In 2009, internationally acclaimed miniature painting artist and Padma Shri awardee, Vijay Sharma (58), completed 30 years as an artist.
Despite having earned fame by making thousands of Pahari-style miniature paintings, some of which had travelled to Europe and the United States, Vijay felt as excited and nervous as a schoolboy at the prospect of meeting his idol and favourite lyricist, Gulzar. The Himachal Pradesh government had asked Vijay to make a miniature painting especially to honour Gulzar during a conference in the state.
Being an ardent fan of Hindi cinema, Vijay digressed from his usual art themes involving mythological figures and made a masterpiece based on Gulzar’s first poem for Hindi cinema, Mora Gora Ang Lay Le from the movie Bandini.
As per the lyrics, he coloured Radha blue and Krishna white (typically it is Krishna’s face that is blue). Gulzar was so delighted with the Pahari-style painting that he gifted Vijay a signed copy of his book ‘100 Lyrics’ and invited him to his home in Mumbai.
“He was impressed with my style of translating his poem into a painting and, as promised, a year later I had lunch with Gulzar ji in his Bandra house. He even graced us with his presence at my exhibition in the city. That is the most cherished honour that I have ever received because of my artwork,” says Vijay, who lives in Chamba, to The Better India.
If Vijay, in his silver years, still gets nervous when making his next painting, it is because he knows an artist can never stop learning. He treats every new painting as his first and believes that he is still hungry for perfection like a young man would be.
It is probably these virtues of humility and a child-like desire to learn new things that bagged this natural pool of talent India’s fourth highest civilian award in 2012.
Vijay is credited for not only preserving the 300-year-old art of Pahari-style miniature paintings that were on the verge of extinction but also passing down this knowledge to the younger generation. Vijay runs Shilpa Parishad, an NGO, to promote this genre of miniature painting.
Pahari miniature paintings date back to the 17th century when the Guler court kings hired professionals to illustrate the beauty of the Himalayan foothills. The painters took inspiration from themes related to Indian myths and poems and created artwork against the backdrop of the hilly regions on mini canvases of less than 25 square inches each.
Guler riyasat was in the Kangra valley and under Raja Sansar Chand, miniature paintings flourished. Under his rule, artists translated Jaydeva’s Sanskrit love poem, the ‘Gita Govinda’, ‘Bihari’s Sat Sai’, ‘Bhagawat Purana’ and the romantic tale of Nala and Damyanti into paintings.
Vijay came from a modest background. His father worked as a bus driver with the Himachal Road Transport Corporation. Vijay’s love for art was sparked during a visit to the Bhuri Singh Museum in Chamba when he was just 13 years old.
He saw miniature paintings made by local artists for the first time and was completely mesmerised by their work. He couldn’t believe that the paintings with such detailing were made from horse hair or bird feathers.
However, the fact that many of these artists had discontinued making miniature paintings and switched to carpentry work was more surprising to him. It compelled him to research the art form and that’s how he entered this world of paintings that often need a magnifying lens to be appreciated for their details and colours.
“After independence when the kings were absorbed of their powers, artists couldn’t find an alternative way to sell the paintings. The government also did not do much to promote miniature paintings. Thus, the painters ended with carpentry work as they already possessed the required skills,” says Vijay.
He learnt that there were different schools of Pahari paintings — Basohli, Guler, Kangra, Chamba, and Mandi schools.
“They are similar to the Rajasthani style, as themes are usually centred around love and grief. Before paper was invented, the paintings were done on palm leaves. Sheets of paper are combined to make the base thick and all the colours are sourced naturally,” Vijay explains.
For example, sindoor (a traditional vermilion powder) is used for red, black is extracted from the black deposits of a diya, and white is created by shredding stones. Interestingly, poison extracted from poisonous plants is applied to prevent the paintings from decaying.
Unleashing his Passion for Painting
Since Vijay’s father did not have the avenues to nurture his son’s passion or talent, Vijay learnt on his own initially. He honed the technique of compressing images without compromising on details by accompanying his father on bus rides; he would draw the landscapes, people, scenery, and everything else he saw on small pieces of paper.
“My parents liked my drawings and soon I became the boy who could copy any image, landscape, portrait, and painting in the neighbourhood. A few years later, I started visiting local families to learn two styles of Pahari painting – Kangra and Basohli,” says Vijay.
Everything was sailing smoothly till it came time to turn his passion into a profession.
“The usual concerns about earning a stable livelihood erupted. Plus, no one in my family was an artist so I had no one to hold my hand or mentor me in this field. It was just me and my skills in the beginning,” says Vijay.
He realised miniature paintings have a flourishing market in Rajasthan and Bihar because those states draw many more tourists from India and abroad compared to his hometown of Chamba in Himachal Pradesh.
So, with the help of a curator at Chamba Museum, he visited Varanasi and Jaipur in the 1980s.
“I visited the Bharat Kala Bhawan in Varanasi and a family in Jaipur to learn the basics. Learning from traditional scholars was way better than attending a formal school. From here I learnt how the guru-shishya (teacher-student) relationship helps nurture young talent, as even today there is no dedicated course on miniature paintings,” he says.
It was around this time that Vijay started working with the Himachal Pradesh State Transport Department to draw routes on map and paint buses. Two years later, he quit the job and joined the Art and Culture Department of Himachal Pradesh (HP) where he worked as a painting tutor for a few years.
As time passed, his passion and focus towards painting deepened so much that he took an oath that he would have his meal only after completing one sketch daily.
He also learnt Hindustani classical music for ten years to decode ragas (compositions) and the emotions behind them. Once he understood the different bhaavs (emotions), he started capturing the emotions of nayak-nayika (hero-heroine) from mythology and poems in his paintings.
Accolades and Accomplishments
In the early 1990s, Vijay became an active participant in exhibitions and competitions organised by the HP government. His talent was recognised gradually as he became a part of an art delegation representing first his state and then the country.
In 1995, Vijay made his first international trip as part of the Indian delegation to Singapore for an exhibition. There, he also bagged one of his firsts major projects.
“A person wanted me to draw his influential friend with two wives. It took me almost a month to do this job. I earned 1000 USD and interestingly that happens to be one of my costliest paintings,” he recalls.
Things changed dramatically after that trip as regional papers in India covered the Chamba boy who had made the entire state of Himachal Pradesh proud. In 1997, the All India Fine Arts and Crafts Society awarded him their annual AIFACS Award and a decade later he was honoured with the Kalidas Samman.
Having established his identity in the art community, Vijay has several admirers around the world.
Vinit Vyas from Ahmedabad, a fine arts history graduate who researches on early modern visual and material culture of South Asia, is in awe of Vijay’s Basohli style.
“Vijayji’s keen eye in examining older Pahari paintings is discernible in his practice. Through his vibrant colour palette, swift lines, and astute inclusion of specific Pahari elements, he amazingly weaves older themes with newer compositions. One of my favourite paintings by him is the composition of Radha and Krishna romancing, placed within a circle of trees, against a vibrant red background,” he tells The Better India.
Vijay may have lost count of the number of paintings he has made over 40 years but he surely remembers every pattern, style, and colour he has ever used. It takes anywhere between a week to a month for a miniature artist to complete one painting.
“The key to such stunning artworks lies in the hand’s control over the brush and detailing. My only advice to all the beginners is to copy the existing styles and do rigorous practice before creating something of your own,” Vijay advises.
Interestingly, this famous painter practised for days to make the Radha-Krishna Pahari-style miniature painting that now hangs in Gulzar’s house!
All the images are sourced from Vijay Sharma.
Edited by Nishi Malhotra