When Dhaniram Khushdil was eight years old, he watched his father paint the walls of an ancient temple in Kangra, Himachal Pradesh and decided he wanted to learn to paint too. He was taken to Chandu Lal Raina—a ninth generation Pahari School painter from a family of court artists in the sub-Himalayan kingdom of Maharajah Sansar Chand, 250 years ago. But over the centuries, bereft of royal patronage, the art went into a steep decline.
Khushdil, who is from Dhugiari village, is a master artist and founded the Kangra Art Revival Forum over three decades ago. “Before 1988, there were only four miniature artists in the Kangra valley,” he told me over the phone. “I knew if I wouldn’t teach it to the people after me, the art would be lost.” After years of training, Khushdil set up the Forum to teach independently, and free of cost. He has worked closely with the Kangra Art Promotion Society and Kangra Art Museum to teach young students about the importance of saving the art.
His students have different motivations and experiences, but they each hope to reverse the fortunes of Pahari painting while also finding a way to make a living. One of Khushdil’s oldest pupils is Suresh Chaudhary, who learned from his teacher for over 20 years before becoming a professor of art at Himachal Pradesh University in Shimla. “We have students from abroad like Germany who know far more about [Pahari painting] than people from our own state, let alone India,” Chaudhary told me.
Kajal, Khushdil’s daughter is another of his students. At 18, she studies Fine Arts in Kangra, but brings the lessons she learned from her father to her degree course. “Every child learns to hold a pencil, but I learned to hold a paintbrush first,” she told me. She too chose her profession, like her father. “My father never compelled me to do this because you cannot force anyone to learn art. Everything rests on the a person’s will. I used to sit in the balcony and watch him teaching the students who came from villages far away. I never wanted to do anything else.”
Kajal explained how difficult it is to get all the various materials for miniature painting. “We have to go to as far as Rajasthan to get the necessary items. But I hope with more and more students coming forward to learn it, one day we will make a difference. My father brought Pahari miniature art back to life and now it is our job to rear it.”
The concentration miniature painting requires can help young students with other aspects of their lives too. Rozy Chaudhary began learning when she was 18. At the classes, she met Seema and Anita, who are deaf. “They often express how because of Dhaniramji they have been given a new life,” Chaudhary told me. “It is important for them to equip themselves to become independent and gain employment.”
Chaudhary told me students aren’t allowed to bring in their mobile phones, as painting requires a lot of concentration. “I can only work for four to five hours a day otherwise my eyes begin to hurt,” she said.
For some of the students here, distraction due to technology isn’t an issue. “I see a lot of artists on YouTube and Facebook who upload videos of their work and get millions of likes,” Varun Kumar told me. The 22-year-old is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Arts from Dharamshala and goes to Khushdil’s house whenever he’s not in college. “But is getting likes and comments helping them? Even if we want to do something like that we do not have cameras or laptops.”
“Most of my friends and cousins did engineering or MBA, so it took me sometime to convince my parents,” Kumar said. “They had their concerns about my decision to study painting, which is justifiable. But once I get certifications, I will be able to take this art further.”
Kumar said he felt too much importance was given to modern art in India. “I personally do not like modern art, because to me it seems like an ugly representation of beauty. I do not understand why they sell for lakhs of rupees while miniature artists, who spend so much time on each painting are struggling to make ends meet.”