Garhwal School of Painting: Dev Bhumi, Veer Bhumi & Kala Bhumi

The home & provenance of Garhwali Paintings was Srinagar (Garhwal) & the author of authentic, dated & signed paintings was Mola Ram (1743—1833), who was born at Srinagar, painted at Srinagar

By Dr. Mohan Bhandari  Published on  13 Aug 2021 9:58 AM GMT
Garhwal School of Painting: Dev Bhumi, Veer Bhumi & Kala Bhumi

I quickly slipped out of Harrods & walked briskly towards Victoria & Albert (V & A) Museum- a ten minutes walk. All these years, I had been contemplating visiting the Indian Section of Art there. I had first heard of Mola Ram & his paintings when I first visited Srinagar (Garhwal) in 1968. I made my way in & there I was – inside the V & A's Indian Section, beautifully nurtured & kept by WG Archer. Archer played a great role by producing books on Pahari Paintings of 21 Himalayan States.

In his masterpiece 'INDIAN PAINTINGS FROM THE PUNJAB HILLS (TWO VOLUMES), Archer writes about Mukandi Lal -"Mukandi Lal, born 1884- himself a native of Srinagar, Garhwal, was educated at Oxford & became a Barrister-at-Law, London. A friend and neighbor of Balak Ram Shah in Srinagar, he was well placed to record family traditions and study the family's collection of pictures. Local patriotism & enthusiasm for what he believed to be a new & authentic style of Indian painting led him to contact Coomaraswamy while the latter was organizing the exhibition of fine Arts at Allahabad. Coomaraswamy met Balak Ram Shah, borrowed various pictures for the exhibition & also acquired from him (Balak Ram) pictures for his private collection….This discovery of a collection of pictures with a known Garhwal provenance, in the possession of an actual descendent of Garhwali painters & in distinctive style was of first-class importance".

The home & provenance of Garhwali Paintings was Srinagar (Garhwal) & the author of authentic, dated & signed paintings was Mola Ram (1743—1833), who was born at Srinagar, painted at Srinagar, even after the Raja of Garhwal was evicted by the Gurkhas in 1803 and during their occupation of Garhwal thereafter, right up till the time Gurkhas were evicted from Garhwal & until his death in 1833, Mola Ram remained at Srinagar. Balak Ram was descendent of Mola Ram.

Mola Ram learnt the art of painting from his father Mangat Ram who painted in Mughal style. After having pursued this style of painting, Mola Ram visited Kangra. It was here that he was influenced by the artists of Kangra & Guler. One of the contemporaries of Molak Ram was one Chaitu whose two paintings I saw in V & A Museum. Indira Gandhi wrote thus "Between the seventeenth & nineteenth centuries many painters of remarkable talent flourished in the Courts of Himalayan hills. They were masters of the miniature & fond of Krishna legends. They were also called upon to do portraits. Their work is marked by lyricism, sophistication & in the exquisite sense of color & line."

The Pahari paintings were first discovered by Moorcraft in 1820 in Kangra. Their unique beauty & style was brought to art lovers by Dr A Coomaraswamy. Mukandi Lal wrote his first article in 1909 on Garhwal School & ever since then, he has been instrumental with great devotion & dedication, in bringing out the beauty & importance of the Garhwal School of painting to the outside world.

The expanding impact of Rajput painting from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century was obvious in Pahari or Hill areas of Northern India (from Jammu to Garhwal). Often described as an improvement & culmination of Mughal art, the Garhwali School of painting emerged with decorative details. Though now extinct, the School had its characteristic style with masters of art like Mola Ram at his best. The freshness & lyricism, the line & color & sophistication were indeed the hallmarks of their School. Mola Ram was a master of miniature art & fond of Krishna Legends.

In the court of Raja Prithipat Shah (1640-1660) at Srinagar (Garhwal), Sham Das & his son Har Das, the ancestors of Mola Ram (1743-1833) came along with refugee prince Suleman Shikoh in 1658. Raja appointed both of them as court artists & also learnt Persian from them. During his visits to Kangra, Mola Ram was influenced by the Kangra artists. Surprisingly, Mola Ram's cousin Tulsi Ram –an artist-- displayed western influence in his paintings.

Even Jwala Ram son of Mola Ram - yet another artist had Kangra influence in his paintings. The Garhwali School flourished for almost 200 years.

Mola Ram had a proper studio at Srinagar that was visited by the Rajas & connoisseurs of art.

Mola Ram was a poet, prolific writer, historian, social scientist, philosopher, and artist par excellence. Gurkhas overpowered the area in 1803 & in the retreat of Rajas, Pradyuman Shah was killed by Gurkhas at Khurba.

The British government after driving Gurkhas out of the territory of Raja Praduman Shah in 1815 handed over the territory on the right bank of Alaknanda to Raja's son Sudarshan Shah( 1815-1859). The other half of the territory was kept by the British Government & came to be known as British Garhwal.

Suleiman Shikoh, son of Aurangzeb's son Dara came to Nagina from Allahabad in 1658. He came to Srinagar with his party that also comprised Sham Das & Har Das. A weak Raja Prithipat Shah under the threat of Aurangzeb had no choice but to make Suleman surrender to Aurangzeb. Sham Das & Har Das were retained & the Garhwal School survived.

While the Garhwal School of Painting flourished for almost two hundred years, it is an irony of fate that the School disappeared owing to the absence of patronage. While the Rajas of Garhwal continued to pay a daily allowance besides a jagir of sixty villages to Mola Ram & his ancestors, the British government canceled the jagir in 1815. The daily allowance was also canceled. The School also declined because of the fact that the artists did not want to pass the secrets of art even to their decedents. Sad enough was the fact that some of Mola Ram's decedents became insane. Thus, the insanity factor synonymous with painting became a deterrent to the descendants.

Garhwal School excels over other Pahari Schools in many ways. The women stand out more charming & slender. There are greater details of description in their ornaments & jewelry. The Nayikas (heroines) are a specialty of Mola Ram. He, after painting them composed verses & wrote these on top of his paintings. The 'poet' angle was at its best here. His miniatures with descriptions of Gods & Goddesses on top were typical of the influence of Dev Bhumi Garhwal. He painted on mythological subjects & themes in form of Avatars, Radha- Krishna Lore, Rukmani Mangal, Birds & Flowering Trees & even in portrait making, Mola Ram was superb.

Mukandi Lal, who went all the way to Peshawar to fight the case of Veer Chandra Singh Garhwali, was an authority on Pahari paintings. His efforts in making Garhwal as 'Kala Bhumi' by remarkable editing of the album on Garhwal School will be long remembered as a pioneer work.

I suddenly realized that I had spent almost three hours in V & A. To my good luck, I found my people just coming out of the Harrods & I offered them a helping hand in carrying their bags to the taxi nearby.

(Genealogy: Sham Das-Har Das-Hira Lal-Mangat Ram- Mola Ram-Jwala Ram- Tej Ram-Balak Ram-Baijnath- Dwarka Prasad)

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