period. Bhakti cult was the driving force and the love story of Radha and Krishna was the main source of spiritual experience, which was also the base for the visual expression. Bhagvata Purana and the love poems Gita-Govinda of Jaidev were the most popular subjects dealing with the legends and the amorous plays of Radha and Krishna symbolising soul’s devotion to God. In some miniatures, the blue-god Krishna is seen dancing in the lush woodlands and every maiden’s eye are drawn to him. Krishna subjects, known commonly as Krishna-lila predominate, while the themes of love, inspired by the nayaks and nayikas and baramasa enjoyed great favour. The sentiment of love remained the inspiration and the central theme of Pahari painting.
Anand Coomaraswamy observed:
What Chinese art achieved for landscape, is here accomplished for human love. Here if never and nowhere else in the world, the western gates are open wide. The arms of lovers are about each other’s neck. Eye meets eye, the whispering sakhis speak of nothing else but the course of Krishna’s courtship, the very animals are spell-bound by the sound of Krishna’s flute, and the elements stand still to hear the raga and raginis.
The Kangra miniatures are noted for portraying the famine charm with a natural grace. Apart from female beauty there is also a loving interest in landscapes, the countryside, the rivers, trees, birds, cattle, and flowers which have been very meticulously portrayed in these paintings.
The Kangra painting excels in the female figures, which were generally conceived as the embodiments of youth, beauty and emotive sentiment. The figure of youthful coy nayika seen in Kangra miniatures is an ideal physical type which is slender and elegant, radiating infinite charm, sensitiveness and refinement. Ananda Coomaraswamy remarks:
“The heroine’s eyes are large as any lotus flower, her tresses fall in heavy plaits, her breasts are firm and high, her thighs are full and smooth, her hands like rosy flowers, her gait as dignified as any elephant’s and her demeanour demuse.”
The colour scheme of Kangra painting appears to be toned down in such a way that it looks soft, cool but brilliant and cheerful. At the zenith of its refinement, Kangra painting presents a pure melody of flowing lines and glowing colours, breathing out a sense of space, tranquillity and poetic sentiment. Even the unfinished pictures and sketches reveal their own charms, in the free-hand movement of sensitive and spontaneous lines.