August 30, 2011

Bani Thani: Dressing up Mona Lisa in Rajasthani miniature art

I first discovered Rajasthan miniature artist, Gopal Swami Khetanchi's painting, Bani Thani [All Dressed Up]** few years ago and could not help but be drawn towards it. However, it eventually slipped from my mind and it was not until a few weeks ago that I recalled the painting once again when I spotted a girl carrying a tote emblazoned with the painting at Delhi Airport (talk about a fantastic example of marrying fashion to art).

While I must confess that I do not worship Mona Lisa as such, what intrigued me about this particular painting was that Mona Lisa had been depicted in a traditional Kishengarh miniature painting style. What with Rajasthani miniature paintings having been influenced by Mughal miniature paintings as a result of cultural cross-pollination between the two cultures in the 16th and 17th centuries, each particular region in Rajasthan has nonetheless developed its own individual school of painting over the centuries; the paintings of Kishengarh school are particularly renowned.

Here is a quintessential Kishengarh painting below:

Upon researching more about Kishengarh paintings, I learnt that the painting above is called Bani Thani and known as India's Mona Lisa. Khetanchi's Bani Thani therefore literally transposed Mona Lisa into the Kishengarh painting context, merging the worlds of 16th century Rajasthan and Florence in his re-interpretation of Mona Lisa.

This painting below is another representative of Rajasthan miniature painting:

Apart from the miniature artists' superlative ability to so effectively create and convey a microcosm through the minute, painstaking nature of their art, I have also thought much about the two-dimensional figures that populate these paintings. The ubiquitous presence of Krishna-Radha, kings and queens, courtiers, and their attendants: yet, who are they? What are they thinking? Why is it that they happen to be where they are in the paintings? At times, it seems that the lovingly detailed leaves conjure up a greater air of vitality than the figures themselves. The figures in turn are shrouded in mystery, performing within the painting and yet, their faces are impassive, refusing to reveal what lies beneath their perfectly manicured features.

Mona Lisa's legendary enigmatic smile can compel even a casual viewer to become a detective in their quest to decode Mona Lisa's thoughts - and the layers of interpretations about this smile that have accumulated over the centuries are testimony to this greatest art mystery. In that context, having migrated from 16th century Florence to the world of a Rajasthan miniature painting, the transition is not as jarring as one might think. Apart from the momentary and immediate visual interest the painting generates for the viewer upon seeing Mona Lisa having donned Rajasthani regalia and costume, there is also the matter of Mona Lisa easily adopting a similar manner of carriage to that of the women in the miniature paintings. She thus perfectly fits into this sisterhood of elegant inscrutability, easily embracing this incredibly beautiful yet mysterious world. As she continues to radiate a simultaneous sense of mystery and serenity, one can quite almost forget her earlier Italian incarnation...

*For further reading, here's an article I wrote about contemporary Rajasthani miniature artists


  1. "Bani Thani" is such a brilliant concept. Are there any tutorials on doing a kishengarh paintings? I am sure it must require years of dedication and love for the art. These paintings have always intrigued and amused me. Beautiful indeed.

  2. First of all, Doctor Sahiba, I would like to extend you a warm welcome over here:)

    Yes, Bani Thani *is* a brilliant concept - regarding tutorials, for example, if you read the article I wrote about the miniature artists, they told me they hold workshops in their respective villages where they teach their particular school of miniature painting (Jaipur). However, it does require years of dedication - also, both the love and skill of the craft has been passed down from generation to generation in the artists' families. It is firmly embedded in their genes:)


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