Pahari Paintings

Rajput paintings in the region of the Punjab Hill states of North India, i.e. in the states of Himachal Pradesh, Jammu & Kashmir and few areas in erstwhile Pakistan are known as Pahari paintings. Scholars have categorized Pahari paintings on the basis of geography and family style.

On the basis of geography two categories can be identified. One is the Basohli and Kulu style, and second is the Guler and Kangra style. While the former group shows influence of the Chaurpanchasika style and emphasizes on the abstraction, bold lines, and conservative colors, the latter underscores on cooler colors and refinement.

Parallel can be drawn between the developments of the Pahari School and the Rajasthan School. However, there are certain punctuated gaps in the development of Pahari paintings, which the scholarly research is trying to fill in. The family relationship of the Hill Rajas with the royal court at Rajasthan had its marked influence on the painting traditions, which evolved in the Hill States. The influence of the Mughuls, Gujarat, and Deccan were also conspicuous in the paintings.

The growing popularity of vernacular literature with the emergence of Bhakti movement provided themes for the Pahari Paintings. Erstwhile Shaiva- Shakta themes in paintings were now accompanied by the vernacular poetry and folk songs adoring Krishna and Rama. Katha-vachaka (story teller) played a significant role in broadening people’s understanding of the religious texts like Puranans and Ramayana. They held discourses in temples, market places and educated people on proper conduct and purity of life. While, the poets and performers from the plains visited hills and provided cultural performances. Thus, the vibrant social and cultural milieu provided endless themes to the painters.

Unlike Rajasthani Paintings, which centered on portraitures, and depiction of splendid court life, Pahari paintings emphasized on love and devotional themes.

The royalty commissioned texts based on love themes and stories of Krishna. Gita Govinda (the Divine Love Song) and the tenth book of the Bhagavata Purana (the stories of Krishna) provided evergreen themes. While the Aranya Kanda, and the Lanka Kanda of Ramayana epic were repeatedly illustrated.

One of the early notable works of art was Devi Mahatmya manuscript, painted at Kangra in 1552. Besides this, Rasamanjiri, a 15th century Sanskrit text, penned down by Bhanudaata of Mithila in Bihar, was a significant illustrated work. The heroes (nayakas) and heroines (nayikas) and beauteous maidens of this rhetoric text personified subtle ecstasies of romance.

Basohli Paintings

Basohli, situated on the bank of the Ravi River produced magnificent series of manifestations of the supreme goddess called Devi series. The Devi series was bold in execution and iridescent beetles were used in the illustrations as jewels. Another notable illustration was the romantic text of Rasamanjari, painted by artist Devidasa under the patronage of Raja Kirpal Pal (1678-95). Basohli rulers also patronized portrait paintings.

Gita Govinda, dated 1730, painted, by Manaku, for a patron Malini is believed to have a Basohli origin.

The chief characteristics of the Basohli paintings were geometrical patterns, and use of bold colors to infuse vitality in the paintings. Besides the bold colors, lustrous enamel like colors were also employed. The decorative conventions and dramatic compositions where the figures were shown clad in rich costumes, stylized faces, and large bulging eyes lent unique individuality to these paintings.


Bilaspur, situated in Himachal Pradesh saw the rise of the paintings in the mid 17th century. The earlier paintings were portraitures that were succeeded by illustrations of the Bhagavata Purana, Ramayana, and Ragamala series in the 18th century. Besides these, painters at Bilaspur also executed paintings on rumal (coverlets) for rituals and ceremonies.


Located in Himachal Pradesh, the painting traditions of the region showed close resemblance to the Mughal style. The influence of Deccan and Gujarat were also conspicuous in the paintings. In the late 17th century, influence of Basohli style became evident however it was lost out to the Guler painting tradition, which became dominant in the region. Dashavatara, attributed to the mid 18th century, executed by artist Mahesh was a significant work from this school. The illustration work based on the on the life of Krishna and the story of Usha and Annirudha from the Bhagavata Purana were other notable works of art.

Besides paintings, decoration on rumals (coverlets) usually bearing a design related to the life of Krishna were brilliantly executed by court artists before they were worked in fine silk by ladies of Zenana (Chamber of females).


Molu Ram was a noted artist from Garhwal. His earlier work reflected the influence of Mughul style while his later work can be interpreted as cruder version of Kangra traditions. Himself a poet, his pictures often carried his own verses and exact dates. One of the splendid works of this region was the work of art based on Shiva-Parvati.

Guler Kangra Style

In a span of one and a half centuries, around 1800, dramatic changes in the painting traditions led to the development of mature Guler- Kangra style. The decorative and stylized treatment of various motifs in flat, and cut out forms became more naturalistic in the new style. The difference was visible in the treatment of eyes and modeling of the face. This painting style introduced naturalistic landscapes.

The illustrated Gita Govinda, from this genre, showed landscapes, and used shading. Scholars noted that the shading device appeared all over the grassy plains of the several paintings of the series. However, this feature was absent in the earlier Pahari paintings.

The other significant development of this period was the emphasis on the graciousness and feminity of Indian women. The facial types of women were well modeled and shaded so judiciously that it provided porcelain like delicacy.


Painting in Guler began earnestly in the 18th century. The family of Pandit Seu was well noted for their fine body of work. Ramayana dated 1720 and a series of collection in Reitberg Museum were few of his classic work. His work laid the foundation of the Kangra style, which was evolved and refined, from the artists of his family subsequently.


The painting traditions of Jammu in the late 18th century and early 19th century showed close resemblance with the Kangra type. Recent research has indicated that Shangri Ramayana of the late 17th and early 18th centuries was produced in Jammu and not in Kangra as it was earlier believed to be.


Jasrota, located in Jammu and Kashmir, saw some noteworthy works of art executed by Nainsukh of Guler. Under Raja Balwant Singh (1724-63) , Nainsukh produced portraits, court scenes, events from the prince’s life as well as allegorical scenes.


In the second half of the 18th century, Kangra style characterized with the lyrical and refined qualities developed. Under Maharaja Sansar Chand, Kangra became the main center of Pahari Painting. Artists from the family of Pandit Seu produced finest works of art in this school. Bhagavata Purana, Gita Govinda, Nala Damayanti, Ragamala, and Satsai (Seven Hundred verses) were some of the notable works of art. Sansar Chand also commissioned many durbar scenes of himself and his nobles but these were in a stiffer and formal style.


A series of portraits of the Kulu rulers have been executed outside Kulu. Shangri Ramayana dated 1690 –1710 ascribed to Kulu, exhibited four distinct styles. However, new scholastic research indicates that this work was not produced in Kulu but at Jammu. The other notable works of art were a Bhagavata Purana and two Madhumalati manuscripts.


Mandi, a small kingdom south of Kulu saw the emergence of an individualized style under Raja Sidh Sen ( 1684-1727). Portraits patronized by him depicted the ruler as a gigantic figure with exaggerated enlarged heads, hands and feet. The same painting tradition continued in the reign of his successor Shamsher Sen (1721-81). It is interesting to note that both the rulers have been depicted as incarnations of Shiva in the paintings commissioned by them.

Mention must be made of Sajanu, an artist who produced splendid work characterized by geometric compositions and delicate naturalistic details.


Painting traditions at Mankot located in Jammu and Kashmir closely resembled to the Basholi type. Portraitures were common in the mid 17th century. The paintings in this region were characterized with the use of bright colors and boldly rendered subjects. Bhagavata Purana and Ramayana were few of the significant works of this region. In the later period the style showed greater naturalism and use of muted colors.


Nurpur, in Himachal Pradesh can be described as a stopover between Chamba and the Punjab plains. Chamba painters often stayed there, which resulted in cultural exchange between their counterparts at Nurpur. This is manifested in the certain common idioms used in the paintings of both regions. One of the earliest paintings was of the ruler and his brother at worship. This work carried a strong Mughal influence. The Nurpur style employed bright colors and mostly flat backgrounds. However in the later period the paintings used muted colors.

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