Fifty-year-old Mohan Kumar Prajapati creates timeless worlds using single-hair brushes on a paper called vasli. It consists of three to five sheets of handmade paper held together with natural glue. The thick paper is then mounted on glass and rubbed with a paper weight to give it a unique finish.
If preparing the canvass is so laborious, the making of miniature paintings on them is more so. But Mohan Kumar speaks matter-of-factly about his art. He first wielded the brush when he was 10, as a third generation member of his family and began painting the stories of Mughal royals, their weddings and wars. In the last four decades, he says, he has seen the art and the fate of artists fluctuate, but never before was he as worried as he is today.
“People fail to appreciate the beauty and cultural value of miniature paintings,” he says, coming from the historic city of Jaipur that was once home to 10,000 miniature artists. Today not even 50 are left and of them barely 20 are active. “Given the intricate detailing of the paintings, it strains the eye of those aged above 50 years,” says Mohan Kumar, six of whose family members are proficient in the ancient art form.
Trained by his father, Mohan Kumar’s works don’t cease to amaze. The diminutive dimensions of his work, are fascinating. Only with the help of a magnifying glass, can you see the perfect lines of the delicate eyelashes of a baby, the wrinkles of an old man, the grey lines under an elephant’s eyes, small insects lining a leaf, details of a bird’s wings, the distinct emotions and expressions of tiny figures, the detailed embroidery on dresses, shadows and more.
The paintings are actually not small, but exacting in their depictions. Mohan Kumar also does miniature paintings based on Indian mythology, particularly Radha and Krishna, and many gods and goddesses, people, flora and fauna. He has also incorporated the Mysore and Tanjore style of painting adding a distinctive appeal to his works.
He uses vibrant organic colours extracted from shells, stones and vegetables and embellishes his paintings with burnished gold and sparkling silver along with precious stones such as ruby and emerald. Of the hundreds of miniature paintings that he has done so far, he holds two dear to his heart. One is a 2×2 feet painting of Shahjahan’s elephant training by the bank of the Yamuna which he refuses to part with. He says he made it 15 years ago based on one of the 44 paintings in the Padshahnama, the 478- page long handwritten chronicle of Shahjahan’s reign.
“In my miniature, I introduced 62 characters to the frame. When you look at Aurganzeb through the magnifying glass, he looks like a 16-year-old. It took me one year to finish and I know I wont be able to reproduce another such work now.”
His other masterpiece is also from the same book depicting Shahjahan’s full durbar, which he sold to a Chinese buyer for 4,500 Euros a decade ago. Until this biggest sale of his in 2008, Mohan, like a majority of miniature artists, was attached to various emporiums. “We got orders from emporium owners and were bound to them,” he says. When his work got noticed and he started travelling for exhibitions, he realised the emporium owners paid the artists a pittance but sold their paintings at a huge price. He then began taking direct orders from customers. His works adorn the walls of homes and offices of several important people such as cricketer Ajay Jadeja, former Chief Minister of Goa Pratap Singh Rane, textile revivalist Jaya Jaitly, among others.
But, he asserts, the art is dying because it is a tedious process. That is why he has now taken to teaching the art to whosoever is interested. He has successfully conducted workshops in Bengaluru, Kochi and Delhi and is in Madurai now for a month invited by Pace Foundation, the community partnership platform of Hotel Fortune Pandiyan.
The lovely blend of Hindu, Persian and Islamic in the miniatures make them unique. “There are not many takers for the art now,” he rues and adds, “But a true artist has to work to keep the art alive.”
To register for a four-day workshop with Prajapati, call 8870123366. Cost per person is Rs.3,500