'India's Mona Lisa': How Bani Thani paintings face extinction for the first time in 270 years

The pandemic and an unwillingness to pay full price for fine art in Kishangarh mean proud artists are having to turn to commercial work to make ends meet

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Anil Vyas has spent more than 156,000 hours mastering his painting skills. He remembers something his uncle, Vaishnavdas Vyas, said to him in the 1970s: “No matter what happens, don’t let the art die despite commercialisation.” He also often warned him: “Once you commercialise an art, it loses its value and dies.”

More than four decades later, this is exactly what is happening to his beloved crop of Bani Thani paintings.

What is a Bani Thani painting?

Vaishnavdas was one of the finest Bani Thani painters of Kishangarh town in India’s Rajasthan state, having trained more than 150 artists.

Bani Thani, originally named Vishnupriya, was a poet and singer employed in the kingdom of Savant Singh, who later became the ruler's lover. In 1727, she was brought to the princely state of Kishangarh in Ajmer district, which was founded by Maharaja Kisan Singh Rathore in 1609, from India’s national capital Delhi.

Anil Vyas, who has made over 10,000 Bani Thani paintings and mastered the art, doesn’t use a pencil and eraser while sketching. Courtesy: Sanket Jain
Anil Vyas, who has made more than 10,000 Bani Thani paintings and mastered the art, doesn’t use a pencil and eraser while sketching. Sanket Jain for The National

Nihal Chand, a Kishangarh artist, first painted her side portrait in the mid-18th century upon Singh’s instructions. His depiction included elongated facial features with arched eyebrows, serpentine spiralling hair, the pointed nose and chin with deeply curved eyes, and lotus-like eyes, all of which led to the birth of a style of painting that barely lives on to this day.

The art galleries and souvenir shops in the bigger cities are exploiting the artists

Nearly 300 years later, Kishangarh, with a population of almost 160,000, according to a 2011 census, is the only town in the world left with a handful of Bani Thani painters today.

One of them is Anil, 62, who has created more than 10,000 Bani Thani paintings in his lifetime, and yet he still feels he’s nowhere near close to the quality of portraits made by Chand and his uncle.

"The difference lies in the accuracy," he tells The National. Several artists can hand-make Bani Thani paintings, but it's only a handful who truly understand the intricate details of the Kishangarh School of Art, he says.

A fall from grace

From 1765 to 1780, Chand made several paintings that became globally renowned, placing Kishangarh on the world's art map. Themes included elephants, hunting wild animals, court scenes, portraits of rulers, dance forms – and all of these were often placed in panoramic landscapes that became his signature.

Since then, global art connoisseurs and foreign tourists have been in awe of Bani Thani paintings, which are also referred to as "India’s Mona Lisa".

“This painting is usually given as a gift,” Anil’s younger brother, Rajesh, 50, explains. But while the artist who paints it on a fabric gets a mere 500 Indian rupees ($7) for 10 hours of work, the end customer pays as high as $165 for a 4-foot by 4-ft painting from a shop, as they're often sold to ‘premium’ art ventures in Udaipur, Jaipur, Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Hyderabad and other major metropolises.

Anil Vyas (to the left) and Rajesh Vyas are both painters and are the last generation artists in their family to keep the Bani Thani art alive. Courtesy: Sanket Jain
Anil Vyas, left, and Rajesh Vyas are among the last generation of artists in their family to keep Bani Thani art alive. Sanket Jain for The National

“The art galleries and souvenir shops in the bigger cities are exploiting the artists,” says Rajesh, who has been overlooking the sales side of the family business for the past three decades. “Rarely do art lovers buy it directly from us."

While more than 60 different workshops, founded by renowned Bani Thani painters from the 1950s, employ thousands of artists in Kishangarh today, with meagre pay and increasing competition, they've had to start exploring other, more commercial art forms.

This includes miniature wood paintings, traditional postcards and the revenue papers of Kishangarh, as well as marble souvenirs. They also make more than 11 different sizes of Pichwai, which are devotional paintings made on cloth that narrate the tales of Lord Krishna and are usually hung behind Lord Shrinath (a form of Krishna).

Vaishnavdas’ workshop, which once had more than 100 professional painters in the 1970s, is now down to 10. In February 2020, Rajesh got an order of 1,500 folk art paintings, with the price for every 4ft by 4ft work at $60 per piece. He was to deliver these within six months, but, with lockdown declared by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 24, giving people four hours' notice, finances dried up, and it took him more than six months to resume the commercial orders. Even in March 2021, they are still 750 paintings short.

A master artist, Vaishnavdas Vyas, made this self-portrait. Courtesy: Sanket Jain
A self-portrait of Vaishnavdas Vyas. Sanket Jain for The National

On top of that, with the pandemic continuing to affect tourism in India, not a single Bani Thani painting was bought between March and August 2020 for the first time in 270 years.

'Society needs to understand the role arts play'

One of the oldest artists in Rajesh and Anil's workshop, Hiralal Sahakla, who is in his early sixties, says: “I am no more in fine arts. I make commercial paintings.” In the past three decades, he has had to also learn modern art and undertake mural projects.

Rajni, Vaishnavdas’s daughter, who is in her early forties, adds: “My father painted the Bani Thani in 1979, which we’ve kept in the workshop even today, but now the artists can’t give enough time to the fine art and it reflects in their work.”

: Rajni, Vaishnavdas’ daughter, says, “My father painted the Bani Thani in 1979 which we’ve kept in the workshop even today. Now, the artists can’t give enough time to the fine art hand it shows in their work.” Courtesy: Sanket Jain
Rajni, Vaishnavdas’s daughter. Sanket Jain for The National

The challenge, she says, is keeping the art form alive while making ends meet. The artists fear that soon, however, it might go extinct because of a lack of state support and rapid commercialisation. “There needs to be a fine balance between the fine and commercial art,” says Anil. This balance, he says, “cannot be maintained by the artist alone. Society needs to understand arts and the role it plays.”

As a cost-cutting measure, the artists now use commercial oil and watercolours. “Earlier, we used the natural stone colours that are unaffordable now,” Rajesh explains. The brush they use is made from the hair of the squirrel’s tail, which is cheaper than others. “You won’t be able to paint Bani Thani using any other brush because of the fine detailing it requires,” he explains.

Say goodbye to Bani Thani?

Anil says that in the 1980s, the renowned artists of Kishangarh earned as high as $272 monthly. Today, an elite artist working in a bigger workshop can earn as much as $600 per month, but the majority of those earnings will come from commercial projects.

“The more time you spend on mastering the art, the more you will realise how it’s been destroyed with the market structures,” he says, a tinge of sadness in his voice. In the past two decades, he has had to start taking contracts for painting temple walls, railway stations and other open spaces. “If I don’t take the commercial orders, how will the artists dependent on this survive?”

A 4X4 feet folk painting sells for as little as $60. Courtesy: Sanket Jain
A four-foot by 4ft folk painting sells for as little as $60. Sanket Jain for The National

Rajesh asks an important question: “If artists are forced to make four paintings every day, how will they learn the art?" Phoolchand Saini, 43, another painter, takes that further. “How much importance is given to the drawing and arts in schools? How will the younger generation understand the importance of what we paint?”

Even if artists spend months mastering the fine art, rarely can they find any buyers willing to pay full price. “An artist wants someone to buy their artwork, but if no one is willing to pay what it deserves, we are forced to sell it for a throwaway price,” says Anil, who fears he didn't heed his uncle's words of warning back in the 1970s.