Friday, July 12, 2013

The Miniature Artist

An artist friend of mine* just posted a small rant on Facebook. He was talking about talent--that to call an artist talented is almost an insult, because it is dismissive of the thousands of hours spent honing one's craft, perfecting one's senses, learning to speak in the language of art.

My friend Banty would agree. Banty is the owner of an art school in Jaipur. He teaches one thing only: the craft of the Rajasthani miniature. His own skill is so great that his paintings have been shown all over the world. The craft of miniature painting was handed down from his father, whose work hangs in pride of place in his office.

In the front of Banty's workshop, his teenage students paint birds and elephants and war horses and gods. They use brushes with a single camel hair to add detail. I always stop and watch with such fascination that I fluster the earnest young artists. But the hand of the young man closest to me  does not falter as he adds faint dappling to the war horse on the paper before him.

Rajasthani miniatures are what most people think of when they think of Indian art, and the artists take that responsibility seriously. They learn by doing, copying classic miniatures hundreds of times. Banty  has been painting since he was a child. He has painted thousands of Rajasthani miniatures, honing his art with each new piece.

Banty is a jovial man, round-faced with a robust curling Rajput moustache that he fingers endlessly. A large gold watch hangs loosely on his wrist. When I met him for the first time, he greeted me with a laugh and offered to paint my name, the date, and the place--Jaipur India--on a grain of basmati rice.  He smiled as he handed it to me in a velvet-and-plastic presentation case. He showed me a painting of his father's, along with a similar one of his own. He dared me to guess the number of soldiers in the war scene, which I failed to do. (There were over a thousand of them, swarming at the bottom of the large piece.) Apparently no one has made a correct guess (the prize was the painting), as he went through this show with my partner five years later.

He started showing me paintings. There were hundreds of them, elephants and tigers, gods and kings. They ranged from student work (still beautiful, still intricate, still spellbinding) to work by one of the school's five master craftsmen. I chose several student paintings to bring back for gifts. Many were painted on recycled paper, and bore legends in Urdu and Persian having nothing to do with the painting itself.

I asked to see paintings of Ganesh.  I shuffled through perhaps fifty of them, until one grabbed my eye and heart. He had the most beautiful eyes, looking soulfully at the viewer through long eyelashes. He was too expensive; I just couldn't do it. I gave it back with a pang, and left with the smaller paintings.

When I got back to California, that Ganesh haunted me. I sent an email to Banty, asking him about the piece. He still had it, but circumstances intervened, and I couldn't buy it then either. Two years later, I was back in India, and I asked Banty if perhaps the Ganesh was still in his studio. I tried to describe it, but all I could say was, "He had beautiful eyes, and the mauve paint surrounding the actual painting had an imperfection in it." I watched in disbelief as he smiled, pulled out his portfolio of hundreds of Ganesh paintings, and said, "I have it."

I shouldn't have been surprised, perhaps. Although it was not one of his paintings, he knew each of the thousands of paintings in his studio, each step towards mastery made by each of his students and their teachers. The thousands of hours spent in painstaking learning of the craft, of practicing the craft, was not only a means to an end, but an end in themselves. The craft is the meditation of the craftsman, and the guru knows them all.

My Ganesh
*Brennen Reece, the fantastic photographer, graphic artist, and musician who is designing the logo for The Tiger's Armoire, as well as photographs taken of his equally amazing wife, artist Sarah Scott. He also rants about people like me who put two spaces after periods because we were taught to type in the Dark Ages. I am scurrying to correct this.


Deb @ India pied-a-terre said...

Oh I'm so glad you finally got your Ganesh! It was meant to be.

Carol said...

Thanks for commenting Deb! (Can I just say here and now that I've been following your blog for a while and absolutely love it? I'm insanely jealous of your Chennai apartment. Especially the door.)

Yeah, I think this particular Ganesh was meant to be. I have him hanging at my front door, as you're supposed to, and I think he brings luck and serenity into the home, as he's supposed to. Occasionally I think he bats his eyelashes at me.