The most valuable painting in my art collection is one of my mother’s masterpieces.
My mother, Kaushal Kapur, was born in Sikar district of Rajasthan. The city was studded with large airy havelis with white-washed walls decorated with colorful Rajasthani folk murals. My mother loved decorating her parents’ courtyard with colorful rangolis or painting henna tattoos on friends’ and sisters’ palms. Once at the School of Art in Jaipur, she saw an artist engrossed in painting a miniature.
Miniature art was introduced to India in the sixteenth century by the Mughal ruler, Humayun. He brought with him Persian artists who specialized in the fine art of painting. Humayun’s descendent Emperor Akbar built an art gallery and many schools of painting. Akbar era paintings were aristocratic and strong in portraiture. Elaborate court scenes and hunting expeditions were favored.
The word miniature comes from ‘minium’ which is red lead paint used in illuminated manuscripts. These paintings are very intricate and rendered in minute detail. Strong line drawings were rendered on paper, ivory, wood, leather, marble, and cloth. Colored with vegetable and mineral dyes in complementary colors: pale greens, reds, blues, and yellows. Embellished with real silver and gold they sparkle like multifaceted gemstones. Preparing colors and mixing is a complex process. It takes several weeks to get the desired results. The fine brushes were made from the hair of squirrels, and were highly valued. Today many artists replicate the originals in poster colors for affordable merchandising.
My mother was mesmerized by the king in light blue skin as Krishna with his beloved as Radha. She requested the master to teach her how to paint. The art teacher was reluctant, thinking that it was a passing fancy for her. He tried to dissuade her. But the pursuit of creativity takes courage and persistence. My mother visited the art school daily and did not give up. Her resolve was apparent at a tender age. One day, the teacher asked her to draw straight lines on blank paper. Before he could say Radhe Krishna, little Kaushalya had drawn hundred straight lines on the paper. Impressed by her steady hand, the artist enrolled her in his class.
Mother painted several gouache watercolors under his tutelage. I grew up with her paintings in our home. They are exceptional works of art in delicate harmonious colors. I adored her paintings as a child but over time I have grown to appreciate her style even more. There is unique clarity of form and apparent ease of composition. My eyes linger for hours on fine uninterrupted lines, and exaggerated features in the frames. Long necks, large almond-shaped eyes, long fingers, and elegant toes.
My mother’s art is imprinted on my mind. Perhaps that explains elaborate doodles in my workbooks. My classmates would line up at my desk to request their doodles. School chalkboards were also covered in my art in all free periods. My teachers can vouch for that. After coming to America, my mother visited me and we both made a Bani Thani style painting together. I can clearly visualize her able hands patiently mixing the watercolors for me. This painting is my anchor. It portrays the universal twin souls Radha and Krishna engrossed in mutual adoration. I have the painting on my mantle. In the grandeur of this rendering, I can visualize my mother’s being in the Bani Thani. I also have her painting of Ahalya, the most beautiful woman petrified in stone kneeling in front of a handsome Lord Rama. Another one of a lovely young maiden on a tuft of lotus leaves with a serene expression which I think is a self-portrait.
I never feel alone when I paint because my mother’s hand guides me from across the oceans. But my piece de resistance is her prize-winning painting of a maiden in a hut waiting for her beloved. It is a 9 by 11 monochromatic watercolor painting in shades of green and aqua. She has created a wonderful rustic atmosphere and depth with a limited palette. Color blending is flawless. I can enter the living space, hear the rustle of her skirt. Touch her long fingers, admire her delicate lashes as she engages in small talk with her parrot.
As a child, I often wondered what she was cooking on the earthenware stove. The solitary lamp in the alcove and four flickering flames are so poetic. But more than anything else, I love her beautiful feet strongly planted on terra firma despite the faraway look in her eyes. The painting embodies the body, heart, and soul of my mother. She is an angel and the salt of the Earth. And she is mine.
Monita Soni grew up in Mumbai, India, and works as a pathologist in Alabama. She is well known for her creative nonfiction and poetry pieces inspired by family, faith, food, home, and art. She has written two books: My Light Reflections and Flow through my Heart. She is a regular contributor to NPR’s Sundial Writers Corner.