Nainsukh: Art Imitating Art

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I first heard of the film Nainsukh back in 2010, when it was about to be released. Yes, it’s been a while and that was even before I started this blog. At that time I was more into independent cinema and other esoteric stuff (Which basically meant I was not sure what to do in life). At that point, someone told me that Amit Dutta was one of India’s finest auteurs that no one knows! So, I wanted to watch some of his work but none of them, including this one, were available anywhere, both legally as well as illegally. It played in various film fests but none of them seemed to take place anywhere near my place.

But why am I talking about this now? Well, I finally managed to watch it. I had to pay $5 to Vimeo but that was nothing after a decade-long wait. I actually noticed it while framing a question on him for my Himalayan Quiz. Secondly, it is being discussed here because Pahari Miniatures are an important element of the Himalayan cultural heritage. Back in 2010, I’d just made my first Himalayan trip to Garhwal and I was yet to set foot in Himachal. Now, a life without HP seems unimaginable.

The film is set in the lower Himalayas covering areas of Kangra and Jammu. It is about the eponymous artist, who was a master of Pahari painting. Back then I probably wouldn’t have known much about it, having never seen one. But a couple of years later, I saw some of the best specimens of Pahari Art at the Bhuri Singh Museum in Chamba.

Nainsukh working on his self-portrait. Screengrab Nainsukh (2010)/Vimeo

Coming back to the film, it’s as eclectic a production as it can be. It is produced by art historian Eberhard Fischer and it mostly draws from the seminal works of BN Goswamy on Pahari Art. So, haters can call it inaccessible but it is clear about what it wants to do and never deviates from that path.

The glory of the lower Himalayas… Screengrab Nainsukh (2010)

Although it is all about Nainsukh, the artist, it can hardly be called a biopic. It does depict some portions about his life but it is more of a celebration of his art and the artform in general. So, most of the film is about a series of painstakingly constructed scenes that imitate some of Nainsukh’s best-known paintings with the King. It tries to reimagine how he must have gone about creating these works and at times, the settings in the films seem uncannily similar to the paintings.

Art imitating art… Screengrab Nainsukh (2010)/Vimeo

It starts with a young Nainsukh, busy at his father’s workshop in Guler. He then traverses those fecund slopes of Kangra and moves to Jammu to reach Jasrota, a small kingdom, to serve under Raja Balwant Singh. He worked mostly under the patronage of this dynasty after that and this is what the film more or less focuses on. We see how various paintings were conceived, from court scenes to hunting scenes and from the royal entourage to the king simply slacking on the banks of the river, and all of the scenes seemed to be informal, with a hint of levity. In fact, this is what sets this artist apart as such medieval paintings generally tend to be adulatory rather than realistic. Credit may also be given to his patron who offered the artist enough freedom to paint whatever he wanted, not necessarily presenting them in an excessively flattering manner.

Art Imitating Art II Screengrab Nainsukh (2010)/Vimeo

The only other film focusing so obsessively on the staging of paintings that I have seen is The Hypothesis of the Stolen Paintings, although that is a completely different beast. Nainsukh follows the traditions of the rich but underseen strain of Indian experimental films, the ones heralded by the likes of Mani Kaul. So don’t expect any traditional entertainment or even traditional storytelling. But if you are interested in the art form, or if you have even minimal attachment to this region, you would like to simply stare at these frames, camera meandering through the Shivaliks, capturing art imitating art.

So, this was more or less all I had to say about Nainsukh. I hope I can resume normal business before I am forced to locate another obscure film. Till then, we’ll have to live with it. But before signing off, let me answer some burning questions…

Where to Watch Nainsukh & other films by the director?

I watched Nainsukh on Vimeo by paying $5. Vimeo has another film or two by Amit Dutta. Also, one of his short films Kramasha is on YouTube.

Where can I see Pahari Paintings?

That’s a difficult question. In general, you can find some of them in various North Indian museums. I have seen a rich collection of Pahari Miniatures in the Bhuri Singh Museum of Chamba. I believe there are some more in the museums of Kangra and Dharamshala, as well as in the National Museum of Delhi. However, the works of more famous painters such as Nainsukh himself seem to have ended up in the major museums of the west. Check this news report to understand what I am saying.

What are these schools of Pahari Painting?

Pahari miniatures flourished between 17th to 19th century and while they mostly look the same to the untrained eyes, there are subtle differences in style. So, they are divided further into different schools, usually named after the places of origin, such as Guler, Basholi, Kangra, Chamba etc. Nainsukh belonged to Guler school. In fact, his father and brother were notable painters too.

Also Read

Chamba Travelogue

Kangra beyond Dharamshala

PS: I have used screengrabs from the film to explain my points. I hold no copyrights in this regard.


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Jitaditya Narzary

Is a traveller disillusioned by the familiar and fascinated with the unknown... and of course the founder of this blog.

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