Canvas of History
Through times immemorial, man has sought relief and meaning in art, and India has led the way with some of the most fascinating forms discovered through the centuries. Paintings with text sketches, multiple aesthetics and anecdotal accounts suggest t...
Through times immemorial, man has sought relief and meaning in art, and India has led the way with some of the most fascinating forms discovered through the centuries. Paintings with text sketches, multiple aesthetics and anecdotal accounts suggest that it was not uncommon for households to adorn their doorways or facades or even interior rooms with a rich display of culture. Cave paintings from Ajanta, Bagh and temple paintings attest a love for nature and human compassion. Painting was also a medium of expressing visual fantasies. Birds and flowers, trees and creepers are often depicted graciously by Indian sculptors and painters alike.
Gujarat is known for its rich heritage of arts and crafts, but few know of its penchant for paintings. Wall paintings are a form of representative art that traces its origin to the 17th century and are vibrant portrayals of the ethos and life of the land. They represent various mythical chapters from folklore, daily tasks, and mirror fantastical adaptations of flora and fauna. However, one discovers at Patan, in the dome of Raghunath Temple, paintings based on astrology and diseases causing death, a rare depiction.
Major districts where wall paintings are located include Kutch, Bhavnagar, Jamnagar, Banaskantha, Kheda, Vadodara and Bharuch. Despite the period of upheaval in the late 18th century through the late 19th century, the making of wall paintings thrived due to the encouragement of rulers of various former states and small principalities in Gujarat. These wall paintings reflect the social and cultural activities of the different periods in which they were painted.
Aristocrats and masses followed the custom. In Kheda district, a boost by patrons of the Swaminarayan sect gave inspiration to these activities. Many temples and mansions built during this period were enhanced with wall paintings founded on parables and legends from Vishnu Purana and Shiva Purana (both mythological Hindu texts, part of 18 Mahapuranas) and from Krishna folklore. Royal processions, durbar (king’s court) scenes, hunts, romantic escapades and flowers of a purely ornamental nature found place on the walls. These paintings were majorly influenced by Maru-Gurjar and Marathas as well as European influx in the region. Eventually, modern subjects like railways, steamships and bicycles, games like cricket and horse racing started to appear on walls. Beautifying wood ceilings of houses with nymphs and other celestial figures was a clear Western influence. It was largely believed that the act of art on walls would attract prosperity and divine blessings.
In the erstwhile Saurashtra region, in the later part of the medieval period, these paintings were carried out by salats (masons) who knew how to draw with a focus on folk art. With trained artisans, other communities like mochis (cobblers), malis (gardeners) as well as kachhiyas (greengrocers) started paintings walls of houses in villages in Kheda district. They painted animals, birds, flowers and creepers.
While characters of men in the art wore contemporary attires such as dhoti, angarkhu (coat/ shirt) and pagdi (turban), the women were dressed in saree-choli and long skirts. The prevailing custom among men to grow moustaches was applied to gods like Rama and Krishna. The body structure was shown as short and stout.
In later 18th century, the Marathas ruled Gujarat. A chapter of financial revival followed in the district which prompted craftsmen and artists, who had formerly deserted, to return to the region.
Peace prevailed and prosperity returned due to safety and security for the merchants; it enabled them to dwell in mansions decorated with wood carvings and wall paintings. Many temples were built by rulers and merchants during this period, their walls embellished with paintings.
This art flourished well into the 19th century, continuing up to the first quarter of the 20th century. Nonetheless, due to migration of the benefactors of this art to more economically developed cities across the subcontinent and even to foreign shores in the later part of the 19th century, the tradition saw a decline. This is also attributed to the socio-economic changes of the region as well as arrival of other mediums of expression and decoration.
The paintings not only make the structure pretty but serve a historical purpose by throwing light on the society through outfits, ornamentation, musical instruments, arms and armoury and a host of other details depicted through them. Thus, they occupy a vital place in the history of Gujarat.