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The artistic identity of a marble town stands at the crossroads

Miniature paintings, especially the Bani Thani portraits, are the hallmarks of Kishangarh, but they are being threatened by commercial art

The Jaipur-Ajmer highway bifurcates into two, with the road on the left leading to a 17th Century town, now called the Marble City, owing to the large-scale production and export of this elegant stone. As you go further on that road, on the left of a wide green signboard marking the entry to Kishangarh, is the picture of a bejewelled woman in Rajasthani attire. Her association with this town is way deeper than marble, and goes back a few centuries. This woman is the artistic identity of Kishangarh, and is known as Bani Thani.

Kishangarh, founded by Kishan Singh in 1611, has a rich tradition of miniature art intertwined with a deep devotion to Lord Krishna. The art form showcases beauty, grandeur, love and devotion in its details. The inspiration for this miniature art from the town named after Kishan is, naturally, Radha. The much-celebrated portrait of the Radha of Kishangarh has been called the ‘Mona Lisa of India’. This lady with elongated eyes, thin lips and a sharp nose, holds a flower between her long, artistic fingers. A transparent veil covers her head, and rich clothes and elaborate pearl ornaments complement her beauty.

This original portrait that dates back to the mid-18th Century has a story as charming as the lady in the painting. Bani Thani was a slave girl serving Raja Sawant Singh’s stepmother. A gifted singer and poet, she composed songs on Lord Krishna. Her name is a reference to her beauty and grace. Sawant Singh, an ardent Krishna bhakt (devotee), who wrote over 70 volumes of poetry under the pen name Nagari Das, fell in love with her. The story has been romanticised in art through Kishangarh paintings. It is said that Sawant Singh’s court painter Nihal Chand made the portrait inspired by Bani Thani’s beauty.

However, the Kishangarh royals believe that the lady in the portrait is not the actual Bani Thani. They consider the painting essentially an interpretation of Radha, since the scions of the family are Krishna bhakts. The elongated eyes, therefore, are inspired by Shrinathji’s eyes and the rest of the facial features were fashioned to complement the eyes.

The official website of Studio Kishangarh, a space created by Vaishnavi Kumari from the Kishangarh Royal Family to promote art, describes the portrait as “…India’s most celebrated painting, the Radha famously called the Mona Lisa of India and often misquoted as Bani Thani.”

In the series of artworks by Nihal Chand, she is depicted as Radha while Sawant Singh is portrayed as Krishna. Steeped in the shringar ras (one of the nine rasas or aesthetic flavours meaning romantic love/ beauty/ attraction), the paintings not only capture the beauty of the protagonists but also record the surroundings in intricate detail, be it the palace garden, the lake as seen from a boat, or a pavilion set up for a festival.    

Though the iconic image holds appeal for all walks of society and finds a place on varied backgrounds – from the cover of a pan masala packet available at a roadside shop and the name board of a small-time salon in Ajmer to the labels of high-end designer clothes – there are very few artists left in Kishangarh today who can replicate the Bani Thani image in all its finesse.

Anil Kumar Vyas, the nephew of noted Kishangarh artist Vaishnavdas Vyas, remembers a time when every family in Kishangarh wanted to send their children to his uncle to learn art. “In the late 1970s, there would be at least 40 people working together in our home. Everyone was involved in some aspect of the painting – some would starch the cloth, some would draw the outline and some would fill in the colours while others would mount it on a wooden frame. We would sell a painting for Rs 2000 and the demand was such that we’d make 30-40 portraits each day. Today, even though Kishangarh is known by the name of Bani Thani, there are just two or three people who can sketch the portrait free-hand. The others just trace it,” Vyas says.

In earlier days, the paintings would largely be done on rich silk and other cloth or handmade paper with natural colours made of plant extracts, minerals, shells and precious stones. Gold and silver vark (leaf) were also used in some portraits to highlight the jewellery or embellish the edge of a veil. The outline was drawn using a fine brush made with squirrel’s fur. The seasoned artists would it directly on the cloth, without using a pencil or an eraser. Now, the paintings are largely done on paper with poster colours.

Meanwhile, though Kishangarh’s flourishing marble industry lured many artists into the business, it contributed to art by developing the concept of marble handicrafts, bringing together the traditional and modern attributes of the town — marble and art. Bani Thani continues to be a mascot of Kishangarh art even on marble. There are utility marble articles bearing the image that fit easily into the modern home. One can see the image of the Kishnagarh Radha in all her glory on a gem-studded flower pot or a table or even on small marble plates.

The recreation of the beauty of this image of Radha, in all its details, requires many hours of practice each day. Today’s artist has to contend with a different market trend. Earlier, most of the work was on paper and cloth catering to clients overseas, who paid a good amount for the pieces. With the pandemic years dampening exports, the trade now is more domestic and the requirements are different. People want Kishangarh art done directly on their walls.

Projects from temples and the hotel industry have boosted this art form and the work is commissioned not per portrait but per square foot. At least 500 large marble pots and 150 marble shrines for homes are made every day in Kishangarh that require ornamentation by artists. Bani Thani portraits are also a popular corporate gifting option.

So, while the Indian market has grown, the art is changing. Commercial art has taken precedence and the artist has to create designs on marble, stone, wood, walls or other material. Hence, tracing is the preferred technique. Also, commercial work takes away the attention to details, which is a hallmark of the traditional art.

“Art on pots can fetch Rs 100-150 per piece. The artist does 10 pieces in a day and earns money. A painting takes much more time and is more exclusive. There is value for art, but in this era of commercialisation, how can one spend that much time on one piece of work? Where can today’s artist practise this art and, if he does spend time on finesse, how will he make ends meet?” These are difficult questions Vyas has about the future of this legacy art.

(Courtesy: Charkha Features)

July 2022

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