Learning Holiday: Painting Mughal Miniatures In Udaipur

Make your own souvenir. | By Syed Ali Arif  
Mughal miniature Udaipur Rajasthan
As principal patrons of Rajput and Mughal miniature art, royals also became its principal subjects (left). The writer’s miniature took two days to complete; The writer learns some of the techniques (right) of miniature painting at a tiny shop in Udaipur’s Bhattiyani Chohatta market. Photos: Inderjit Nagi

Most visitors know Udaipur as an enchanting city of lakes, palaces, and gardens. As a painter, I’m fascinated by Udaipur’s vibrant art. There is an astonishing variety on display in the street-side stalls that line its hilly lanes. Recreations of Mughal miniatures top the list, but there are also puppets, wood carvings, clay sculptures, embossed metal, murals, and cut-work with coloured glass. Udaipur’s fashion too, is much like its art, with colourful embroidered mojaris, flowing mirrorwork ghagras, and patchwork bedsheets.

When I returned to Udaipur for a second visit recently, I had a firm agenda: I wanted to create some memorable art during my week-long stay. I brought my sketch book, watercolour pad, paints, colour pencils, and lots of enthusiasm. But while inspiration was easy to find, achieving what I wanted wasn’t as simple.

I tried painting a front view of the City Palace from the terrace of Pushkar Palace, where I was staying, but the result was a disaster. I had brought the wrong pad, one that failed to hold the watercolours. In addition, there were monkeys jumping around everywhere, which distracted me no end. Finally, I gave up the idea of painting and set of to explore Bhattiyani Chohatta market with my camera.

The market, with its congested lanes, was buzzing. Besides the shops, there were restaurants serving every kind of cuisine: Spanish, Italian, French, and rustic Rajasthani. Some are located on rooftops, overlooking Lake Pichola and the famous Jagdish Temple.

A store painted a striking red caught my eye. It sold an assortment of curios so I went in to look for interesting, small wooden frames for my paintings.

Inside, I met the owner Lala, who was also an artist. He was a lean man, bursting with energy and knowledge of the techniques of Mughal-style miniatures. While admiring his intricate paintings on paper, wood, cotton cloth, and glass, I discovered that he was an art teacher too. I didn’t waste much time signing up for a two-day class to learn how to paint one myself.

I started the next day by leafing through a book of prints to choose one to recreate. To help me learn a variety of techniques, I decided to paint an image that would combine three pictures from the book. The first had sky and sea, the second had plants and trees, and the third a human figure.

Next, we began to prepare the surface I would paint on. It was a white silk cloth that was stretched on a wooden frame, and then coated with a paste known as “white textured”, a material that is commonly used to make the canvas sturdy. We mixed it with glue and water, to ensure that the colours wouldn’t run of. Meanwhile, I had to decide on a colour palette. My choices were limited to the natural paints Lala had, which were in powder form and had to be mixed with water.

North udaipur

The market’s many lanes are lined with stalls selling assorted miniatures made for tourists. Photo: Joachim Hiltmann/Imagebroker/Dinodia

I sketched the complete image on tracing paper and then began to draw the outlines on my silk screen in dark brown. From time to time, Lala made necessary corrections. Then the painting started, with a darker shade for the sky on top, and a lighter tone at the bottom. To give an impression of depth, I used different concentrations of blue and white colours. The hill was painted green, after which I started the delicate task of painting the lady. Her skin was a light pink, her ghagra deep orange, and dupatta purple. Once that was dry, we filled the bushes and small trees in the background with dark green. Finally, we painted the carpet on which the lady was seated. By the end of the first day’s lesson, all the solid colouring was done and I could see my artwork slowly come to life.

That day, as I walked back to my hotel, I had a new appreciation for everything I saw around me. Small details on the wall of a haveli and paintings in shops suddenly leaped out, becoming inspiration for the next day’s work.

The second day’s tasks were more painstaking. I used light green and yellow and a thin brush to make the bushes and trees vital by adding branches and leaves. The carpet was painted brown and given a thick yellow border with an intricate pattern. Painting the dupatta on the ghagra-choli in sheer lavender and adorning it with small details was challenging. But the fun part was painting the lady’s face. It was a beautiful one, with sharp eyes, a lovely smile, a delicate nose ring, and other ornaments painted in white to make them look like pearls. Lala helped me along, doing some of the more delicate parts and guiding me as I drew the final frame-like border that marked the end of the work.

I was delighted with my creation. It was better than any souvenir I could take back from a trip. But it was not just a keepsake: It was a skill that I could use in my art. Soon after my return, I created a series of ten nudes drawn in my style but incorporating the techniques I learnt from Lala. Each time I look at them, I remember my trip to the beautiful city that is a muse for so many artists.

Make Like A Mughal: Paint A Miniature

Contact Details & Costs Lala is a patient and enthusiastic teacher, who spends a lot of time explaining the techniques and intricacies of the art form. He charges ₹600 for a four-hour class. The price includes the silk cloth, paints, brushes, and other materials required to make one medium-sized miniature. It is possible to complete the work in a single session, but I preferred to take my time and do it over two classes. Lala is flexible with timings, making it easy to schedule a class around any sightseeing plans (3 Bhattiyani Chohatta market, near City Palace gate, Udaipur; 094134 67718; artistlala@yahoo.com).

Like Lala, there are several other artists in Udaipur who are happy to teach interested visitors. They usually put up advertisements on their doors.

What to Expect Painting a miniature with all its details, using a thin and sharp brush may seem daunting. It is a challenge to ensure that the colours, which dry very fast, don’t spill into other areas, but it is pleasantly engrossing. By the end of it, I was surprised that I had the patience and skill to pull it off.

This article was updated on January 18, 2016.

Appeared in the February 2014 issue as “Painting the Town Red”.

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