My Story: Learning Painting from a Rajput Master

Ved Pal Sharma – Bannu – in his Jaipur studio in the early 1990s.

Back in the 1990s, I had the privilege of being able to watch and learn from an hereditary master painter in Jaipur. The late Ved Pal Sharma, known as Bannu, was unique, in that he rigorously maintained a practice handed down through several generations in a family line that served the Rajput courts of Jaipur. In learning directly from the master, one was able to absorb something of the historic master/disciple style of learning. This was how the masters of the Rajput, Mughal and Persian court ateliers learned their craft, and I was keen to get as unadulterated a transmission as possible.

My copy of “A Second Paradise: Indian Courtly Life 1590 – 1942” by Naveen Patnaik. Sidgwick & Jackson Ltd. 1985.

Learning comes from watching rather than active instruction. I first had this opportunity when we hosted Bannu and his beautiful wife Draupadi at our home in London. It was their first visit. I already knew a little about Bannu, having visited his home in Jaipur a year previously, where I met his eldest son Virendra.

I also had a copy of a marvellous book called “A Second Paradise, Indian Court Life 1590-1942” by Naveen Patnaik, with a forward by Stuart Carey Welsh in which he described Bannu at work in his studio. This enchanting book traces a history of courtly life under the Mughals, the Rajputs and the British, lavishly illustrated with historical miniature paintings and vintage photography from major collections. It offers a captivating introduction to the world in which Bannu’s forbears trained and worked.

Bannu was commissioned to create vignettes illustrating aspects of the rulers’ lives, which can be seen throughout the book, and which adorn the endpapers.

Endpapers of the book with a collage of Bannu’s Vignettes

Bannu’s illustration of a hookah and containers for intoxicants on page 135.

Bannu was skilled in restoring historical paintings in a variety of styles, but his personal work derived from the Jaipur School and the Kishangarh School (both regional Rajput court styles of painting). His own distinctive style displays an intense romanticism, refinement and lightness of touch, with an exquisite combination of loose handling and precise detail. His materials – paper, brushes and pigments – came from a store accumulated over generations in his family, and from other traditional craftsmen working in the city of Jaipur to serve its painting industry: brushmakers, gold-beaters, pigment and paper dealers.

Later I spent time as a guest at Bannu’s traditional Haveli home in an artisanal quarter of Old Jaipur, there to learn from him and absorb the environment and context of his work. My association with the family continued over several years, extending to his sons Virendra and Shammi, both of whom continue their respected practice in traditional painting. I shall be publishing a more in-depth essay about my experiences in Jaipur very soon, but for now I would like to share something of Bannu’s techniques in drawing and rendering.

Radha and Krishna by Bannu (Ved Pal Sharma), London 1991

My pencil sketch of Bannu working, 1991.

The painting above was made for me by Bannu in 1991, in order to show me the technique.  I sat by him and watched as he created it over a period of two weeks, explaining each stage and the colours he was using as he worked. He used a piece of Japanese paper that I had – not his usual choice, which would be from his store of 18th – 19th century hemp paper made in Rajasthan. My Japanese paper had fine decorative fibres and tiny flecks of mica integrated into it, but it was suitably fine textured and smooth for him to work on. I sketched this portrait of him as he worked.

He began with a highly diluted solution of water and lamp-black with which he rapidly and schematically sketched out the composition of the figures of Radha and Krishna in the palest grey sweeps. Once this was dry, he used a generous round brush to lay a wash of chalk pigment mixed with gum Arabic over the sketch. This highly refined, pinkish-white pigment, known as Khadhiya, seems to be distinctive to Rajput painting. Transparent when applied, it dries to a soft translucent base which is slightly absorbent. When it is burnished with a smooth agate stone, it helps to refine the painting surface.

Indian miniature-painter’s brushes

Upon the polished chalk surface, with the sketched composition showing faintly through, Bannu began to draw using an Indian miniature-painter’s brush. These brushes are made by hand in Jaipur from the tail-hairs of the striped Indian squirrel. The staple is slightly curved, quite soft, and comes to a sharp point. Its flexibility makes it agile, and it holds a lot of moisture, making it ideal for the flowing calligraphic lines required for Indo-Persian painting and illumination. Bannu held his brush lightly in his long fingers, resting his hand on a separate piece of paper for added stability. At no point was he ‘tight’ in his handling. The scrap paper was also used for testing the loaded brush, and for practicing certain shapes. I kept it as a record of his working style.

Bannu’s scrap paper used for testing and supporting his hand.

Close-up detail of the faces of Radha and Krishna. Bannu used pre-industrial pigments almost exclusively – the yellow in this painting is the extremely rare, genuine “Indian Yellow”, derived from cow’s urine.

In this close-up of the faces of Radha and Krishna (the original faces are about one inch from forehead to chin) you can see the way in which he used the brush for different aspects of the drawing.

Close-up of Radha’s eye and hairline

First there is line, the single most important aspect of Indo-Persian painting, linking it in the Islamic world with calligraphy. For each face, Bannu began with the outline of the profile, using a single fine line in pale grey diluted lamp-black. He then outlined the ‘lotus eye‘, so-called because it is in the shape of a lotus-petal. He worked over these outlines repeatedly, building up their blackness through successive layers. To give the line depth and animation, he went over them a few times with red lac – a crimson dye derived from the incrustations of the lac-beetle. The black line around the eye was thickened a diffused a little, to give the impression of kohl, and the outer corners of the eye reddened with lac to give it life.

The faces were modelled with minute strokes using the tip of the brush and diluted pigment, slowly built up over several layers. This is a classic technique known in Persian as ‘pardaz‘, which was developed to virtuoso levels during the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. Every stroke is considered, and in no place do you see a hard or clumsy mark. A slightly different handling of this technique can be seen on Radha’s temple, where her hair growth is  rendered with great delicacy using elongated strokes.

According to Motichandra, who in 1949 published a treatise “The Techniques of Mughal Painting” based on the working practice of one of the last of the hereditary painters of post-Mughal Northern India, (published by the U.P. Historical Society, Lucknow):

“Stippling or shading (pardaz) forms an important factor in later Mughal painting. It is done with a view to remove specks, to increase the depth of the colours……It is, however, not primarily intended to reproduce effects of light and shade as in Western painting but that kind of shading which produces an effect of roundness or relief…

Stippling or shading with minute parallel lines is khat pardaz, and with dots dana pardaz. Other methods of stippling are ghuha pardaz in which the dots or lines are placed so close that they are indistinguishable from one another; dhuuadhar pardaz in which stippling is so minute that it cannot be distinguished; jalidar pardaz ‘shading with crossed lines’, gudaz pardaz ‘shading that melts’, and ek-bal pardaz in which every hair is shown separately.” (pp. 45, 46)

One of my ‘apprentice’ practice sheets with Bannu

A much younger me, at Bannu’s Jaipur studio









Working with Bannu at his Jaipur Haveli, where students like myself were made to feel thoroughly at home and at peace, I had a chance to practice these techniques in the time-honoured way: Bannu would select a small piece of old paper from his store, on which he made a few drawings that I had to copy repeatedly in order to refine my line and practice my brushwork.

The knowledge imparted by this gentle, generous master and his family have been of invaluable use in my subsequent practice and research, representing as near as possible an unbroken 500-year-old line of transmission from the Kitabkhane (library ateliers) of the past. Inevitably some aspects have been lost – changes and innovations have crept in along the way; but the way in which he worked, and the way in which he taught, can be instantly recognized when one reads treatises written by 16th century Safavid masters.

So, whether I am researching the codicology of 15th century Timurid manuscripts, teaching students and running professional development seminars with museum professionals, or creating new works for my contemporary art practice, what I learned in those few years pervades, in some way or another.