There’s a game you start to play after looking at hundreds of Indian miniatures. Call it Mughal miniature bingo. Is there an imperious prince with a very straight back? Check. Pavilions? Check. Musicians? Gathered courtiers? Glorious gardens? Check, check, check. Most of these paintings, exquisite as they are, were controlled—even calculated—images. You start to feel this is rote work, and to sense the subservience of the artist to those who commissioned it. In the Mughal era, many paintings were essentially press releases for royalty. So it’s bracing to turn to portraits of Balwant Singh, a minor royal—pretty much a nobody in 18th-century India’s princely hierarchy—who has become one of the more intriguing subjects in Indian art. We know about him only because of his intimate, profoundly creative relationship with a painter from Guler named Nainsukh.
Guler, a small kingdom in the foothills of the HImalayas, was one of the homes of the well-established Pahari school of miniature painting. Nainsukh, though, was different from his predecessors—in the extraordinary precision of his lines, the bold use of blank space in his compositions, the emotional poise of his portraits. But what I love about Nainsukh’s work is that everyday concerns of his time aren’t banished from the frame.