Indian Miniature Painting: Excellence, Elegance and Grace

Sri Ramu Ramdev, painting demonstration

Early this year I visited the Jaipur City Palace where I had the pleasure of meeting and then studying with the royal artists and masters of traditional Indian Miniature Painting. Having traveled to Rajasthan for visual inspiration, the elegance of Jaipur was already making a big impression and I was delighted to then discover a calm and quiet room nestled inside the palace where these artists were at work.

The palace artists are masters of Indian Miniature Painting: a traditional form of Indian art that has been popular in royal courts since the 16th century when the art flourished under the Mughal Empire.  Characterised by intricate and delicate brushwork, these small and colourful paintings contain a sense of grace that comes from years of practice and devotion to the art.

The palace acts as a studio for the current group of artists, headed by Shri Ramu Ramdev and his three brothers; Shri Govind Ramdev, Shri Shyamu Ramdev and Shri Hemant Ramdev.  Committed to preserving the ancient technique, the paint and brushes are all handmade using traditional methods.  Pigment for the paint is extracted from different mountain stones, real gold and also from natural plant and animal colours.  The practice of making paint takes roughly a month, a long and careful process, and the paint is mixed using the hand to ensure the smoothest consistency.  The tiny brushes are made from squirrel tail and are shaped so that the tip of the brush ends in just one hair, the means to achieving extremely fine line work.  The paper too is handmade and often vintage rice paper (old land deeds that have become redundant) is collected at auction and then painted over.  These careful measures ensure authenticity of the craft and keep the tradition alive.

Shri Ramu Ramdev has been practicing this technique for over thirty years and received the Master Craftsman Award from the state government of Rajasthan in 1998-99 for Excellence in Miniature Painting.  He established an art school ‘Rangreet’ in 1996; an organisation that sponsors training camps and workshops, honours master artists and encourages new talents.  I was fortunate enough to be invited back to study under the school with Ramuji and his contemporaries, an experience that was as humbling as it was inspiring. What resonated with me most was just how meditative the practice is.  The technique requires a certain stillness because the elegance of the final images comes from a deeply rooted elegance of character.

In the words of Poonam Manglani, a student who was also practicing at the school,

“This isn’t just painting.  Everyone is very dedicated and each one is always raising the other.  It is elevating, we are all growing together.”

These people paint from the soul, a group of patient and alert individuals who come together to practice and to support each other in the process.  During our conversations, the artists told me that developing a consistent meditation practice is indeed the first step toward becoming a master artist.   It is essential to the technique because when painting this finely there is no room for error and every stroke counts.  The mind and the breath must become calm and steady, so that the brush strokes are also calm and steady.  The painting is an extension of the breath.

The artists’ technique embodies the teachings of yoga, where it is known that the mind and body are connected through the breath.  The artists thus work like yogis, stilling the mind and connecting to the internal source so that everything becomes steady and the art flows from within, from the heart.  Immersed in the practice, the artist will sit calmly in a cross legged position and will use breath retention techniques to still the body and mind in order to achieve the most delicate of lines.

Ramuji talks of this art as seeing from the heart rather than through the eyes.  Instead of looking out to the perceived world for its inspiration, this art form is about looking within and finding a connection to the divine.  By first centering through meditation, devotion can enter the practice and every stroke becomes a prayer, a gesture of grace and an act of love.