We have yet to fully discover the unique greatness of India in the late 18th century. It was an age that was at once great and vile – the famed Delhi Durbar had lost much of its authority and become a hotbed of political intrigue and fratricidal murders. Its longest-reigning sovereign, Muhammad Shah, who was also known as Rangiley (the dandy), was an imperious and self-indulgent figure, presiding over the decline of the great Mughal empire. In portraits by court painters, he appears dressed in silks embellished with pearls and precious stones, spending his days smoking his hookah, watching partridge and elephant fights, or listening to music as nautch girls dance.

But Shah, who wrote thumris and khayals under the name of “Rangiley Piya”, was also a secular and discerning patron of the arts. His court boasted of Hindu and Muslim scholars, theologians, mystics, celebrated painters – such as Nidha Mal, Fakirullah and Chitarman – and of course, great innovators and composers of Khayal Ang Gayaki, like Nemat Khan ‘Sadarang’, who was a friend of the famed Braj Bhasha poet, Ghananand.

It is not so much the prolific and boundless energy of the art world of the late 18th century that makes it so attractive to us three centuries later, but its great penchant for stylistic innovation and hybridisation of art forms: musical ragas and raginis being depicted in human forms, classical ragas being set to verses by contemporary poets depicting erotic love and mischievous goings-on between kings and their women and also playful gods and their female devotees.

The Prachetasas pay homage to Sadashiva: singing of the rudra-gita. Image credit: Museum of Fine Arts/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

A cultural shift

Culture, however, requires more than production and consumption of ideas. Artistic activities also need money, advanced training, special working conditions and a relaxed and sophisticated audience. All these were fast running out even though Shah Rangiley tried his best to provide the great creative minds of the period a safe and liberal haven where sectarian boundaries would remain meaningless. Before long, many musicians, poets and painters of the Mughal court began to look for other patrons who might not have been as sophisticated and discerning, but would protect them, their families and apprentices.

As the courtly art forms perfected in Delhi and Lucknow moved away from the major courts, dialects of the north such as Braj, Awadhi, Bundeli and regional myths and lore entered them, producing vigorous art forms that combined realism with fancy, romance with nostalgia and laced devotion to the Lord with eroticism. The post-1757 moral-political antagonism of India is mirrored in the Bhasha love poetry of Hindu and Muslim poets – like Syed Ghulam Ali ‘Rasleen’, Padmakar, Bhikharidas, Ghananand, Alam and his mistress, Sheikh Rangrejin – the further growth and popularisation of the highly innovative style of Khayal Gayaki of Nemat Khan ‘Sadarang’ and Adarang, and last but not the least, that magnificent cornucopia of what has since come to be known in the artistic circles as the Pahadi Kalam.

Prithu pursues the earth-cow. Image credit: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

In Manaku of Guler – The Life and Work of Another Great Indian Painter from a Small Hill State, his recent book on the great exponent of the Pahadi Kalam, art historian and critic Dr BN Goswami writes about how important it is for the modern eye to access a reasoned and uncluttered account of artists from that age. A genealogy of Rajas of Guler gleaned from Dilipa Ranjani – a chronicle of events in the reign of Dilip Singh (1695-1741) – introduces one to this talented family. The father of Manaku, Pandit Seu, was among the migrant artists who had imbibed in Delhi Durbar what was the best in Mughal and Rajput traditions, but was driven to a safe haven elsewhere. A Kashmiri Brahmin, he ultimately chose to set up base in the isolated but cool and pleasant Riyasat of Guler in Himachal, which was located by the river Ban Ganga. The ruler of Guler, Dilip Singh, who gave shelter to the artist was followed by Govardhan Chand, who was also a discerning patron of arts.

Carrying on a legacy

Of Pandit Seu’s sons, Manaku and Nainsukh stayed on after the passing away of their father. Nainsukh later moved out and settled in Jammu but the reclusive Manaku is believed to have stayed on. Under the Krishna-worshipping Vaishnava ruler Sansar Chand Katoch (1765-1823), he created an incredible series of illustrations based on the Siege of Lanka (which had been left unfinished by his father), the Bhagwat Purana, and the immortal 12th century Sanskrit poems of Geet Govind by the poet Jaidev of Bengal. The khakas, or sketches, left by his father, Pandit Seu, who is believed to have created an amazing series on Ramayana, may also have come in handy for reference. Almost 500 paintings from the series are accessible and their reproduction makes Dr BN Goswami’s seminal work on Manaku, a pleasure to trawl.

The dismemberment of the demon Kalanemi. Image credit: San Diego Museum of Art/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

The insurgent outburst of love in Bhakti poetry of the medieval ages in India centres on Krishna as an icon of both divine and erotic love. As Sant Paltu Das says, there is no greater yoga than love, and there is no greater source of knowledge than love. Various Vaishnava myths and poetic fantasies, notions such as milan (meeting) and viraha (separation) and the dialectics of human love, may have provided Manaku (and his apprentice sons) with the main outlines of a painterly universe in which gods and demons, lovers and bloodthirsty warriors, all milled around.

The same lively, colorful and witty world is reflected in the Riti literature of the times. Like Manaku, all of the great painters and poets of the age do not bring order into chaos, displacement, love and ultimate loss. They help us put in order our understanding and ideas about them. As Ghanand, the poet friend of the great musician Sadarang who later retreated to Vrindavan said, “Ujarin basey hai hamaari ankhiyan dekho.” Watch the wasteland reflected in my eyes.