Padmashree Dr Vijay Sharma is a miniature painter and senior artist at the Bhuri Singh Museum, Chamba. He is an expert on Pahari miniature paintings.
Following is an edited transcript of the interview conducted over email on September 29, 2018.
Sarang Sharma: Could you start by telling us about the temple architecture in the Himalayan terrain, especially the Devi Kothi temple.
Vijay Sharma: The tradition of temple architecture in Chamba dates back to the seventh century. Though the major royal commissions of building temples in Chamba favoured stone as the choice of medium, wooden temples were also constructed. The earliest known wooden temples are Lakshana Devi temple in Bharmour and Shakti Devi temple in Chhatrari. The Lakshana Devi temple, which bears a richly carved entrance, is considered a landmark in temple construction in the region. An inscription in the temple identifies its patron as Raja Meru Varman of Bharmour. Both Lakshana Devi and Shakti Devi temples represent the post-Gupta style workmanship on the wooden reliefs. However, the temple architecture is a simple pent roof with a cella and pradakshina (circumambulatory) path. The architectural style of the Devi Kothi temple follows the conventions of the hilly temples that already existed in Chamba. Its style is similar to the Shakti Devi and Chamunda Devi temples. These temples are embellished in woodcarvings in bas-relief from around 1725–50 AD.
S.S.: What are the stylistic characteristics of the murals of Devi Kothi Temple?
V.S.: The murals of Devi Kothi temple are done in the typical Chamba miniature painting style of the mid-eighteenth century, and the figurative work can be compared to the school of Laharu. Active during the second quarter of the eighteenth century, Laharu belonged to a family of Manikantha artists from Gujarat who were trained in the Mughal school of painting. Though the Devi Kothi temple might not have been rendered by Laharu himself, the murals bear resemblance to his style of work marked by short torsos and elongated legs. The artist (or artists) who painted them arranged the figures in rows and columns. If we look at the murals—especially those of the eastern wall with the story of Krishna—carefully, most of the episodes are inspired by Laharu’s Bhagavata paintings (now housed at the Bhuri Singh Museum, Chamba). This is an example of how miniatures were reinterpreted on the walls. The palette of Devi Kothi painters is limited compared to the colourful miniature paintings of Chamba. Only primary colours were employed in these murals. The intricate black outlines on them highlight the skills of the painters.
S.S.: Could you tell us about the artisan communities who executed mural work and woodcarvings on the ceilings and pillars of the Devi Kothi temple? Were they locals trained in the traditional style of Chamba woodcarving, or were they migrants?
V.S.: As mentioned earlier, the Manikantha artists who executed the murals and woodcarvings were trained in the Mughal style but they were also active in the royal workshop of Chamba court. With time, their style changed. By incorporating elements from the prevalent painting style of Chamba, the Manikantha artists led the development of a painting style which influenced the linear evolution of Chamba as a painting school. The names of the artists active in Devi Kothi find mention in an inscription incised on wood. They were Gurdev and Jhanda, the leaders of artisans, both painters and carpenters. They were local Chamba people and seem to have stayed at the Devi Kothi village for a considerable time. They perhaps visited home only in winter. There was no room for the involvement of outsiders.
S.S.: Did the woodcarvings inspire the production of the paintings or was it the other way round?
V.S.: The temple was a royal commission. Gifted painters and carpenters were sent to build the temple. This must have taken a lot of time as the paintings and wooden panels were prepared on the spot. We can conclude that woodcarving and painting went hand-in-hand. It is possible that members of the Manikantha painter families, who were talented artists, also did the woodwork.
S.S.: Which Mughal pictorial devices do we find in the murals of Devi Kothi? What are the factors that resulted in the use of Perso-Islamic pictorial motifs in a devi temple?
V.S.: Several Mughal pictorial elements can be seen on the woodcarvings of Devi Kothi, including the winged peri figures, Mughal costumes, the eight-point Iranian star and the sun motif called shamsa. However, it—the woodcarvings and murals of Devi Kothi—was not the first time when Mughal elements were used in the artistic practices of Chamba. Mughal cultural influence began to enter the court of Chamba in the mid-seventeenth century during the reign of Raja Prithvi Singh, who was friends with Dara Shikoh, son of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. Due to Prithvi Singh’s frequent visits to the Mughal court in Lahore, he was exposed to the Mughal culture and art practices and was a instrumental in bringing Mughal influence to Chamba. Also, it may be noted here that the painters who designed the woodcarvings and executed the murals were trained in the Mughal tradition of miniature painting.
S.S.: Are there other temples in Chamba bearing similar Mughal imagery? Which period do those temples belong to?
V.S.: Yes, the Chamunda Devi temple at the hilltop in Chamba town bears figures wearing Mughal costumes, headgears, long patka and peshwaz (women’s robe). Though the temple is devoid of any murals, the woodcarvings are very similar to those of the Devi Kothi temple, also commissioned during the reign of Raja Umed Singh, so it would not be incorrect to call these contemporaneous. However, there is a gap of around 10 years between them.
S.S.: When is the first time that we come across the woodcarving tradition influenced by paintings in Chamba? Was the Devi Kothi temple the first and the last temple of Chamba to bear murals or did the tradition continue with the temples that came later?
V.S.: The Shakti Devi temple of Gand-Dehra is the earliest temple bearing woodcarvings and murals. In the later murals, there is a visible influence of Kangra painting, which evolved during the last quarter of the eighteenth century.
S.S.: What is the present state of the murals of Devi Kothi temple? What steps can be taken for its conservation and preservation?
V.S.: The murals are in a sorry state. There are places where the murals appear to be losing their hold on the walls. The colours are also fading. Visitors have contributed to the deterioration by scribbling and doodling over the panels. Immediate measures need to be taken in order to save the heritage. The first and the foremost step should be to cover the murals in glass frames to prevent further external damage.