Little Frames, Large Lives

Among the more accoladed traditional artists, Mahaveer Swami has worked diligently for over four decades to keep the Bikaner miniature art alive.

In the narrow lanes of Bikaner lies a home where a 500-year-old art lives on. If you are not a native, you wouldn’t know this place or the people who live in it. But for the natives, this is probably the high point of this quiet city. This secret home is where national award-winning miniature artist Mahaveer Swami lives. Through his paintings, the traditional Bikaner style of painting lives on. “This style is around 500 years old and centres mostly on mythology and history,” says Swami who belongs to the Bikaner laghu chitra gharana aka miniature arts gharana.

Art has been the norm in Rajasthan, adding colour to the starkness of the desert. While the homes of the local people, especially those in the rural areas have been lined with large figures and nature-based motifs, it is the intricate and delicate artworks in palaces and homes of the rich that have been leaving people awestruck for centuries now.

Light strokes, sensitive expressions, translucent and subtle colouring, the USP of Bikaner style lies in fine detailing of the figures in natural colours.

Most of Swami’s paintings have scenes related to the Ram durbar, Vishnu durbar, kalpavriksha and nature. But the one thing that stands out — the clouds with gods and these can be seen in Maharaja Ganga’s Singh residence, Laxmi Niwas palace, and in the old havelis too. In fact, Swami has very meticulously used them in his yoga series. They are so fine, visible only with a microscope. Like other Rajasthani homes, Swami’s home too is lined with paintings and other artworks. Some are commissioned and some are for his exhibitions. There are animals such as the ibex, royal courts, goddesses, saints, flowers and more. But there is nothing ostentatious about the man who has received two prestigious awards by the President of India ‘Master Craftsman’ award in 1986 and the Sanskriti award in 1992.

With over 100 shows to his credit, the artist has travelled the world exhibiting his art, pushing forward the cause of traditional miniatures, and learning many styles from his fellow artists. Art has taken him to USA, France, Korea, Japan, Australia and more countries. He even held a solo show in MOSA, Belgium. There have been many residency programmes with fellow artists across the globe. But it was not always like this.

His grandfather, M.D. Swami, was a stone mason who brought to life the havelis of rich patrons with frescoes and murals. His father, M.R. Swami, worked in a railway workshop as a painter. Young Swami learned art on every bit of material available to him — jute bags, paper, cloth, and more. He went to do a formal diploma course in Painting & Sculpture from the Rajasthan School of Art in Jaipur (1980- 1985). Initially, he would do copies to sustain himself. But his mentor urged him to work on the Bikaner miniature style and tracks changed. He has worked on all kinds of materials, even ivory, and honed his art. His priestly lineage and love for art has kept him going through the toughest of times.

His studio is a 300-year-old room where lie the footprints of yetis in an alcove. The 60-year-old Brahmin begins his day with prayers there. The studio was once the temple of a saint, which was later gifted to his ancestors who were its guardians. The house was built around this temple.

On his studio table lie fine brushes and some new sketches on handmade paper. But Swami has been painting on silk too.

To understand the art, it is important to trace the roots of miniature paintings which go to the 6–7th century AD. They were done on paper, wooden tablets, marble, ivory, walls, and even cloth. It was the Mughals who gave these paintings the much-needed impetus in the 16th century. Scenes focusing on women, highlights of the royal courts, flowers and animals constituted major parts. Many fine illustrated manuscripts were also made. The Bikaner style began in the reign of Rao Bika who founded Bikaner in 1488. Among the famous painters who influenced the miniature art scene in Bikaner were Ali Raza and Rukh-ud-din. They were patronized by the Mughals and the maharajas of Bikaner. In Ali Raza’s paintings, Lakshmi Narayana came alive. He even painted the portrait of his patron Maharaja Karan Singh (1631–1639). Rukh-ud-din brought art elements of the Deccan to Bikaner, and his paintings showed the technique of rendering fountains, court scenes and had nature-based backgrounds. Even as Swami carries the legacy forward, he has added more to this portfolio.

He has forayed into yoga series. The first of these, the surya namaskar, was exhibited in Australia, and much appreciated there. Inspired by the traditions of the Far East and the sufis, Swami has done a scroll of botanicals in a collaborative project too. His works have been documented in the book Art of Bikaner.

And the guru-shishya parampara continues in their home. Swami’s 33-year-old son, Anurag, has been trained by him and now works on projects with him. Now father and son are painting more hatha yoga postures. The entire project could take a year and a half to complete. Another project that they are working on is the mahayagya.

For this priestly artist, every day is learning and an inspiration. He collects natural colours all the time. Whenever he is travelling, he will find something new to bring back. Most of them lining his cupboard are made from vegetables, minerals, stones. In earlier times, colours were made from precious stones, conch shells, pure gold and silver, indigo too, he adds. Many shades are mixed before he finds the right colour for the right figure. Gold is extensively used to highlight the jewellery and other accessories in paintings. In the yoga series too, gold highlights make for the strong eye-catching parts. Blackened metal colour becomes the focus in many of his works.

The journey has been a long one, probably spanning over 45 years, and along the way he has been sharing the learning to keep the art alive. Besides residency and art exchange programmes, Swami has been teaching young ones. Some come through the government’s programmes, others on their own. The father and son hope to one day bring out a set of colouring books for amateurs which will keep the art alive in every corner. In the meanwhile the legacy of little frames lives on in the narrow lanes of Bikaner.

This article appeared in the January 2018 issue of Art & Deal magazine, pages 49–51.

India-based journalist, photographer and videographer, worked with Outlook Traveller, Swagat and written for patriot.in. Mail: ambicagulati@gmail.com