Art in the 19th Century Punjab

During the 17th, 18th and even the 19th century the appreciation of any art produced in the Punjab has been reserved for the paintings produced in the Punjab Hill States. The condition of the arts is largely dependant upon the political and social conditions in the area. A. R. Chughtai1 insists that the Hill States and their Rajas were not secure or prosperous enough to have provided much patronage to any artists of the late nineteenth and twentieth century. He asserts that he himself, with his younger brother Abdur Rahim Chughtai travelled extensively in the Hill States in 1929 but failed to find any evidence of patronage for the artists. He quotes one artist, Hazuri, who told Chughtai that the Pahari artist and state patronage had been a myth and that most of the Pahari Rajas did not have the means to employ artists for art activity. Hazuri claimed that the artists infact earned their living from farming and produced the paintings in their spare time. If there had been state patronage, he argued, a lot more paintings would have been found in the possession of the Rajas. The few paintings found with the Rajas had been taken in lieu of taxes which the poor farmers could not pay. This practice was witnessed by Hazuri when his own father was subjected to it.

While considering Chughtai's views one should also perhaps keep in mind J. P. VogerV account of his tour of the Kangra district.

"In 1905 when I was making a tour in the Kangra district after the earthquake of the 4th April, Pandit Hirananda Sastri who was then my assistant, had the good fortune to fall in with a man who proved to be a descendant of one of Sansar Chand's court painters. The poor man, whom his native hills offered no scope for the exercise of his ancestral art, hoped to find employment at the court of one of the petty Rajas in Jammu and Kashmir. He was still in possession of a number of drawings which were damaged by insects and bore the evident marks of prolonged neglect. He was ready to part with them and I'm sure that by purchasing them, we have saved the collection from destruction."

This episode as quoted by F. S. Aijazuddin,3 as well as Chughtai's experience seem to point out and strengthen the theory that Pahari painting under the patronage of the Rajas ceased to exist by the time of the Dogra invasion in 1808. The hill state artists found patronage in the court of Lahore from where they spread out to all the smaller courts in the second half of the nineteenth century. We already have records of various Pahari artists working in several places in the Punjab plains as court artists of the princely states. There was Parkhu from Kangra who worked in Lahore around 1820 (See Appendix II, No. 4). Then there was Devi Ditta who was working in Lahore and Patiala in 1865 (See Appendix II, No. 52). There was Professor Khanda (Abdullah) Khan who came from Jammu (See Appendix II, No. 1). There was also Basharat Ullah who was a student of Parkhu and worked in the Pahari tradition in the court of Patiala as well as in Lahore in 1825 (See Appendix II, No. 9). "With the Sikh kingdom at Lahore establishing its supremacy, some of Pahari painters from Guler migrated to Lahore to enjoy the patronage of Maharaja Ranjeet Singh and his sardars. Among these painters was Nikka, third son of Nainsukh, who had for some time worked at Chamba. He received a grant of land from Maharaja Ranjeet Singh in 1825. Gokal, Chajju, Harkhu and Damodar were other artists who worked for Sikh patrons. Chajju painted portraits of Sikh nobles.... who were employed as high officials by the Lahore darbar."4

Srivastava,5 Sohan Lai Suri6 and A. R. Chughtai7 have all insisted that the painting which flourished at Lahore under Maharaja Ranjeet Singh (1799-1839) was the work of local artists and not a mere extension of Pahari painting. Aryan8 in his book Punjab Painting however remarks "On the 'dead blank' of the arts in the Punjab plains, there are hardly any indications to show the actual condition of pictorial art in the Punjab immediately preceding the Sikh period." Aryan's contention as well as that of others that Pahari painting is the only worthwhile painting from the Punjab before during and after the Sikh rule, should be re-examined so that Pahari and non-Pahari painting in the Punjab is properly perceived and evaluated. Uptil now very few scholars have paid attention to painting in the Punjab plains. It would be fruitful to research the subject in greater depth, keeping in mind that the Hill State artists were not a permanent entity in the Hill States especially after the Dogra invasion in 1808. They kept coming and going and were willing to supply their beautiful miniatures and painting skill to anyone who was willing to acquire them or learn from them.

At the time Chughtai travelled in the Hill States, the conditions were as uncertain as anywhere else and whatever patronage or peace of mind the artists might have had in the past in these small havens, had long since vanished. The same is also true of artists working at the court of Delhi for whom the short Sikh monarchy provided a breathing space of stability and encouraged them to settle in the Punjab. They received considerable encouragement during the Ranjeet Singh era and also during the few years of Sher Singh's rule.

The appreciation and quest for Pahari painting was a wave that surfaced in the early twentieth century. At that time there was no evidence of any patronage of art in the Punjab Hill States. The old Pahari pictures may have created the market, but there is every possibility that the continuous demand that had been generated was met by the painters of Lahore and Amritsar or even Patiala and Kapurthala. The quantity and quality of work produced in the plains was certainly of a calibre that could easily satisfy this increasing interest. We can see from the pictures reproduced (see Fig. 19 to 23, page 33-34) that the finest qualities of Pahari art were evident in paintings that were made in the court at Lahore. These paintings were done in Lahore around 1835 and testify to the merit of the art work being done here before the advent of the British.

A book titled Le Songe d'un habitant du Mogol recently published by the French Government in 1989 as a mark of friendship for the Indian Government has provided concrete proof of the excellent work done in the Punjab in the 19th century. This book is full of illustrations of the fables written by the French writer Jean De La Fountaine. In the early 19th century these fables were printed in such a way that blank sheets were left with each fable which were sent out all over the world to be illustrated in the traditional painting style of that area.

These sheets were also sent to the French Generals who were working for Ranjeet Singh in the Punjab at that time. These Generals even though based in the Punjab, had access to information from other cultural centres in India and it can be safely stated that if there was anyone doing better painting anywhere else in the subcontinent, they would have known about it. It would also have been quite practical for them to commission the 59 illustrations and ask the artists to come and live in Lahore or Attock (\vhere the paintings were done) till the assignment was complete. The fact that they chose Imam Buksh from Lahore to handle the work speaks volumes for the kind of work that was being done in Lahore. When we look at these illustrations, some of them are as good as paintings done at any time in the subcontinent (see Fig. 23, page 34).

This French book now reveals the paintings that had been lost to the public view and lends an insight into the state of painting in the Punjab plains which has been neglected for much too long. Moreover it is also important because it is in keeping with the local tradition of book illustration. Through this we gain information about one artist. There must have been many more about whom we know very little, and whose work cannot be identified because they have not been signed. Historians also mention other painters who were painting as well as Imam Buksh around the same period but no importance has been given to them by art critics due to the lack of enough pictorial evidence. One thing we can say with some certainty, that the quality and standard of work being produced in the Punjab, both in the Pahari as well as the Mughal miniature tradition, was admirable when there was a proper patronage for it.

Ranjeet Singh and his nobles were good patrons but their appreciation extended primarily to commissioning of their portraits and pictures on religious themes and some court scenes (see page 34). Ranjeet Singh himself however was a reluctant model because of his one blind eye. F. S. Aijazuddin9 quotes Vigne,1" the British geographer, who in 1837 persistently tried to draw Ranjeet Singh - "by persevering in my request, Ranjeet at length allowed me to attempt his portrait in full darbar. When I first asked him I was at Lahore, in company with Baron Hugel. He coloured, smiled and replied, 'Tomorrow at Amritsar' which was only an oriental mode of refusing, as he had no idea of going to Amritsar. I again respectfully urged the request, 'No! No!' he said, 'I am an old man.' Take his picture/ pointing to Heera Singh; 'he is young and handsome"'. Vigne then goes on to say about his portrait "Had I been obsequious enough to have given Ranjeet two eyes, he would probably have made no objection, and when he did sit to me, he was constantly turning away so as to conceal his blind side." In fact, it is an oft quoted fact that very few painters dared to paint Ranjeet Singh's blind eye during his lifetime. However during the British rule when Ranjeet Singh, having resisted the British became a legendary hero, people painted his blind eye and made a virtue out of it.

At the court of Ranjeet Singh there were local as well as Pahari artists working along with European painters. Paqir Syed Wahid-ud-Din,n the great grandson of Faqir Aziz-ud-Din, who was a minister of Ranjeet Singh, mentions the artists Kehar Singh, Muhammad Buksh and Parkhu of Kangra at Ranjeet Singh's court. During the Mughal and Sikh rule artists were given hujras or rooms in the Wazir Khan Mosque where among others, lived people like Baba Miran Baksh, who excelled in music as well as painting. He died in 1920.

A large number of European travellers who were artists also visited the Lahore Court during the Sikh period. It should be remembered, however, that the influence of European art had already started during Emperor Akbar's reign. At that time, even though there were some direct attempts to copy European paintings, stylistically the local artists were not impressed, yet there were a few subtle changes which grew with the passage of time. Although the general aspect and subject matter of the paintings remained there was a marked effort on the part of the local artists to depict spacial as well as linear perspective.

Information about these and other European artists who came later, as well as the Punjab artists who painted during the hundred years (1849-1947) is listed in Appendices I and II.

The British, when they heard of the excellent reputation of Ranjeet Singh's army sought every opportunity or made any excuse to visit the Lahore Court. That is how British amateurs like Emily Eden, Francis Eden, Carter, Harcourt, Edwards, Osborne and Vigne came to the Lahore Court. They observed, sketched, painted and recorded facts that would be of interest to the military strategists back in Delhi. J. M. Lafont,12 the French scholar, very aptly describes the visit of a British contingent: "But the British Government wanted to know more about the Punjab and particularly about this French Legion which seemed to be at least equal to the best troops of the East India Company. They made use of the occasion of a complimentary mission sent by Ranjeet Singh to Simla, to despatch Captain Wade to Lahore on a return mission in May 1827. No need to explain the instructions provided to the clever political officer." And then again in the same booklet, J. M. Lafont, describing the marriage of Ranjeet Singh's grandson Nao Nihal Singh, writes "The Governor General could not come, but the Com-mander-in-Chief, the old and experienced Lord Fane, came, with a good number of inquisitive officers." Many of these 'inquisitive officers and their wives or sisters produced drawings and paintings that fill 57 folios in the India Office Library.

The French and the Italian influence came with General Allarde and General Ventura who built the effective special army unit, Fauj-i-Khas, in Ranjeet Singh's army (see page 34). Both of them had accompanied Napoleon in his European battles (Allarde is said to have gone to Russia with Napoleon's army). They managed to come to the Punjab from the Persian route in spite of the efforts of the British to keep them out of India. They reached Shahdara in March 1822 and by May 1822, Ranjeet Singh had put a Sikh Battalion under them. Allarde was incharge of the cavalry and Ventura incharge of the infantry. These officers stayed with Ranjeet Singh for seventeen years. It was during this time that one of these officers commissioned Imam Buksh to illustrate Jean de la Fontaine legends.

In 1827 these two officers were joined by Court and Avitable and given command of regular brigades. Court was French and an expert on artillery and shell production. Avitable like Ventura was Italian and an able administrator.

Old British journals and travellers mention the wall paintings in houses owned or occupied by Europeans. Masson13 describes the Italian general Avitable's house with its murals which he saw at Lahore when he was staying with Allarde. W. Barr14 describes Allarde's house at the time of the general's funeral "- we went to Allarde's country house where his body was lying in state. The residence is decorated inside and out with paintings of dragoons, foot soldiers and lancers, half as large as life. The wide verandahs have the same display of paintings. Allarde's portrait bespeaks him as a man of firmness, decision of character, and a handsome and benevolent man. In another picture were the pretty faces of his Kashmiri wife and children". G. T. Vigne also described the mural paintings at Wazirabad. Some other murals in European houses were located at:

-           Avitable's house in Wazirabad;
-           Allarde's house at Wazirabad;
-           Allarde and Ventura's house in Anarkali; and
-           Allarde's garden house beyond Anarkali (the Chief Secretary's office now).

Since Ranjeet Singh was in supreme command of nearly all of the Punjab, the small Sikh states of the Malwa region on the east of the Sutlej (also called the Cis-Sutlej and the Phulkian states) aligned themselves with Delhi. The rulers of these small states or principalities like Patiala, Kapurthala, Jind, Nabha, Faridkot, Kalsia, Nalagarh and Malerkotla which were part of the Phulkian states, had enjoyed full regal rights and privileges during the last two hundred years. Patiala was the oldest and most powerful of these. The founding father of this principality had helped the Mughals against the Afghan invasion while the later princes aligned themselves with the British in order to retain their rule.

Most of these ruler were educated and influenced by the western style of life (see page 35). They patronised the arts and copied many of the successful local styles of architecture as well as painting. Raja Narinder Singh (1845-62) of Patiala for instance, constructed a Moti Bagh Palace on the pattern of the Shalimar Gardens of Lahore. Raja Jagjit Singh of Kapurthala constructed a court hall resembling the High Court of Lahore. Raja Raghbir Singh of Jheend constructed markets on the pattern of Jaipur. Similarly they patronised painting, music and poetry as well as the living artists. They had murals painted in palaces as well as public buildings in the well-known styles of Mughal and Pahari miniatures.

This patronage enabled the artists to continue with painting like their forefathers had done. Even though they did not produce anything original, this provided them respite after fleeing from the strife of the Hill States of the Punjab or the turmoil of the post Ranjeet Singh period in Lahore. Thus when the British entered the Punjab they found an art tradition rich with Mughal precision imbued with Pahari romance, pushed into perspective with European influences (see page 35-36). Yet they felt they could teach the natives a thing or two when they surveyed the scene through their monocles.

Lord Baden Powel15 writing about the arts of the Punjab, sums up their general attitude, "Native artists are quite wanting in any sympathy with Nature or Love of beauty for its own sake." However, he goes on to admit that, "Natives seem to have quite an instinct for colour without the faintest idea of the theory of light and its composition or the rules about complimentary colours". Quite a dampening attitude, for as it was, even the most enthusiastic artist had to struggle against innumerable odds just to keep up with the bare cost of living. Needless to say, this attitude could not have encouraged him to go on painting. But one thing is certain and various writers16 have testified that Lahore was full of artists, when the British arrived on the scene, and they awaited their new rulers with expectations and trepidations.




1         A. R. CHUGHTAI

-    Lahore Ka Dabistan-e-Musawari (Urdu). Lahore, 1979.
pp. 23-24.

2         J. P. VOGEL

-    History of Punjab Hill States, Lahore, 1933, pp. 98 -198.
cf. R S. Aijazuddin (from No. 3).

3         R S. AIJAZUDDIN

-    Pahari Painting and Sikh Portraits in the Lahore Museum.
London, 1977. p. xx.

4         RANDHAVA M. S.

-    Indian Miniature Painting, New Delhi, 1981.

5         SRIVASTAVA

-    Punjab Painting. New Delhi, 1983, p. 11
"Patronage of Pine Arts under the Sikh Rulers of the Pun­
The Sikh Courier Vol. 7 No. 1,
London, 1973.


-    Umdatul Twarikh (Persian - 5 volumes). Lahore, 1886.
Reprint New Delhi, 1961. Dafter IV, Part II, p. 5.

7         A. R. CHUGHTAI

-    Lahore Ka Dabistan-e-Musawari" (Urdu) Lahore, 1979.
pp. 33 - 38.

8         K. C. ARYAN

-    Hundred "Years Survey of Punjab Painting. New Delhi,
1977, pp. 14 -15.

9         R S. AIJAZUDDIN

-    Pahari Painting and Sikh Portraits in the Lahore Museum,
London, 1977, p. XXVII.

10       VIGNE

-    Travels in Kashmir, Lahore and Iskardu . London, 1842.
p. 274.


11       R S. WAHEED-UD-DIN

-    The Real Ranjeet Singh. Karachi, 1965, p. 121.

12       J. M. LAFONT

-    Military Activities of French Officers of Maharaja Ranjeet
Amritsar, 1982. p. 44 and p. 57.

13       MASSON

-    Journeys in Ealochistan, Afghanistan and the Punjab,
London, 1842. p. 410.

14       W. BARR

-    Journal of a March. London, 1844. p. 83. cf. C. Grey in Eu­
ropean adventurers in Northern India, 1785 -1849, p. 92.

15       BADEN POWEL

-    Handbook of Manufactures and Arts of the Punjab, La­
hore, 1872. pp. 344 - 345.

16       Information about art activities in the Punj ab can be col­
lected from:-

(a)      VON ORLICH

Who was present in the darbar of Sher Singh at Lahore and took notice of the presence of several native artists in "Travels in India, including Sind and the Punjab", London, 1842/2 Volumes.


His 20 Volumes of diaries have a number of refer­ences to artists living in Lahore during the Sikh Rule. c/A. R. Chughtai (no. 6).


Catalogue ofKhalsa Darbar Records Punjab, Patiala 1928. Kohli was research student who worked with Garrett in the Punjab Archives on the Sikh Darbar Records.