Jaipur’s miniature treasures

The narrow alleys behind the famed Hawa Mahal of Jaipur,  Rajasthan, are car-free zones. Walking these alleys, one cannot miss the sepia-toned homes, complete with ornate doors, carved wood facades and small windows. I have come here to meet 58-year-old artist, Virendra Bannu, known for his unique style of miniature painting.  He lives in an old haveli. The cream-hued ornate door leads me to an open courtyard, and a narrow stairway gets me to his workspace strewn with large shells that he uses to store a myriad of paints. 

This image shows miniature artist Virendra Bannu's  numerous natural colors on stones,  which he uses for his work. (Photo: Bindu Gopal Rao)
Miniature artist Virendra Bannu uses natural colors for his work. (Photo: Bindu Gopal Rao)

“I use handmade paper from Sanganer and traditional squirrel-hair brushes to paint,” Bannu tells me. “I always use natural colors. Yellow, green, and red are from a stone, while indigo is from the plant and blue is from a semi-precious stone, lapis lazuli,” he explains. 

“White is from a soft limestone, which also acts as a primer on paper. Three or four papers are glued together  to create the base called wasli and last for hundreds of years,” he says. 

Preserving a generations-old art form

This image shows Kartik Gaggar, founder of online art platform, Rooftop, standing in front of a large wall-mounted TV screen. He appears to be giving a presentation about Rooftop.(Photo: Bindu Gopal Rao)
Kartik Gaggar, founder, online art platform, Rooftop. (Photo: Bindu Gopal Rao)

Bannu  is a seventh-generation artist taking forward the family legacy in a specialized art, informs Kartik Gaggar, CEO & Founder, Rooftop, an online learning platform for live art workshops. “His father  was one of the best miniature artists in the royal court as well,” says Gaggar. Spend time with Bannu, and he will show you paintings made by his great-great grandfather! 

He points out several nuances, including how some use a border. “We use pure gold when we paint, both gold leaves when we make the border as well as liquid gold to show jewelry and other highlights,” says Bannu. Inspired by his forefathers’ work, his focus has been to interpret it in his own way. He has also used oil paints and creates his own interpretation of art. The colors and methodology, however, are always traditional. He holds a magnifying glass for me to see the details and nuances of his work.

This image shows Virendra Bannu posing with his largest work on cloth, which is a depiction of a scene from the "Ramayan". (Photo: Bindu Gopal Rao)
Virendra Bannu with his largest work on cloth, which is a depiction of a scene from the “Ramayan”. (Photo: Bindu Gopal Rao)

Bannu sells his art through exhibitions, but many patrons approach him directly to buy his work or commission exclusive art pieces. Although he has been training  in miniature painting since his childhood, he says his master’s course from Rajasthan University helped him hone his skills. Banno is an exponent of the Jaipur miniature style. But he has explored other formats that include larger paintings. His largest work, a painting on cloth that depicts Lord Rama, his wife, his siblings and Hanuman, is his pride. On his official visit to Canada in April 2015, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gifted one of Bannu’s  miniature paintings of Guru Nanak to then Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper.

India’s unique frescoes

My next stop on the art trail was to understand another form of miniature art with a difference. When entering artist Bhawani Shankar Sharma’s studio in his home, I couldn’t take my eyes off an entire wall that he had painted with an extensive fresco of a mela (fair), complete with minute details of this familiar community event. This large work is an exception for Sharma. Most of his works are in the same style, but on  smaller canvases. 

A fresco by Bhawani Shankar Sharma. The art work shows a huge number of people walking towards what looks like a fair. (Photo: Bindu Gopal Rao)
A fresco by Bhawani Shankar Sharma. (Photo: Bindu Gopal Rao)

Seventy seven-year-old Sharma has won the Rajasthan Lalit Kala Akademi award over five times. His work has been exhibited in several Indian galleries and international exhibitions. 

A visiting faculty member of many academic bodies of art in Rajasthan and other Indian states, he explains that this form of fresco is different compared to the popular Italian frescos.  “We first need to prepare the surface using a combination of river sand, marble powder, and lime before we can paint the frescoes, something that is not done in the Italian fresco painting style.

“The source (sand, marble powder, and lime mix) can be applied on stone, bricks, and terracotta, and can be prepared three to six months before painting. We use pure lime on the surface, which is a distinguishing element. We use earth, mineral, and stone colors that are also prepared before painting,” says Sharma.

Fresco workshops now online

The veteran artist first learned the art of frescos from his father,  Prof Deoki Nandan Sharma, and later did a course on the subject at Banasthali University. His father started workshops at the university to revive and revitalize the art of fresco. Now Sharma continues to offer these workshops to ensure that art form is not lost. It was this quality that drew Gaggar to reach out to Sharma to offer his workshops on digital platform, Rooftop.  This art form needs patience and finesse; it will slowly die out if the next generation is not made aware of its intricacies, says Gaggar. “He has a passion to continue the art that he learned from his father. There is no one else in our country who works so much on frescoes.”  

Nature inspires Sharma. He spends a lot of time observing his surroundings, a trait that helped him create several artworks during the pandemic lockdown. He used wood from his home to create sculptures as well. “Indian artists first conceptualize and then create their work, narrating a story, which makes them different compared to artists abroad. You must know yourself to be successful as then you can create what your heart wants and how to best express it using the medium of your choice,” he explains. 

Jaipur is often known as a city that is home to many diverse art forms. Miniature paintings are an important part of the state’s cultural identity. With new-age travelers seeking to explore cities off the beaten path, art experiences like these make a compelling case for experiential travel.

So, the next time you are in Jaipur, check out the art path – it is an enriching experience that you must not miss.

Bindu Gopal Rao is a freelance writer and photographer from Bangalore who likes taking the offbeat path when traveling. Birding and environment are her favorites and she documents her work on www.bindugopalrao.com.