Kangra miniature paintings have for long been a symbol of our cultural identity. But, over the years, the art form has almost vanished with just a handful of artists practising the intricate style of painting. Recently, a couple of miniature lovers made an effort to revive the medieval art, formed the Kangra Arts Promotion Society (KAPS) to ensure that the tradition of Kangra paintings and other arts passes on to the future generations.
A messenger of Radha. Illustration of the Gita Govinda. (Miniature, Kangra, vers 1780, 150×255 mm, Bharat Kala Bhavan, Benares.)
HimVani caught up with Dr Akshai K Runchal, one of the founding members of KAPS for an exclusive interview. Excerpts:
What is the ground reality about survival of Kangra miniatures?
Currently very few genuine disciples of old Kangra Gharana(s) survive. Many of these work in obscurity and eke out a living either though associations with temples (where they get a stipend or have turned to cheap commercial reproductions.
The genuine Kangra (and Mughal or Rajasthani) paintings are made with colours from stones and plants and on an acid-free paper prepared in a special way. Even the brushes are made in a very unique way from the hair or feathers of animals and birds. A genuine miniature painting usually has tremendous amount of detail (such as distinct leaves on trees and individual grass fronds) and can take 10-20 days to complete. The commercial versions are knocked out with common paints and papers in a matter of hours.
When exactly was KAPS formed?
The NGO was registered in May, 2007, though informally a programme to support Kangra miniature paintings was launched in 2005.
Has KAPS started its work anywhere?
A number of prominent local persons and artists from Himachal are involved with the society. KAPS has already held an exhibition of Kangra paintings at the Club House in McLeod Gunj and Kangra Art Museum (Dharamsala) in June last year. A number of artists from Himachal including those from Kangra, Chamba, Shimla were present or were represented there. Over 80 paintings were exhibited and number of them were also sold on the spot. The exhibition was opened by the Tourism Minister who also made a personal contribution and a promise to buy 50 paintings for display in various HP government locations.
What are your future plans?
One of the important goals of KAPS is to start a school where the tradition can be passed on to the younger generation. Our aim is to have at least 20 gifted students with at least 10 on scholarships. Each one-year scholarship will be approximately for Rs 40,000-50,000. We have already received commitments for four scholarships. The school will need additional annual budget of 10 lakh for teachers’ salaries and supplies.
We have also instituted a novel sponsorship scheme. A group or individual can sponsor an artist for a year (cost in the range of Rs 1 lakh and in exchange receive a specially commissioned set of 10-12 Kangra miniature paintings on a theme personally selected by the sponsor. During this process, we would request and encourage the sponsor to personally interact or even visit the artist to provide moral support and make the artist feel appreciated. I have done this myself and can vouch for the fact that it is highly rewarding. Most of these artists have kept the tradition alive in obscurity for years and therefore need encouragement.
Who are the people associated with it?
Mr Brij K. Agarwal (President) (Divisional Commissioner Kangra)
Mrs Vatsala Khera (CEO)
Mr Bharat Khera (Vice-president) (DC Kangra)
Dr. Akshai K Runchal (Vice-president)
Mr Yogi Mahajan (Member, board of advisors)
Mr Vishal Gujral (Member, board of advisors)
Please note that Mr Agarwal and Mr Khera are involved in KAPS as individuals due to their interest in Kangra arts and not as ex-officio members.
The Kangra museum at Dharamsala has been running a programme to train artists in miniature paintings. Do you think it has been a failure?
No. It is doing a good job given that it is hampered due to limited resources and space limitations. The museum itself is small. Being a government organisation, it has its own limitations and things must be done according to set procedures.
Can you name few artists who are doing good work in Kangra miniatures?
I have personally worked with Mr Mukesh Dhiman and Mr Dhani Ram, who are students of Late Mr Chandu Lal Raina. An eminent practitioner in Dharamsala is Mr OP Tak. Mr Vijay Sharma is another well-known artist from Chamba. One of KAPS’ objectives is to make a database of known practitioners of this art.
Starting a school to teach miniatures is a novel idea, but why can’t the subject be taught in the fine art’s department of HP University, or for that matter the Reorich Art School in Naggar, if it is not being done already?
I am sure the basics can well be taught (perhaps are being taught) in the fine arts departments, but, it can take years to produce a master. Readily available or commercial paints, paper and brushes should not be used. Paints have to be painstakingly prepared from raw materials, paper has to be acid-free and brushes prepared from hair of squirrels and feathers of pigeon. In any case, commercial demand today is for more marketable ‘modern’ paintings. There is not a well developed (high end) market for Kangra miniature paintings. Hence, the younger generation does not see any financial or professional incentives to follow this line of art.
Any art can survive only if there is a market for that. The govt has started patronising Kangra miniatures but unless the paintings are taken to art bazaars, say in Delhi, Bombay or even abroad, there would always be scarcity of buyers. So do you think Himachal artists fear to venture out?
No. The critical part is developing awareness about the intrinsic value of this artform among a wider (global) audience. Once that awareness is there, there will be a market. Once there is a market, artists will see the potential. A crucial part of our strategy is to take this art to the global market.
Any artform is as good as the age it flourished in. Do you think there is scope for experimenting within miniatures?
If there is no evolution, death is certain. Any art (human endeavour) that is static, dies. Kangra art must evolve and develop by experimentation. It has been static for too long. But it requires someone who is not only a master but has the perseverance and the confidence to experiment. It took a Bismillah Khan to make the lowly Shahnai into a classical instrument. Today most Kangra miniatures are done in a set manner. They are “copies” – though original in every other sense except the theme and the form – of “classical” paintings. For example, in the old times, artists of these paintings – patronised by local kings – also painted scenes that commemorated the daily life and exploits of the kings. Today it has become an art that is being kept alive mostly be copies of these existing paintings. This must change. Art must reflect life. It must interact and experiment with other art forms and themes of modern life and times.
This can be taken as a suggestion from HimVani. You can invite foreigners to learn miniatures at KAPS for a cost, the way most universities invite NRIs. The money generated that way can be used to sponsor more local artists. Your comments.
Thanks for your input and help. That is one of the key idea that we would like to follow. Our school is intended to generate funds for scholarships and operating expenses by courses, lectures, seminars, etc for NRIs and foreigners. I think there is special hunger for “roots and culture” among the 2nd and 3rd generation NRIs and awareness and curiosity among foreigners for the cultural and spiritual heritage of India.