“In the cities, particularly, we are so tied up with our own lives and busy schedules that it is possible we’re overlooking some historic and aesthetic treasures right next to us,” says Swapna Joshi, a PhD fellow in the Humanities and Social Sciences Department at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Pune. On October 6, she led a walk on a lesser-known facet of Pune’s history — the woodwork and paintings of the Marathas. Excerpts from a conversation:
Most empires of India have a well-recorded legacy of art forms, but we know relatively little about the paintings or woodwork of Maharashtra. Why is that?
We know of Ajanta and Rajasthani paintings but have very few specimens of paintings from Maharashtra. Yet, the region has a history of painting. I don’t think it will be apt to say that we ‘know’ little about paintings from Maharashtra since we have come across a few examples and the art forms might not have been appreciated to their best. Since the wadas have not fully survived, neither have the paintings. Mostly, structures were made in wood and were vulnerable and succumbed to accidents or normal wear-and-tear. One of the important monument of the Peshwas, the Shaniwarwada in Pune, and many other wadas have not survived…
Where do we find specimens of the painting and woodwork today?
We can see a few specimens of wall paintings in Wadas of Pune, Wai and Menavali, among others, collections of paintings on other media in universities and institutions. There are some scholars like D B Parasnis, B K Apte, Kamal Chavan, M S Mate and Varsha Shirgaonkar who have worked on these records, and their work today enhances our knowledge. Most of the paintings are from the 18th and 19th centuries, starting from the Peshwa rulers and their sardars or ministers. There are murals, miniatures, manuscript illustrations and glass paintings. These paintings are polychrome i.e. using multiple colours. Woodwork is a part and parcel of the architectural details of many of the structures.
Tell us about a few of these that survive.
The two paintings in Shaniwarwada that are at the lobby of the ticket counter — one is of Garuda, the mount of Vishnu, and the other is of Ganesha or Ganapati, the family deity of the Peshwas. It is said that these two paintings have survived the biggest fires at Shaniwarwada. Scholars who have studied Maratha paintings have analysed that religious imagery and deities were a common theme. In our culture, beautified walls with images of gods are regarded auspicious. Rangolis are still done with the same concept. The Ganesh Mahal, the main administrative space of the Peshwas, inside the Shaniwarwada, reportedly had many paintings. There is an old painting of the Ganesh Mahal by an English artist, who had travelled to India in the 19th century, which indicates a possible presence of paintings just below the ceiling. The exact nature of these paintings is difficult to understand. Elderly people in the city recall having seen remains of paintings at a few other places in the Wada, but it has become difficult to trace these, especially for visitors. In general, only traces of these paintings remain, but we shall try and explore the smaller tidbits…
What do the paintings reveal about influences of other schools and region of art of the time?
We see influences from Mughal and Rajasthani paintings. The Peshwa rulers and Maratha sardars had contacts with the North and brought in artists from there. There were also artists from Maharashtra itself. There is a nice amalgamation in which we see that the styles refer to a Rajasthani influence but the women in the painting will be wearing saris and headgear from Maharashtra. Scholars have pointed out that many artists drew an arch on the wall before painting. This style appears to have been inspired by the painters of Rajasthan. This shows the cultural and people exchange that was happening during that period. We see that despite political rivalry between regions, when it comes to the social and cultural milieu, exchanges kept taking place.
What were the practices of woodwork that we see?
The woodwork ranges from pillars to arches as well as smaller deals in architecture…In this period, the mandapas of temples were built in wood and had small wooden carvings, such as floral motifs, peacocks, small birds, foliage and creepers. The facade of the Vishrambaug wada, the protruding meghdambari, is largely made in wood. One of my challenges in the walk was how to make people engage with these smaller details, especially when there are few remains of this kind to look at. Everybody appreciates the facade or the meghdambari of the Vishrambaug Wada because that is the most exquisite part of the facade. At the corner of the roof, there will be drip mould shaped like a ghata. The purpose is to prevent rainwater from splashing from the sloping roof. But, when you see it in the rainy season, it looks very beautiful. My challenge was, ‘How can I make people think of the smaller details of painting and woodwork also, along with the context of the whole structure?’ The idea of the walk started when my coordinator at India Heritage Walks asked me to ponder on a walk theme related to arts and crafts. The walk aims to give a fine morning experience to people and appreciate heritage. It is a happy meeting where everyone shares the stories they know about the city and return from it a little more informed about the area where we live.