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Three hunting pictures from 19th-century Nepal.

Recording secular events of historical or biographical significance is almost unknown in the traditional art of Nepal. The three paintings from a private collection discussed in this article are of cultural significance as they exemplify a break with such artistic conventionalism. According to the Devanagari inscriptions at the top of each composition, the paintings depict two of Bam Bahadur's hunting expeditions that took place c. 1836 and towards the end of 1845 in Nepal's terai.


Bam Bahadur is a renowned figure in Nepali history. He was appointed as an envoy at Calcutta (now Kolkata) for a year between 1844 and 1845 and became prime minister of Nepal for a brief period of time in 1856-57. (1) Even more renowned is his older brother Jang Bahadur, the founder of the Rana dynasty who paid a visit to Europe in 1850. (2) In this unprecedented historical journey, Jang Bahadur's entourage included Bhajuman Chitrakar, a Newari artist from Kathmandu. (3) The same artist, as we shall see shortly, may have been responsible for our paintings as well, though they pre-date Jang Bahadur's trip to Europe.

In the following pages, we will first provide general comments on the works, followed by a brief biography of Bam Bahadur. Then we will discuss the subject and style of the paintings with particular focus on the continuity of the Newari artistic tradition together with some radical changes already taking place on the eve of the arrival of full-fledged European influence.

General Observations

As in Rajput-style miniatures of the early period, the medium of these paintings is gouache on yellowish white thin paper. Although both in India and Nepal such pictures are almost always painted on a coloured or varnished surface, the present examples do not follow this convention; instead they are directly painted on unprepared blank paper, which serves as the background of the painting. This unusual feature immediately reminds us of Ajmer painting of the 18th century, which also employs the blank surface of the paper as the background. Since no direct relation between Ajmer and Newari artistic traditions is known, the Newari artist responsible for these works apparently developed the technique on his own or learnt it from a different source.


In the upper section of each painting, there is an inscription in gold, in Devanagari script, providing us with a brief description of the scene depicted. Although the inscriptions do not mention the dates of the events, it is possible to arrange the paintings chronologically because Bam Bahadur's age is provided in each. Thus, the composition which describes 18-year-old Bam Bahadur walking in the forest of Doti accompanied by hunters and hunting dogs is the first painting (figure 1). Doti is a region located in the far west division of Nepal. The second painting (figure 2) shows the protagonist enthusiastically discussing the recent events of the same hunting expedition with his attendants. The subject of the third painting (figure 3) is the tiger hunt in the forest of Madhuvani near Butwal, Palpa, which took place nine years later when Bam Bahadur was 27 years old. Butwal is situated in the mid-west division of Nepal near the terai. This Madhuvani, therefore, is different from the well known Madhubani in Mithila (Bihar), which is located close to the eastern Nepali terai.







1. Bam Bahadur with Hunters and Hunting Dogs

The single-line inscription on the first painting describes the scene in the following words:
 subedara bam bahadura kuvara ranajika umera varsa 18 ma sikariharu li
 dotika jamgalma sikara khelyako khaiciyako tasavira.
 "This picture was drawn when the 18-year-old subedar Bam Bahadur
 Kuvar Ranaji went hunting with other hunters in the jungle of

In the painting Bam Bahadur is shown facing left and heading toward the jungle accompanied by three hunting dogs and four muscular hunters. The dogs are of different colours--black and shades of brown--and each of them has a small bell hanging from its neck. Their protruding tongues indicate that they are panting as they run ahead of the group, eager for the chase.

Bam Bahadur wears a white Nepali cap, a simple necklace, with a golden charm box at the centre, a striped sash, a greyish white upper garment with long sleeves, tight blue short pants, and black shoes. He carries a bow and arrow and has a large Gurkha knife or khukhri fashionably tucked into his sash. He has a fair complexion, is of medium build, and his well groomed black hair falls to his shoulders. The build of his body and his lack of moustache or beard give him a boyish look. In contrast the hunters walking behind him, have darker complexions, rough-looking massive bodies, untrimmed hair, long moustaches, and wild eyes. Unlike Bam Bahadur, these hunters wear no footwear and no tailored garments. Their upper bodies are partially covered with a piece of cloth worn across the shoulders and waist, knotted at the front of the chest, which identifies them as members of a particular ethnic group--the Tharus of the Nepali terai.

2. Bam Bahadur with Attendants

The single-line inscription on this painting reads:
 ranabhima paltanka subedara bam bahadur kuvara ranajika umer varsa 18
 ma ardaliharusaga sikaraka kura garda khaiciyako tasavira.
 "This picture was drawn when 18-year-old Bam Bahadur Kuvar Ranaji,
 the chief of the Ranabhima battalion, was talking about the hunting
 expedition with the orderlies."

In this painting Bam Bahadur is represented attired in somewhat a modified version of the military dress of contemporaneous British India. He wears a black hat decorated with red and gold stripes and a hanging gold tassel. His short-sleeved red jacket has a stiff collar embroidered with a foliage motif in gold. A band of light blue embroidery, ending in a golden disc, embellishes each shoulder and armhole. There is blue foliated embroidery on the front of the jacket. Golden-edged black velvety fur decorates the cuffs of the sleeves. Although this is a typical Western jacket, it is worn in the Nepali fashion securing the flaps with a sash (Nepali patka) which also holds the khukhri in the traditional style. In addition to the red jacket, Bam Bahadur wears a gown-like white robe extending beyond his knees, pajama-like white trousers, and black shoes. His left hand rests atop the golden hilt of a sword encased in a deep pink sheath. With the index finger of his right hand, he animatedly points to the hunting dogs. The dogs are of the same colours as that in the first composition (figure 1), indicating that Bam Bahadur's discussion with his attendants is about the same hunting expedition. We may surmise that the unknown artist must have painted several different episodes of the same event.

The seven men are clad in red, blue, and brown jackets with off-white or light blue trousers. Four of them wear decorated black hats, while one wears a blue Nepali cap, another a grey-brown turban, a third a plain grey hat. They stand facing Bam Bahadur. The leader of the group standing in front greets him with the namaskara gesture. The man next to him holds the chains that restrain the fierce-looking dogs. These people are described in the inscription as ardali, a derivation of the British military term "orderly" for an enlisted soldier assigned to perform various chores for a commanding officer. Clearly, by this time the military system of Nepal had begun to imitate that of British India. However, it is interesting to note that Bam Bahadur's title is subedar--an Arabic word for the governor of a province. This title was in vogue in Mughal/Rajput India, but abandoned during the British Raj. It continued to survive during the early Shah period in Nepal because the court culture of this period incorporated both Mughal/Rajput elements and British influence. As we will see shortly, this situation is also reflected in the style of the paintings.

3. Bam Bahadur Shooting a Tiger

The third painting has the following inscription in three lines:
 kaptan bam bahadura kuvara ranajika umera varsa 27 ma serama
 kapatanil huda butavalbata madhuaniko jhadima gaivira prasada hatika
 ragama vasi sal dhe atha hatako Bag marda khaiciyako tasavira ho.
 "This picture was drawn when, at age 27, Captain Bam Bahadur Kuvar
 Ranaji travelled from Butwal, rode the elephant Gaivira Prasada, and
 killed a tiger, eight and a half cubits long, in the deep forest of
 Madhuvani, after he became the captain of the Ser."

Bam Bahadur is shown here with some wrinkles on his face perhaps to indicate his age although he was then only 27 years old. He is dressed in a dark blue jacket and lighter blue trousers, with a khukhri tucked into the sash. This time he Ss without a cap, thus exposing his shikha knot. He stands astride the neck of the elephant instead of on the howdah, and shoots the tiger with a gun the handle of which rests close to his right armpit. The mattress-like howdah with pink and blue pattern is currently occupied by his attendant who holds a huge khukhri in his raised right hand and touches the shoulder of his master with a protective gesture. He is clad in the upper garment of a Tharu and a lower garment called kachad. Another attendant, standing close to the tail of the elephant, is shown here wearing tailored attire, a brown jacket, greenish brown trousers, and a light blue Nepali cap.

The brownish grey elephant is huge. But its monumentality is considerably reduced as a result of its juxtaposition with the gigantic tiger which has received a fatal gun shot and lies helplessly on the ground. According to the inscription the tiger was eight and a half cubits (sadheatha hat) long. Apparently Bam Bahadur was very proud of his accomplishment in hunting. For this reason the artist renders the tiger elaborately, showing the whiskers, the stripes of black, and the eyeball with sparkling pupil. Compare this elaboration with the treatment of other components of the picture such as the rudimentarily rendered tree with blue foliage and brown trunk at the right end of the miniature. Furthermore the bullet hole close to the tigers left shoulder and front leg is rendered symbolically by a small circle, with a minimal amount of blood flowing from the wound. The tiger is not dead yet, as it still raises its head. But like a fallen hero, apparently, it accepts its defeat and death.

Bam Bahadur and His Place in Nepalese History

Since Bam Bahadur is the protagonist of our paintings, it may be appropriate here to briefly describe his life. He was the son of Balanarashimh Kumvar, who is known in the political history of Nepal as a loyal bodyguard of the Shah king Rana Bahadur whom he tried his best to protect in a deadly attack from a member of the ruling family. Bam Bahadurs older brother, Prime Minister Jang Bahadur Rana, became de facto ruler of Nepal and successfully established the Rana dynasty. He rose to power by ruthlessly slaying almost all of his political enemies in a massacre that took place on September 15,1846 in a palatial edifice called Kot near the Hanuman Dhoka royal palace, Kathmandu. (4) His six brothers including Bam Bahadur played an important role in this massacre, after which the Rana dynasty was able to control Nepal for more than a century. Jang Bahadur Rana ruled till his death in 1877. Under the Ranas, the Shah kings remained figureheads with very little political powers until 1951 when King Tribhuvan (r. 1911-55) was able to remove the Ranas from power.

Bam Bahadurs exact date of birth is not known; he was born either in 1818 or 1819. The inscriptions found in our painting depicting the tiger hunt, however, indicate that the second hunting expedition in Madhuvani took place when he was 27 years old and his position was then captain. If he was born in 1819 the year of the event can be calculated as 1846. But it is important to note that he was promoted from captain to colonel on September 18, 1846, three days after the Kot massacre. (5) Evidently therefore, the Madhuvani hunt took place before the massacre. The summer and rainy season is not a good time for hunting, due to the intensity of malaria in the terai around this time of year. Thus, we have good reason to believe that 27-year-old Bam Bahadur was in the forest of Madhuvani before the summer of 1846. This reasoning helps us to calculate that he was probably born in 1818; and the tiger hunt must have taken place in late 1845 or early 1846.

This view is also supported by the fact that during 1844-45 Bam Bahadur was in Calcutta where he served the Nepal government as a vakil, a diplomatic envoy, responsible for reporting to his government about Indian economic affairs and purchasing military equipment and other goods for Nepal. (6) This particular phase of his life is important for the study of our paintings because the subject matter and some stylistic elements that we see in it clearly indicate familiarity with the Company School genre paintings prevalent in the big cities of India, particularly in Calcutta.

During Jang Bahadurs visit to England and France (January 15, 1850-February 6, 1851), Bam Bahadur was appointed to officiate as Prime Minister of Nepal (7) and eventually, he became Prime Minister in August 1856. (8) About nine months later, on May 25, 1857, he died of tuberculosis. (9)

Despite the fact that Bam Bahadur held important positions in his life, he does not seem to have had any ambitions to power. Apparently, he remained involved in the contemporary politics mainly out of loyalty to his brother Jang Bahadur. As we know from Jang Bahadur's letter to him from England, even while officiating as Prime Minister, he was strictly following his brother's orders and suggestions not only in important matters but also in trivial matters. (10) Our paintings testify that he was more interested in works of art, good breeds of dogs, and perhaps most intensely in hunting. As a member of Nepal's affluent elite, he was indeed exposed to artistic activities in neighbouring regions--particularly the contemporaneous Company School of painting in Calcutta. Some new artistic elements that we see in these pictures reflect Bam Bahadurs enthusiasm for new ideas. This was eventually manifested in the works of his artist, who must have been encouraged to become familiar with the elements of the Company style.


Subject and Style

The subject of the paintings deserves particular attention because it is guided by an unprecedented spirit of rendering secular portraiture and recording biographical events devoid of any religious connotation. Despite the fact that we do find some examples of portrait figures in both sculpture and painting during the medieval period, these cannot be described as secular because the figures are shown kneeling in front of a shrine or an image of a deity and making the conventional gesture of folded hands (namaskara) to express their religious devotion. In the ancient period the Licchavi kings were represented in exactly the same way, but in the disguise of the anthropomorphic form of Garuda, the mythical bird vehicle of Vishnu. (11) There is, however, an exception to this convention. Recently, a stone sculpture representing the Licchavi king Jayavarma has come to light. As I have explained in an earlier article, more than likely this sculpture is part of a devakula shrine containing the portraits of divine kings of the ruling dynasty. (12) This concept of a portrait gallery was first introduced by the Kushana emperors who ruled most of north India upto modern-day Afghanistan, and took interest in developing a multicultural artistic tradition combining Indian, Greco-Roman, and Persian elements. Even after this novel concept of portraiture was introduced, the mainstream South Asian artists, more notably Newari artists, never took any serious interest in delineating portraits. (13) Thus, the concept was gradually forgotten and remained dormant for many centuries.

Recently a 15th-century Nepali portrait painting of monumental significance has been found. It is zpaubha depicting Dolakha nobles by the Puna brothers who worked together. (14) Admittedly, this painting is not entirely secular because, like the statue of Jayavarma, it too is associated with ancestor worship. Unquestionably, however, the amorous ambience and the luxury items depicted in the composition have little to do with religious devotion but portray courtly life. A painting of Vanaratna's

wife giving alms, perhaps by the same Puna brothers, is another example of a portrait recording a historical event. The beautiful painting depicting King Pratapamalla engaged in the ritual of gift-giving (tuladana) is a third noteworthy example. (15) Besides, there are several mural paintings in the Malla palace in Bhaktapur and Kumari Chok in Kathmandu, depicting the Malla king showing devotion to Hindu deities. All these early examples directly or indirectly relate to religious activities.



Purely secular portrait paintings in Nepal began to appear only in the Shah period. Perhaps the portrait of the Shah king Rana Bahadur, painted after he became a yogi at the beginning of the 19th century, is the earliest example. However, the authenticity of this work is questionable. We have two other formal portrait paintings representing the Shah king Girvana Yuddhavikram rendered around 1815. (16) Both of them are now in American museums--the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington DC. The latter bears an inscription in a Persian script, which suggests that this is a work of an artist trained in the Indo-Persian style, who could be either a Nepali or an Indian. The realistic approach of the artist and the facial similarity with the Shah king who died at age 19 suggest that both these paintings were commissioned during the lifetime of the sitter. These formal portraits, however, differ from the representations of Bam Bahadur in our paintings, because the latter do not exhibit much interest in presenting the aura of formality but are instead rendered with the intention of capturing events of real life for their audience. Bam Bahadur with Attendants (figure 2) is indeed an idealized formal portrait, but it is used here to represent an important person giving audience or darshan to his "orderlies" after a hunting expedition. Thus our paintings can be designated as the earliest securely datable examples of secular paintings showing historical episodes related to the protagonist.

The scene of hunting is another rarity in Nepali art. Only when a reference to a hunting scene becomes necessary in the context of narratives from the puranas and epics, does the Nepali artist describe the scene--and even then briefly and without much enthusiasm. As a matter of fact, I am not familiar with any other example of artistic work showing a historical figure of Nepal engaged in hunting prior to the 19th century. Therefore, if I am not mistaken, figure 3 may be the earliest known example of such work to date. Further, in this work, one notices that the artist has attempted to avoid the aspect of the cruelty of the hunt, depicting the least possible amount of blood.

Before we study the stylistic elements of the paintings, here we may like to discuss the interesting use of the Nepali word khaiciyako, in all three inscriptions. I have translated the word as "drawn". In South Asian languages including Nepali, the verb khichnu literally means "to draw toward oneself or to draw as if by suction". When photography was introduced, Nepali speakers began to use this word for taking photographs, as did speakers of Hindi, Gujarati, and Bengali. Before the introduction of the camera, this verb is never used in Nepali for painting or drawing; instead the verb lekhnu (Nepali), or cvayegu (Newari), both meaning "to write", is employed invariably. Since photography was already known in Nepal when this painting series was made, the author of the inscription, who could be none other than the painter himself, must have been familiar with the medium. He apparently wanted to convey the message that his pictures bore the quality of photographs because they depicted scenes as they had happened in reality.

A glance at the pictures, however, clearly indicates that the artist was not familiar with the concept of realistic representation based on actual observation. In the painting showing Bam Bahadur seated on a chair (figure 2), for example, the artist does not provide us with any clue to find out whether the event took place indoors or outdoors. No attempt is made to define the foreground or background. The scene is delineated, as we mentioned earlier, directly on unvarnished paper, empty of any representation. In the image of the tiger shoot (figure 3), the deep forest of Madhuvani is symbolically indicated by a tree with blue foliage and wild grass on the ground. Such treatment immediately reminds us of the 7 th-century Sanskrit text Vishnudharmottara Purana, a popular manual for artists. The text prescribes symbolic depictions of scenes, for example indicating the sky by flying birds. (17)

Furthermore, the image of Bam Bahadur with his attendants (figure 2), is delineated in a traditional manner--representing him much larger than other characters. Thus his seated figure is as tall as the standing orderlies. But in the example showing Bam Bahadur with the hunters and dogs (figure 1), he appears much smaller than the hunters because the artist focuses on their physical strength and their gigantic bodies. Likewise, in the painting of Bam Bahadur shooting the tiger (figure 3), the monumentality of the tiger is stressed. As a result even the elephant is not much larger than the tiger.

Characteristically, the human bodies are depicted here in three-quarter profile, whereas their countenances almost always in full profile, a prominent stylistic element derived from earlier Rajput traditions but widely prevalent throughout South Asia during the 16th to 19th centuries. A penchant for linear treatment instead of painterly delineation is another constant feature throughout the history of Nepali art. Thus it becomes evident that although the court artist successfully introduced an unprecedented subject of biographical nature, he continued to use earlier stylistic elements. This does not mean that the artist did not make any attempt at innovation or to learn new skills. In fact, if one compares these paintings with other works of the Shah period, such as the illustrated Bhagavata Purana, (18) it becomes evident that our artist made considerable changes in his style. Unlike in earlier works, the human figures rendered here are recognizably distinct from each other in terms of age, physical characteristics, and personalities. The dogs are all of a particular type, possibly an indigenous breed (figures 1 and 2). Such unprecedented success in rendering recognizably realistic animal figures seems to have been inspired by the artist's "photographic" approach to painting. I am of the opinion that not only the animals but also the figures of the hunters and retainers are rendered with such great effort at realism that their contemporaries would have been able to recognize them immediately.

Perhaps the most interesting feature of the pictures is the combination of two different and contradictory artistic approaches: realism and idealization. In representing the hunters, orderlies, and dogs (figures 1 and 2) the artist tries his best to achieve the likeness of the figures rendering personal features such as unruly hair, protruding cheekbones, wrinkles, and so forth. A viewer may find such an approach also in the representation of Bam Bahadur when he is shown shooting the tiger (figure 3). But he is treated in quite a different way when he is shown seated with his orderlies (figure 2). This is an idealized portrait without any attempt to capture personal features. Compare this portrait with Bam Bahadur's photograph, which is fortunately available to us. The photograph is published in Pudma Jung Rana's biography of Jang Bahadur Rana. (19) This book is contemporaneous with our painting--the author was Bam Bahadur's nephew. Bam Bahadur's round face, fleshy cheeks, short nose, and comparatively small eyes seen in his photograph contrast with the idealized features--narrow elongated face, sharp nose, and large eyes--of his painted portrait. Noticeably, all these features also appear in Jang Bahadur's portrait by his court artist Bhajuman Chitrakar. (20) In fact, it is thesesimilarities which lead us to believe that the same artist may have been responsible for our paintings as well.

A Final Remark

The main significance of the paintings is based on the fact that they are rendered in a transitional period when the Newari artist had not been able to abandon traditionally inherited archaic features but at the same time was willing to explore new possibilities in rendering his work more realistically. Nepali artists were directly exposed to Western art only after Bhajuman Chitrakar's visit to England in 1850. If these paintings are the works of this renowned artist, which is indeed highly possible, it would be extremely fascinating to compare them with Bhajuman's later works rendered after his return from his visit to England. We hope that future investigations will bring to light such authentic works.


(1) Adrian Sever, Nepal Under the Ranas, Oxford & IBH Publishing Co., New Delhi, 1993, pp. 94, 99.

(2) Ibid., pp. 70-74.

(3) Pudma Jung Bahadur Rana, Life of Maharaja Sir Jung Bahadur of Nepal, Pioneer Press, Allahabad, 1909, p. 116.

(4) H. Ambrose Oldfield, Sketches from Nepal, Cosmo Publications, Delhi, 1974, Vol. 1, p. 356.

(5) Rana, Life of Maharaja Sir Jung Bahadur of Nepal, p. 81.

(6) Sever, Nepal Under the Ranas, pp. 99-100.

(7) Rana, Life of Maharaja Sir Jung Bahadur of Nepal, p. 115.

(8) Naya Raja Panta, "Pradhan Mantri Bam Bahadur ra Sri Teen Ranauddip Singhko Visayama Kehi Kura", Nepali, No. 58 (January-April 1973), pp. 19-26.

(9) Oldfield, Sketches from Nepal, Vol. 2, p. 19.

(10) Sever, Nepal Under the Ranas, pp. 119-20.

(11) Pratapaditya Pal, The Arts of Nepal (2 parts), E.J. Brill, Leiden, 1974, Part 1 (Sculpture), pp. 72-73.

(12) Gautama Vajracharya, "Threefold Intimacy: The Recent Discovery of an Outstanding Nepalese Portrait Painting", Orientations, Vol. 34, No. 4 (2003), pp. 40-45.

(13) Royal portraits, for instance, do appear on ancient Indian coins, but not in Nepali numismatic history until the last century. King Tribhuvan's bust is the earliest such representation on a Nepali coin.

(14) Vajracharya, "Threefold Intimacy", pp. 40-45.

(15) Gautama Vajracharya, "Painted History: The Tuladana Ceremony in a Mediaeval Nepalese Palace", Orientations, Vol. 34, No. 10 (2003), pp. 46-51.

(16) Pal, The Arts of Nepal, Part 2 (Painting), pp, 129-31, fig. 195. Pratapaditya Pal, Art of Nepal: A Catalogue of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art Collection, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, 1985, p. 231, fig. P39.

(17) Vishnudharmottara Purana, 42.57.

(18) Pal, The Arts of Nepal, Part 2, p. 102.

(19) Rana, Life of Maharaja Sir Jung Bahadur of Nepal, p. 55.

(20) Sever, Nepal Under the Ranas, p. 75.
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Title Annotation:Perspectives
Author:Vajracharya, Gautama V.
Publication:Marg, A Magazine of the Arts
Geographic Code:9NEPA
Date:Dec 1, 2009
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