A Book that Exudes Rasa and Bhakti
The first Orchha painters were most probably descendants of the court artists of Gwalior
During his posting in New Delhi, German diplomat Konrad Seitz and his wife Eva spent their spare time studying Indian art. Over a period of 50 years the couple piled up a collection of 240 miniature paintings from the Bundelkhand royal courts of Orchha, Datia and Panna alone.
Seitz first came to India in 1968, and later he returned as ambassador between 1987 and 1990. Eventually the Seitzs donated their precious Bundelkhand collection to Zurich's Rietberg Museum where it remains the largest collection of this style of painting in the western world.
This saga of the German couple's love for Indian art is immortalised between the pages of a lavishly illustrated book. The book exudes as much rasa and bhakti as the devotion of the maidens of Vrindavan for their beloved Krishna.
In Origins of Orchha Painting, the former German ambassador to India writes: "It was a case of fascination at first sight. In the midday heat of May 1968, I had landed at Palam Airport in order to take up my first diplomatic post at the German Embassy in New Delhi. A friend and colleague had picked me up from the airport and brought me to the Ashoka Hotel. Then we had dined at his house and I had tasted mangoes for the first time in my life-and now I found myself standing in the little bookshop of the hotel.
"Browsing, I discovered a small brochure with pictures of 'Malwa' paintings … set against bold colours of fields of bright red, deep blue and brilliant yellow, a blue skinned Rama and a light Lakshmana stood before the dying crane Jatayu or a beautiful lady Vilavali Ragini was adorning herself in front of a moon-like mirror held up by a maid. These were naïve images that transported me back to the wondrous world of fairy tale book illustrations, but they were also images of an unbelievable modernity that reminded me of Gaugin and Matisse or of the American abstract colour field painters."
The couple continues to be in love with the strong colours and clear geometrical forms found in the paintings from Bundelkhand. They remain mesmerised by the patterns ranging from graceful to luxurious. As they got to know more about this style of painting they discovered that the so called Malwa Miniatures actually originated in the courts of Bundelkhand and dated a generation or so earlier. More research by the art lovers revealed a stunning school of painting that had produced masterpieces continuously for nearly 300 years.
Seitz first published his life's work on miniatures in 2015 in German, as a two volume book. He says that the miniatures of the Bundela courts of Orchha that he has studied are part of the religious revolution of the 16th Century. At this time the ritualistic and elitist Vaishnavism was superseded by the more emotional and popular devotion to Krishna and Rama through bhakti.
It was the absoluteness as well as the ecstatic passion of her love for Krishna that in the bhakti revolution of the 16th Century made Radha the perfect model for the devotees or bhakta, whether poet or painter. Poets poured forth their feelings of Radha-Krishna bhakti in soul stirring verses.
Naturally the miniaturists of the time did not remain immune to emotions evoked by the idea of deep devotion to the creator of the world and influenced their art.
Seitz's research revealed that the Orchha paintings date back to pre-Mughal and early Rajput times, from a school of painting that flourished at the Tomar court of Gwalior between 1460 till the downfall of the Hindu kingdom in 1518. The first Orchha painters were most probably descendants of the court artists of Gwalior who had elevated the Jain and Hindu paintings to a courtly style.
After Gwalior's conquest by Sultan Ibrahim Lodi in 1518 the erstwhile Tomar court artists were forced to return to 'bourgeois' paintings to please landowners and merchants. Three generations later, at the close of the 16th century their descendants found employment at the newly established court of Orchha. That is when the Orchha school which is the earliest Rajput school of painting in the Mughal era came into being.
Seitz attributes the so-called 'Malwa' paintings as an important part of the Rajput style that flourished in the three Bundelkhand kingdoms of Orchha, Datia and Panna. However the history of the Bundelkhand series of miniatures does not begin with the 1605 raagmala text of Mewar but with the first Orchha rasikapriya from 1592. The paintings reveal the Orchha school not only as the earliest Rajput school but as the only one that in its initial period had preserved the indigenous Indian style untainted by the naturalism of Mughal painting.
The subject of the Bundelkhand artists focused largely on the sacred themes of Indian art. The miniaturists were inspired by scriptures and passages of love poetry in the regional language. Their work blended the Hindu ideal of devotion or bhakti with rasa or aesthetic sensibility.
Four series of images produced in the late 16th century mark the start of the story of painting in Bundelkhand. Artists had initially proved receptive to the early influences of Mughal art. However political disputes with the Mughal ruler Shah Jahan prompted a return to the initial indigenous style.
Once Orchha fell, art branched into two contrasting styles. One returned for inspiration to early indigenous painting and evolved an ornamental style in Orchha. The political elite of Orchha had found exile in Datia where the influence of Mughal painting intensified, and paintings portrayed scenes from Sanskrit poetry. What is unique about this style is the abstract background and Mughal-like figures.
The study points to these two traditions of Indian book painting. There is the indigenous Indian miniature style, and the school of Mughal miniatures. The indigenous miniatures are subdivided into Jain and Rajput paintings made for the rajas of Rajasthan and the Pahari region. Art historians had previously concluded that 'Malwa' paintings were made for Hindu landlords and merchants in the Mughal province of Malwa.
However the fundamental difference between the two traditions was that indigenous painting was religious in character and symbolic in style. The subject is mainly sacred stories presented not as a dated historical event but as a timeless symbol in two dimensions, and in primary colours. In contrast the Mughal painting is secular and intent upon the present moment, the artist illustrating biographies in praise of the rulers.
This, and similar information is to be found in the study published by Seitz. Now the first volume of the study is available in English. The 250 page book in hardcover is splashed with numerous paintings from the Orchha school along with texts that enlighten the reader about the cultural, political and social history of the region including that of Datia and Panna. A must read for all lovers of miniature art.
Title: Origins of Orchha Painting
Author: Konrad Seitz
Publisher: Niyogi Books