The legendary miniature painters of Machhihatta

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Sep 08, 2013

As you walk through Lohari Gate and head upwards along the mound towards Suha Bazaar, you pass through a ‘mohallah’ known as Machhihatta. One of the lanes (‘gali’) that meanders upwards was once known as Gali Kanhaiya Kapoor.

This entire ‘gali’ was also known as ‘musawwaran de gali’ – the painter’s lane – for here lived some of the greatest traditional miniature and ‘pahari’ style painters in the Mughal and Sikh eras. There is a perception that the Sikh era (1799-1849) was one of anarchy and illiteracy. The reality was quite the opposite. For example the literacy rate of Lahore was higher when the British took over in 1849 to what it was when they finally left in 1947. That is another story on which I have written before. But the art scene is one where there remains a huge gap in the known facts. This piece is an attempt to scratch the surface.

Let us return to Machhihatta and the people who lived there. Our interest is in Devi Ditta, the son of Gur Sahai, grandson of Ranjha of the famous Sen-Nainsukh family, artists to the Mughal court who lived in the house once owned by Bulaki Missar. This family had fled Lahore after the fall of the Mughals because of the repeated invasions and looting by Afghan invaders. During the bloody events when the Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah struggled to keep control, the entire family decided to migrate to the hills in the north. From Lahore they headed towards Pathankot and then moved to Kangra and headed towards the Gaggal mountains and settled next to a stream in the calm of a village by the name of Ladwara. There they took to farming and painting.

In the Mughal era this famous family existed because of the patronage that the royal family extended to well-known painters of miniature painting. In the hills they developed their own style, known as the ‘pahari’ style. As the Sikhs consolidated their position in the Punjab and by 1799 the young Ranjit Singh became the ruler of Lahore, the city began to settle. Quickly the young rulers expanded his power and claimed himself as the maharajah of Punjab. The ‘musawwars’ found that the Rajputs under whom they lived were ‘aloof’ from the arts, while the Sikhs they found to be ‘warm and affable’. Thus finally in 1810 the family came down from the hills and headed, initially, to Patiala, and then to Lahore and to Machhihatta.

Here the great Devi Ditta painted a portrait of Raja Dhian Singh Dogra, which was shown in the Lahore Darbar. Everyone was amazed by the quality of the work. Other members of the family, namely the Purkha family through the two brothers Buddhu and Rattu produced excellent pieces in the Kangra tradition. Lahore and Machhihatta came to be known for its artists. In the period 1810 to 1830 some of the great painting of Lahore was produced, which Maharajah Ranjit Singh was very fond of presenting to the important British persons he met. Very soon these pieces reached London and started to fetch high prices. The Sikh kingdom came to be known, besides their valour, for its miniature paintings too.

Before I go into more detail, let me go over this famous family of painters. Their family tradition, as recorded by their Brahmin pandits, starts from Datta, who painted for the Mughal emperor Akbar. Samples of his work exist in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Datta had a son Bharatu, and a grandson named Hassu, all of whom excelled in their work. They lived in Lahore and in Delhi once the emperors shifted there. Then came the legendary Sen who moved back to Lahore. His two sons Manaku and Nainsukh excelled in their work and it were they who migrated to the north.

Among the entire family the work of Nainsukh till then fetched the highest prices. He had four sons, all of whom were artists, they being Manaku, Goudhu, Nikka and Ranjha. But the son of Nikka by the name of Gokal proved to be the greatest painter of this great Sen-Nainsukh family of Machhihatta. His younger brother Purkhu also excelled. They were to write, much later, that “the magical lure of the mountains, the sound of cool clean flowing streams and the faraway snow-capped mountains pulls one back to the village. A mountain man can never understand a plains man, just as a plains man cannot understand the man from the mountains”. This sentence alone reflects the artist in them.

By this time the Lahore Darbar had started patronising this family with ‘jagirs’ in their faraway village. In archives available in the Lahore Secretariat one can see the ‘pattas’ issued by Maharajah Ranjit Singh securing their ‘jagirs’ in their village. In these documents the family is referred to as ‘carpenter-painters’, for the chair on which the maharajah sat, the one famously referred to by several soldiers and travellers who met him, was designed and made by this family. It was they who painted it with immense taste, for it ended up an exquisite piece of furniture.

As the maharajah patronised these miniature painters, we see them described at different places. For example Fakir Waheeduddin writes that “Purkhu of Kangra, and Kehar Singh and Muhammad Bakhsh of Lahore are artists attached to the Lahore Darbar”. We also have Maharajah Sher Singh patronising them. Then Sardar Lehna Singh Majithia conferred on Harkhu ‘musawwar’, son of Nikka, a ‘jagir. But then Nikka along with serving the maharajah also served Sardar Budh Singh Sandhanwalia.

Sadly, as normally happens in matters related to land, the ‘jagirs’ gifted to this family led to disputes among the brothers. By this time the British had taken over and all their land was confiscated under the ‘Jagir Act of 1851’. With the British the patronage of the great miniature painters of Machhihatta ended, and the entire family faced very difficult times.

As the Sikhs struggled for power among them, and also battled the British, most of the painters returned to their village, where they were involved in attempts to get their lands back. Landless and penniless they scattered in different directions.

In Lahore the few remaining, luckily managed to show Lockwood Kipling their work. He employed them as carpenters when the School of Carpentry opened in Lahore, a school that also gave the great Bhai Ram Singh a chance to become among the greatest designers and architects this land has ever seen. The school became the Mayo School of Arts, and today is known as the National College of Arts.

The great Sen-Nainsukh family of miniature painters dispersed. In 1947 the last of them, Mahesu and Kanhaiya, left Machhihatta and headed towards India. My research tells me that a few of them continue with their old family tradition in Ladwara, where they live in ‘pahari’ style mud houses. The lure of the mountains prevailed.




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