Bani Thani of Kishangarh
In the 18th century the art of miniature painting had become quite popular in the Rajput states. Ateliers were maintained not only at the courts of the Rajput rulers, but artists were also in the employ of the chieftains of the numerous thikanas (fudal estates) who comprised the baronial aristocracy of Rajasthan.
Apart from local flavor, the style was essentially similar to that in the other parts of Rajasthan during the late 1600s, the themes predominantly revolved around the ras-lilas of Krishna and Radha which makes the majority of the volume of Kishangarh school.
Between 1715 and 1735, the scene was dominated by an artist named Bhavanidas whose work appears to be more concerned with portrait studies, like the splendid portrait of Raja Sahasmal. Bhavanidas trained in the Mughal school, and was in the employ of Maharaja Raj Singh. In all probability he imparted his skills acquired at Delhi to the younger local artists of Kishangarh because we find in their paintings the distinct influence of the Farrukhsiyar period.
However, the glory of the Kishangarh school in linked to the years between 1735 and 1748, when there was a flurry of artistic movement inspired by the romantic and devotional patronage of the poet prince Savant Singh. Works of outstanding beauty were created by his master artist Nihal Chand and the atelier that grew around him, which speak of a new artistic endeavour.
As Savant Singh supported the cause of Farrukhsiyar, he spent a considerable amount of his youth in the Mughal court where he acquired a taste for Mughal fashions and the style of painting in the Mughal courts during that time. By his early 20s, Savant Singh, a devotee of Krishna, had started writing poems of great merit in Braja Bhasha under the name of Nagari Das.
At some point in his late 30s, he became enamoured of a beautiful gayana (singer) in the employ of his step-mother. She was known as Bani Thani (The lady of Fashion). Their mutual devotion to each other was proverbial and Savant Singh immortalized her in his poems and in the paintings of his court. Her beauty was so revered at the time that she became the face and form idealized into the highly stylized Radha of the Kishangarh School of paintings since then. The combination of the narrow elongated face, he pointed chin, the sharp thrusting nose, the curved eyes, and the arched eyebrows are quite distinct from any other female facial type in Rajasthani paintings. Savant Singh likened his love for Bani Thani to the romance of Krishna and Radha and he commissioned Nihal Chand to interpret his poetry and create a world of divine lovers where Savant Singh was Krishna and Bani Thani was Radha. Krishna’s face in the Kishangarh paintings, particularly those in the Savant Singh period, resembles that of Radha in its contours, suggesting that the artist intended Krisha to be mirrored, even if only by suggestion, not just to Radha but to the countenance and princely attire of Savant Singh himself.
Savant Singh was never effectively the ruler of Kishangarh as the state was torn by strife on the death of his father in 1748 after which he retired to Brindaban, his spiritual home. He only returned to the state briefly in 1757 to appoint his son Sardar Singh as the regent, after which he returned to Brindaban for the remaining years of his life. When he left Kishangarh in 1748, his lawful wife did not accompany him to Brindaban but Bani Thani always remained by his side through the difficult times. Savant Singh dies in 1764, and Bani Thani followed him a year later.
The foundation of the style laid down by Savant Singh continued right up to 1770. A considerable body of elegant work was produced during this time, but the excusiteness and the subtle emotional and lyrical quality of the paintings during the Savant Singh period are missing in the later paintings.
*Photograph Source: Lalit Kala Academy