20 December 2011

Why you should know about Nainsukh

My piece in Open magazine, on Amit Dutta's biopic of a Pahari miniaturist who is now considered the most important Indian painter of the 18th century.



A white-clad figure sits on the ghat of a sparkling river. He unwraps a red cloth bundle, takes out a sheaf of paper, and begins to draw. The brush he wields is remarkably thin, its almost pointy tip leaving the barest shadow of a line, almost invisible until it is reinforced by repeated strokes in the artist’s sure hand.

Now he is walking unhurriedly past a field full of grazing cows. As the camera zooms slowly outward, you see the pagdandi, the footpath he’s walking along, bisecting the vivid green of the field like a line on a map.

He arrives at a house in a village, and enters what seems like an artist’s workshop. It is so quiet that we can hear the sound of wind in the trees, birds chirping, cows lowing. The only man-made sound is a slow, deliberate, rhythmic grinding: the preparation of colours.

It only takes a few minutes of watching Nainsukh, ostensibly a biopic of a Pahari miniaturist now designated as the most important Indian painter of the 18th century, to figure out that neither the film’s indefatigable producer, the art-anthropologist Eberhard Fischer, nor its director, Amit Dutta, are at all interested in the sort of event-based narrative that is ordinarily expected of biographies, or of feature films in general. Instead, Nainsukh (2010)—Dutta’s second feature after the equally atmospheric Aadmi ki Aurat aur Anya Kahaniyan (2009), a triptych of tales about men based on stories by Vinod Kumar Shukla and Saadat Hasan Manto—unfolds as a kind of cinematic essay on Nainsukh’s artistic oeuvre.

A graduate from the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, Dutta appears to be following in the footsteps of the late Mani Kaul, both in terms of his preoccupation with the visual and formal aspects of cinema over the narrative, and in his interest in using film to explore another art form. If Kaul’s Satah se Utthta Aadmi used the poetic texts of Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh to explore the shape of our urban lives and spaces, Siddheshwari and Dhrupad were devoted to specific genres of Hindustani classical music. Dutta’s own interest in painters and painting seems to have existed for some time. During a Summer Film Appreciation course taught by his mentor Suresh Chhabria at the FTII in 2008, he gave an interesting (if slightly muddled) presentation about a fascinating cinematic project he had in mind: an exploration of the life and death of Jangarh Singh Shyam, a Pardhan Gond artist who was ‘discovered’ as a child by artist J Swaminathan and moved to Bhopal’s Bharat Bhavan, becoming the first Gond painter to achieve mainstream recognition and fame before dying a tragic death during an art residency in Japan.

Dutta is a bit of a recluse who lives in Jammu, does not make an appearance at screenings and does not answer his phone, so it is hard to confirm one’s hunches, but Siddheshwari, in particular—a film commissioned as a standard artist-profile by the Government-run Films Division that eventually provided neither factual biographical detail nor documentary-style commentary on the music—would seem to be a model for Nainsukh, which a characteristically pithy Variety review describes as ‘a work for galleries rather than cinemas’. The film is visually sumptuous, and more interested in a poetic evocation of an artistic sensibility than in the prosaic re-creation of a life.

And yet it is clear that Dutta’s evocative filmmaking emerges out of his engagement with painstaking scholarship that has taken years piecing together Nainsukh’s life and his work. Dutta was introduced to Nainsukh by Eberhard Fischer, for whom making the film has been the fulfilment of a lifelong dream. But it was art historian BN Goswamy’s loving recreation of Nainsukh’s legacy that formed the backbone of this project.

Goswamy’s search for the individual Pahari painter had always been a scholarly quest strewn with obstacles. ‘An art historian who tries, with the help of little slivers of fact, to make his way through the hidden world of Indian painters of the past is a little like an Abhisarika heroine who, with passion in her heart, moves toward the place of her rendezvous through a dark and rainy night, full of hazards and uncertainties, her way lit only by the occasional flash of lightning,’ wrote Goswamy and Fischer in their preface to Pahari Masters: Court Painters of Northern India (1992, republished in India 2009). The words are charming, painterly and mock-dramatic—but also true. Unlike in Europe, where paintings from the Renaissance and after had come to be identified as the work of specific artists, the Indian miniature paintings that corresponded to this period—the 15th to the 19th centuries—were largely unsigned and remained unattributed in terms of authorship. Barring some work on Mughal paintings, historians of premodern Indian art had, until the mid-20th century, paid almost no attention to the individual artist. This was particularly true of Rajput and Pahari miniatures, where the painter—in the words of Goswamy and Fischer’s preface—‘was not seen as an individual, but as someone who, in the true craft-tradition, merged his identity into that of a group’.

“You didn’t have a single book on any individual painter who worked before 1900,” says Goswamy. It was for his doctoral dissertation of 1961 that Goswamy first tapped the two sources that would provide information about the Pahari painter: genealogical records kept by priests at places of pilgrimage, and British land settlement records from the mid-19th century. “I looked in all sorts of odd places, and reconstructed for myself some names, some relationships of painters in the Himachal and Jammu & Kashmir region,” he remembers. It was based on this material that Goswamy wrote his now classic 1968 essay in the journal Marg: ‘Pahari Painting: The Family as the Basis of Style’, proposing that the earlier mode of classifying painterly styles by geographical regions/states—Kangra, Guler, Basohli, Chamba, Nurpur, Jammu—be done away with. Instead of the emphasis on patrons and regions, Goswamy pushed for a paradigm increasingly focused on painters. The study of Pahari painting would be much better served, he suggested, if categorisations within it were made on the basis of ‘the kalams or distinctive styles of the known artist-families in the hills of the Panjab’. Much like a gharana of musicians, whose style might be located in a place but was not bound by it, a painterly kalam needed to be mapped through both genealogical reconstruction and the migratory paths taken by artists.

While laying out this idea of a family kalam, Goswamy was careful to point out that ‘the styles were living things, dynamic and capable of change’. He wrote: ‘It was possible thus for the work of an artist to be appreciably different from that of either his grandfather or his grandson, and yet there remained the lowest common denominator, a commonness of feeling, which marked the work of a family over a period of generations.’

The family of artists whose history and evolution of style Goswamy was able to work out in some detail was that of Pandit Seu of Guler and his two sons, the elder Manaku and the younger Nainsukh.

What makes Nainsukh particularly interesting? For one, he and his family mark an important shift in the history of Pahari painting. The work produced by Pandit Seu after approximately 1720, and even more so, the paintings produced by his younger son Nainsukh, have been seen as marking the rise of a much greater degree of naturalistic depiction in Pahari painting. This change is attributed to Pandit Seu and his family coming into contact with the Mughal manner of painting, and the slow internalisation of elements of this style into their work.

But even more than this, it is Nainsukh’s own uniquely formed interests—such as his attention to minor figures in a composition, and the remarkable confidence he displayed as a painter, shown for example, in his deliberately leaving in the older outlines even after making the corrections he deemed necessary—that single his oeuvre out for attention, making him, in Fischer’s estimate, ‘the greatest Pahari painter of all time’.

Clear dates are still hard to establish for his birth, but Nainsukh appears to have left his hometown of Guler around 1740 and moved to Jasrota, a small principality that lay to the west, across the river Ravi. In Jasrota, Goswamy suggests, he started working for one Mian Zorawar Singh, later going into the employment of his son and successor Balwant Singh. Nainsukh’s legendary fame among connoisseurs of art rests largely on the work he did while working for Balwant Singh.

While Nainsukh began by mastering the stately Mughal style, Goswamy and Fischer describe his work as having ‘crossed a threshold’: ‘The more formal a portrait had to be, the less interested he apparently was in it… His interest lay not in observing a person singly and presenting him in a static or ceremonial manner, but in rendering groups of related people, where, although the emphasis remained on the principal figure, a warm, mellow light was trained on what were seemingly minor characters in that setting.’

And it is true that Nainsukh’s work seems simultaneously artfully composed and punctuated by sudden moments of immediacy. For example, in a painting depicting Zorawar Singh sitting back, hookah in hand, watching a performance by Zafar Kanchani, the dancer throws her right arm up in the air in a final flourish, while the musicians arch their necks and lean forward in animated attention. In another depiction of a dance, we see two loutish men who have—overcome by lust and excitement—come forward and clasped the dancers in an ungainly embrace. One woman bows her head, shielding her eyes in shame, while the other crumples onto the floor in a heap. But what truly conveys the bizarreness of the scene is Nainsukh’s remarkable rendering of the watching patron: he doubles over silently with laughter. In another painting, that might have easily been a straightforward documentation of his patron Balwant Singh in the act of writing, Nainsukh injects an unexpected streak of humour by catching the fan bearer who stands behind his master in the process of dozing off. Some of the subjects are themselves extremely unusual in their intimacy and everydayness—like a painting of Balwant Singh having his beard trimmed.


These are paintings that cry out to be brought back to the life from which they were once drawn. The beauty of Amit Dutta’s film is that it is able to do this, while constantly returning us to the two-dimensional magic with which Nainsukh once captured them. The cinematic medium has the luxury of sound and movement, which the painter must necessarily eschew. Dutta uses these sparingly and yet transformatively: the rich yellows of Nainsukh’s mustard fields are suddenly punctuated by laughter, a silent evening by the sound of someone coughing, or the tinkling of payals, or the faraway sound of someone singing. At its best, Dutta’s cinematic version of the original image is complementary rather than parallel, using the magic of sound: Nainsukh’s stunning painting of an almost bare gateway with a brilliantly blue peacock perched at one end is preceded, in his film, with a shot of Nainsukh walking through the gateway at dusk, looking up at the shrill call of an unseen peacock.

This is not a film for everyone. Not even, perhaps, for all art lovers. But it is a film that tries, for the 75 minutes of its running time, to transform the quality of our attention. For that labour of love alone, it is worth watching.

Published in Open magazine, 17 Dec 2011.

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