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Sunday, Dec 08, 2019

At the Bundi fort in Rajasthan, a gallery of rare miniature paintings

Check out scenes of lively hunts, moments from life in the zenana or women’s quarters.

travel Updated: Oct 26, 2019 18:34 IST
Riddhi Doshi
Riddhi Doshi
Hindustan Times
There’s a lot of movement in the miniatures at Bundi. Here, deer sprint away from a horse-borne rider.
There’s a lot of movement in the miniatures at Bundi. Here, deer sprint away from a horse-borne rider.
         

The late MF Husain once told me that a work of art should move you, jolt you and stir your insides, only then is it any good. Going by that definition, the most evocative art that I have ever seen is at the Chitrashala (or art gallery) of the magnificent Bundi fort, which was built in parts between the 14th and 17th centuries, in Bundi, Rajasthan.

The lush esplanade around the fort; the many, many bats; the lone security guard and the joy of being among just 10 stray visitors, all make for a perfect setting for recreating its past.

It’s a spring day sometime in the 1700s, during the reign of Umed Singh, and the forest is cool, dark and inviting. A young princess decides to skip her music class and go hunting instead. Armed with a spear, riding a white stallion, she gallops into the trees, followed by a man rider and a servant beating a drum to confuse the animals.

She soon sees a family of deer and decides to strike. She whips the horse, it races forward, the deer sprint for their lives. One of them is just inches away but will soon outrace the horse. The princess must strike now. She bends low, over the left side of her horse, stretching her back and her hand, hooks the deer’s hind leg, and it’s a catch.

A scene from a zenana. There are hundreds of paintings inside the fort, which once housed a flourishing art school.
A scene from a zenana. There are hundreds of paintings inside the fort, which once housed a flourishing art school.

There is so much movement, and drama, in the rare miniature murals of the Bundi fort that you can spun hundreds of such stories in the space of an afternoon. And there are hundreds of paintings to weave them around, all inside the Chitrashala that once was a flourishing art school inside the fort.

The Kota-style paintings borrow from Rajasthani and Deccani miniatures, and are unique because they portray lush vegetation, dramatic night skies, water and light, and movement, in ways that typical miniatures do not. You feel the excitement of a hunt, the yearning of a couple forced apart, the plushness of the royal court; the sensuality of the erotica.

Chitrashala is called Rajasthan’s Sistine Chapel for its intricate ceiling work, on the themes of the Raas-Lila (the romance of Radha and Krishna). There are stories also of the Nayaka-Nayika Bheda, featuring a passionate, devoted lover (with erotica included), and the zenana or women’s quarters, including a full court, women hunters and encounters with mystical creatures.

The best thing about Chitrashala is that you don’t have to be art literate to enjoy the work. The paintings’ intricacy, finesse and beauty will be enough to draw you and keep you engaged. The rest, you can leave to your imagination.