Paintings of Udaipur between Mughal and British Rule

South Asian Studies_Dipti Khera

A review of Picturing India’s “Land of Kings” Between the Mughal and British Empires: Topographical Imaginings of Udaipur and its Environs, by Dipti Khera.

Dipti Khera’s doctoral dissertation, Picturing India’s “Land of Kings” Between the Mughal and British Empires: Topographical Imaginings of Udaipur and its Environs, is a valuable addition to existing scholarship. In her exploration of the ways in which Udaipur and its environs were depicted in painting between the decentralization of Mughal rule in 1707 and the British Empire’s assertion of more direct control over Udaipur with the establishment of the Rajputana Agency in 1832, Khera urges us to consider the agency of individual artists and the ways in which their paintings functioned in terms of place-making and crafting historical memories in an ever-changing political climate.

In the eighteenth century, Udaipur court artists began to produce, alongside the traditional smaller genealogical and poetic paintings, large-scale paintings of rulers partaking in pleasurable activities in their palaces and gardens, going on processions, participating in festivals, and watching animal fights or musical performances. Khera explains that these paintings that situate royal portraits within architectural and urban settings have often been referred to as tamasha, or “spectacle” paintings by scholars, and have been interpreted as little more than documentation of the hedonistic excesses of the featured ruler. This interpretation was no doubt inspired by the manner in which James Tod, British colonial agent to the Udaipur court, portrayed the rulers of Udaipur in his seminal 1829 tome, Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan, in which he, after lauding the rulers as exemplary Hindu kings and superior to other Rajput houses, cited them for excessive hedonism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Khera argues that, rather than as depictions of “spectacle,” these paintings must be explored in terms of: (1) how “visions of kingship” are related to specific places and times; (2) the agency of the artists in the act of place-making; (3) how these paintings serve as maps and visual records of cities and architecture that predate those created by British colonial agents; and (4) the ways in which Udaipur painters employed both visual and literary means to not only praise patrons and places, but also to picture the bhava (feeling or emotion) of a place.

The dissertation consists of 367 pages of text followed by 180 illustrations. The text is divided into six chapters, including the introduction (Chapter 1) and the epilogue (Chapter 6).  In Chapters 2-5, Khera examines the above issues via four case studies focusing on the painting Ambient Feeling of the Kota Palaces, c. 1700 (Chapter 2); mid-eighteenth-century large-scale paintings of the ruler at Jagnivas Lake Palace (Chapter 3); the artist Ghasi, an Udaipur court painter who also worked for James Tod in the early nineteenth century (Chapter 4); and paintings of Udaipur in a Jain vijnaptipatra, or painted invitation letter, dated to 1830 (Chapter 5). The copious illustrations are primarily of the paintings under discussion. It is especially helpful that numerous detail views are included, helping the reader to see exactly what is being described in the text.

In Chapter 1, “Introduction,” Khera introduces the focus of her research and provides background contextual information in which to situate her work. She explains that large-scale Udaipur court paintings have been criticized by scholars because the artists did not employ proper perspective or illusionism in renderings of architecture and space, leading some to erroneously conclude that the painters were simply incapable of depicting space accurately. Khera, drawing on the work of Molly Aitken (The Intelligence of Tradition in Rajput Court Painting. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), argues that Udaipur artists intentionally chose to disregard such illusionism, preferring to combine chorography, landscape, geography, and cartography to create the bhava of the place being depicted. She also discusses how the Udaipur court paintings are related to mapping practices. Next, she summarizes the relationships among the Udaipur court and the Mughal and British Empires and the importance of local Udaipur thakurs (landholders) to the Udaipur ruler. Although the patronage of art and literature in the previous (seventeenth) century was often related to lineage and dynastic history, in the eighteenth century, Udaipur rulers were more focused on their present courtly community, one in which the ruler and the thakurs “collectively partook in pleasures and admired the beauty of [Udaipur’s] lake environs and architecture” (p. 23). Khera proclaims that, in their respective works, “[p]oets and painters imagine the king and his thakurs bonding in peculiarly affective ways that inextricably aligns the practices of pleasure with assertions of power” (p. 30). She also addresses the numerous connections among various Rajput courts, the British Empire, and locals as related to the circulation of people, goods, and ideas.

In Chapter 2, “Ambience of Courtly Environs: Adapting Settings, Contexts, and Portraits,” via a case study of an Udaipur painting referred to as Ambient Feeling of the Kota Palaces based on an inscription on the reverse, c. 1700, Khera contends that Udaipur artists placed a great deal of importance on picturing the bhava of place, noting that the inscription indicates that this was specifically intended to be a painting of place rather than of the ruler. “That this painting could be one of the early examples in which an Udaipur artist experimented with expanding the size of paintings; that it depicts the architectural and urban environs of a palace; that it adapts the Mughal styles of a painting made at the Kota court painting workshop in incisive ways; and that the picture presents an instance when the scribe asserts one possible framework of reception make this work quadruply remarkable, and compel that it be read as a description of the bhava of the Kota palaces” (pp. 43-44). Khera explains that the unnamed artist of this painting likely had seen an earlier painting of the palaces painted at Kota because, although the Ambient Feeling artist depicted the palaces from multiple vantage points rather than from a single one as seen in the earlier Kota painting, several motifs from the Kota painting were incorporated into Ambient Feeling. The borrowed vignettes, however, were rendered in a “deliberate Udaipur palette and style” (p. 89). She proposes that Ambient Feeling “is a response painting . . . [and] its pictorial adaptations and translations offer us a much-needed window onto some of the intellectual thinking on imagining space and depicting place, perspective and realism, and mimesis and portraiture . . . [and this] . . . mediation between paintings constitutes an act of agency on the part of the Udaipur artist” (p. 46).

Through careful visual analysis of the two paintings, Khera demonstrates that the Udaipur artist made specific and intentional choices, some of which, she argues, were intended to make the viewer consider the bhava of the painting. For example, the rendering of the palaces from multiple viewpoints, she asserts, “urges us to deliberate the affect the artist achieves by means of such parataxis that demand a viewer to make cognitive leaps by parsing out planar and isometric views” (p. 88), and with regard to an image of the Hindu god Krishna added to one of the courtyards, she suggests maybe the artist was “picturing his subjective interpretation of how this temple courtyard was used, based on an act of imagination or his vivid recollection, or possibly a combination of the two” (p. 94). Similarly, Khera postulates that paintings such as Ambient Feeling of the Kota Palaces were dependent on viewers drawing on their own memories and feelings associated with particular places pictured.

This chapter also discusses artists’ new interest in using the city palace elevation as a background; the widespread circulation of images among various Rajput courts and the British empire; the changing nature of royal portraiture as artists began to pay greater attention to the architectural settings in which the rulers were portrayed; what these innovative modes of depiction might indicate about the artists who created them; and how artists chose to approach picturing of place in terms of description, representation, cartography, and feeling.

In Chapter 3, “Praising Patrons/Portraying Places: Worlds of Pleasure and Power in Mid-Eighteenth-Century Udaipur Court,” Khera explores a group of five mid-eighteenth-century paintings that portray Udaipur ruler Jagat Singh II at the Jagnivas Lake Palace engaged in various pleasurable activities. Although these paintings traditionally have been seen as little more than depictions of hedonism and political decline, particularly in British colonial narratives, Khera argues that these paintings played an imperative role in solidifying the bond between the ruler and the courtly community and asserting royal power. Khera arrives at this hypothesis by considering the paintings in relation to the previously unpublished Jagvilas, a 405-verse panegyric about the inauguration of the lake palace, written by the poet Nandram shortly after the Jagnivas was built. The Jagvilas describes the building of the lake palace, the extravagant procession to the lake, and the emotions of the onlookers, combining praise for the ruler with praise for the city. Festivities, food, music, and other pleasures indulged in at Jagnivas are described in detail and, combined with the setting itself, compared to sacred religious spaces and abodes of Hindu gods. Notably, over two hundred of the verses of the Jagvilas focus on the thakurs in attendance, identifying them individually by region, specific character traits and clan hierarchy. The ceremonial gifts the ruler bestowed on them at the inauguration are described and, perhaps most importantly, the panegyric notes that the pleasures had at Jagnivas were shared between the ruler and the thakurs.

Khera explains, citing the scholarship of Allison Busch (Poetry of Kings. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), that court literature often evoked the bhava of a place rather than conjuring an accurate visual representation, and Khera suggests that the artists of the Jagnivas paintings did the same. Rather than creating a realistic depiction of the lake palace, the artists chose to focus on expressing the bhava of the place. The combination of planar views, elevations, and oblique projections employed make the lake palace appear, Khera says, as a singular, intimate space presided over by the ruler. Just as the beauty and abundance at Jagnivas are compared to sacred religious spaces in the Jagvilas, painters included in their paintings of Jagnivas “vignettes of trees from the idealized landscapes seen in devotional manuscripts depicting the delights of [the Hindu god] Krishna and [his consort] Radha” (p. 158); and, significantly, the detailed renderings of the ruler engaging in pleasurable activities with the thakurs visually express the bond between ruler and courtly community, forged of collective enjoyment and appreciation. These shared pleasures, Khera asserts, result in “the king and his thakurs bonding in peculiarly affective ways that inextricably aligns the practices of pleasure with assertions of power” (p. 30).

This chapter also includes a discussion of the high-ranking thakur Sirdar Singh, who oversaw the building of the lake palace and consistently appears in paintings at the ruler’s side. Khera suggests that Sirdar Singh’s own palace may have played a role in the design of Jagnivas, and notes that paintings of the Udaipur environs, which typically show only structures of utmost importance, include Sirdar Singh’s palace, illustrating his importance. Additionally, Khera hypothesizes that three of the five Jagnivas paintings may have been completed prior to the actual building of Jagnivas, and possibly were intended as explorations in the depiction of palatial architecture in painting.

Chapter 4, “Between Idioms of Praise and Decline: Interpreting Ghasi’s Artistic Practice and Travels,” focuses on Ghasi, a court artist who was employed by British agent James Tod to accompany him on tours throughout Rajasthan and to create line drawings of temple elevations and intricate sculptural details to accompany Tod’s writing. Ghasi has often been characterized as an unremarkable if not unskilled artist, but Khera asserts that this portrayal is nothing more than a corollary to Tod’s narrative of Udaipur’s decline. Khera posits that when Ghasi completed his work with Tod and returned to paint at the Udaipur court under ruler Jawan Singh, he made deliberate artistic choices, creating the bhava of place that combined the types of images he made for Tod with established Udaipur painting idioms. She demonstrates this via analyses of four paintings attributed to Ghasi and dating to c. 1834-1835: one showing the British Governor General receiving the Udaipur ruler at an Ajmer durbar (ceremonial reception); two depicting the ruler visiting Hindu temples while on pilgrimage to sacred sites; and one illustrating the ruler enjoying a Hindu devotional recitation in the Amar Vilas garden in the Udaipur City Palace.

Extant court documents regarding the durbar indicate that Jawan Singh was concerned about how he would appear at the meeting, both in relation to the British Governor General and his own courtiers. Perhaps in response, in his painting of the event Ghasi placed Jawan Singh and the Governor General on a throne-like bench facing one another, and, though they are of similar stature, Ghasi adorned Jawan Singh with a green halo, denoting his status and authority to regional audiences despite growing British paramountcy. Khera suggests that the other three paintings of the ruler in devotional spaces and those like them provided the opportunity for Jawan Singh to assert his authority “by drawing upon a lexicon of religious-pilgrimage networks instead of political ones” (p. 263): “In his picturing Ghasi forcefully employs the bhava of devotional place-worlds to literally and metaphorically enlarge and praise Jawan Singh’s kingship and his sphere of authority” (p. 265). It is also notable that Khera argues that the illustrations that Ghasi created for Tod were based in earlier Udaipur court painting, thus disproving the prevalent notion that Ghasi learned this type of architectural rendering from Tod or his British assistants. The analysis of Ghasi’s work is couched in a broader discussion of Tod’s methods of place-making and mapping; the agency of so-called “native” artists and assistants; and the increasing control the British exercised over Udaipur with the formation of the Rajputana Agency in 1832.

Chapter 5, “Praising Places/Portraying Territories: Udaipur in Jain Painted Invitation Letters,” centers around a case study of a 72-foot-long vijnaptipatra, or painted invitation letter, sent from the Udaipur ruler and 25 local merchants to a Jain monk in 1830, inviting him to spend the next monsoon season in Udaipur. The monk’s presence would, it was believed, bring blessings and prosperity to the city. To contextualize her study of the 1830 Udaipur vijnaptipatra, Khera first provides an abridged history of such written invitations produced since the fourteenth century in other South Asian cities, and a detailed examination of one from Agra, dated 1610, which Khera believes marks the beginning of the specific genre of vijnaptipatra to which the 1830 Udaipur one belongs. Presumably this is because it is the first one to reference specific historic events and to present the city as one populated by people of diverse ethnicities, religions, and professions; also, the scribe, within the text of the letter, elaborated on the agency and importance of the artist, and commended him on his faithful depictions of bhava.

Returning to the 1830 Udaipur vijnaptipatra, the written segment of the invitation praising the city and lauding the recipient is followed by highly detailed renderings of important spaces and places within the city, including palaces, Hindu and Jain temples, Islamic mosques and saints’ shrines, mercantile areas, and a procession of the ruler Jawan Singh with the British agent assigned to Udaipur. All are identified by labels that appear to have been added by the artist, suggesting to Khera that we view such paintings as “an epistemic genre that contains and expresses the artist’s cartographic vision” (p. 313). These paintings include vignettes borrowed and adapted from court painting. For example, though the palaces are portrayed with the combination of plan and elevation views preferred by Udaipur artists, they do not replicate those rendered in large court paintings. Khera suggests this was due to the artist having to adapt primarily horizontal images to the vertical format of the scroll. It is significant, too, that the merchants pictured in their shops are highly detailed so that individual trades, facial features, and ethnicities can be discerned. This, paired with the all of the diverse religious monuments shown, conveys the vision that Udaipur is a diverse and thriving city the monk would enjoy visiting. Khera points out that the unusual placement of the royal procession taking place in the mercantile area, “has generated a dramatic juxtaposition of courtly space and city space” (p. 316). It is also noteworthy that pictured across the street from each other are the British residency and the imagined assembly area of the Jain monk, should he accept the invitation; depicted as equal in scale and importance, Khera asserts that this shows “colonial and religious powers are equal and competing domains of authority in the city” (p. 363).

After analyzing the text and paintings on the 1830 Udaipur scroll and showing that artists used “citation, adaptation, and expansion of pictorial tropes across the domains of court painting and the genre of Jain painted invitation letters” (p. 282), Khera studies the contents of the written part of the scroll, suggesting that the underlying anxiety regarding whether the invitation would be accepted was related to the depressed economy of the city and ongoing diplomatic negotiations between Udaipur and the British. Next, Khera imagines how the circulating scroll might have been received and interpreted by various non-courtly audiences who may have viewed it, suggesting that in doing so it is useful to examine ghazals, or poems, devoted to praising cities. After discussing the Indo-Persian origins of the ghazal form and the history of ghazals that extol cities, she turns specifically to the Udaipur ri Gajal written in praise of Udaipur by an itinerant Jain monk named Khetal, c. 1718. Khera highlights numerous similarities among how the city and its buildings, spaces, and people are described in the ghazal and how they are shown in the vijnaptipatra paintings: for example, the ghazal describes the city as if one is walking through it, similar to how one would feel viewing the vijnaptipatra as it is being unrolled; the ghazal, too, describes the bazaar in great detail and mentions a royal procession. Artist and poet alike imagined the city “by combining a variety of circulating aesthetic tropes with knowledge of everyday spaces and common experiences of the city” (p. 352); both “claimed the space of the affective to craft the memories, image, and territory of a place” and utilized “tropes of praise in conjuring a world that has largely been seen as one in decline” (p. 283). Khera also discusses the 1830 Udaipur vijnaptipatra in terms of how the paintings could evoke affective experiences in viewers based on their own knowledge and experience of the city. Ultimately, she asserts that the painter of the scroll “employed praise to subvert political and economic realities. Having pictorially praised Udaipur’s thriving urbanity . . . he paints into reality the fact that the city’s suburban frontiers are not dominated solely by the British” (p. 362). This is followed by Chapter, 6, “Epilogue: An Art History of Praise and Place,” a four-page summary and conclusion.

One of the great strengths of Khera’s dissertation is that she considers the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century paintings of the Udaipur palaces and environs and the artists who created them alongside contemporaneous literary works and in relation to the greater political, economic, social, and cultural contexts in which they operated. The painters did not exist in a vacuum, nor were they unskilled artists who blindly adhered to tradition. As Khera has convincingly shown, these painters were exposed to a variety of diverse pictorial and literary sources from which they selectively borrowed, modified, and combined in novel ways to create the bhava of place and, simultaneously, to praise the Udaipur ruler. Though this time period is frequently referred to as one of decline, in terms of art (and architecture and literature as well) it was an era of great creativity and innovation.

Jennifer Joffee, Ph.D.
Art History Faculty
Inver Hills Community College
jjoffee@inverhills.edu

Primary Sources

Ambient Feeling of Kota Palaces (painting), c. 1700, Udaipur, artist unknown (National Gallery of Victoria, acc. no. AS68-1980)
Maharana Jagat Singh II at the Jagniwas Lake Palace (painting), 1751, Udaipur, artists Sukha and Syaji (Ashmolean Museum, Howard Hodgkin Collection, acc. no. LI118.24)
Jagvilas (panegyric poem), c. 1746, Udaipur, poet Nandram, from 1821 manuscript copy (Rajasthan Oriental Research Institute, Udaipur, acc. no. 2216)
Jawan Singh Visiting a Temple (painting), c. 1834-35, Udaipur, attributed to artist Ghasi (Mewar Royal Collection)
Painted invitation letter (vijnaptipatra) depicting Udaipur, 1830, unknown artist (Collection of Agarchand Jain Granthalya, Bikaner, Rajasthan)

Dissertation Information

Columbia University. 2013. 367 pp. Primary Advisor: Vidya Dehejia.

Image: Selected frame from Painted Invitation Letter (Vijñaptipatra) sent from Udaipur, 1830. 72 feet by 11 inches. Artist Unknown. Collection of Agarchand Jain Granthalya, Bikaner, Rajasthan.

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