[MOSA Belgium] The Art of Bikaner – Mahaveer Swami [April 2013 – April 2014]

It is a pleasure and honor for me to present a solo show of Mahaveer Swami as one of the first temporary exhibits at MOSA. Mahaveer Swami is a well-known traditional artist from Bikaner in Rajasthan. His unique style will surely captivate the viewers who visit the show at MOSA in Radhadesh. He will surely transport them to a time long by and an India full of mystery and spirituality. Curator Sushma K. Bahl gives us an interesting analysis of Mahaveer’s art which will allow the viewer to understand better the works of the artist.

India has a lot to offer to the world and its rich and varied art traditions are a good example of that. I hope Europeans will appreciate this richness. MOSA’s mission is to show case traditional artists in Europe and help them preserve the traditions they are expertly representing. Mahaveer Swami is one of those artists. In India Tradition and Modernity are in permanent dialogue sometimes in harmony sometimes with tensions. We believe that they can both co-exist and enrich each other.

Martin Gurvich, Director of MOSA

By Sushma K. Bahl

The art terrain of Mahaveer Swami presents a large expanse of diverse creative reflections that mirror the artist’s encounters with what he has inherited along with his response to the ever-changing time and space as in contemporary reality. In sync with established traditions and practices as exemplified in the art of illustrated manuscripts of the medieval era on the one hand, his works represent a continuum within the living arts of today’s India, on the other. Incorporating decorative embellishments that draw on history and mythology, along with the surrounding habitat and abstractions from nature; his art-scape appears in a distinct and unique form and feel, coloured in the creator’s own persona and passion.


Rooted in the local soil and culture of Rajasthan, the artist’s creatives appear routed through his middle class upbringing in a traditional Brahmin joint family. Based in the historic city of Bikaner, he learnt to draw and paint as a child, observing first his grandfather, a chalva or mistry (head mason), make and supervise paintings on the walls of the havelis (mansions) in the desert state, and then from his father who worked in the railway workshop as a painter. Their tools, the jute bags, paper or any other left over material and colours that he could lay his hands on, kept young Mahaveer occupied for hours at a stretch. He would sit and sketch stories and scenes that he heard from his elders and draw portraits of people as observed.

And post schoolixng his fascination for art took him to Jaipur, where he trained formally at the Rajasthan School of Art. Also did a diploma in sculpture, learnt clay modeling, painting and calligraphy there. Having to fend for himself in Jaipur, the young man had to trek for miles daily and work hard on commissions making copies of paintings on pichwai, ivory and miniatures that gave him both the confidence and mastery in technique. And it was his mentor late Vedpal Sharma Bannu ji who during the artist’s internship with him, spotted his talent and advised him to focus on Bikaner style of painting.

This resulted in a change of course and Mahaveer’s return to roots, creating work within the genre of Bikaner School. He made paintings on silk, canvas, paper, ivory, board and walls-whatever material was available. The rigour helped him master an understanding of the materials and tools, honing and refining his skill to work with a range of materials and in Bikaner style.

The influence of simple living and spiritual leanings on both the maternal and paternal sides; is evident in the artist’s aesthetics. The studio located within an over 200 years old haveli that was gifted to his forefathers by earlier Jain inhabitants, adorns fresco work done by his grandfather. The day starts with ritual of offering prayers at the footprints of yetis, departed souls, enshrined in a little alcove within the studio. And only then begins the work. Deriving inspiration from classical scriptures of which he has a large collection, the artist sources his imagery from Indian mythology. And his understanding of minerals and organic materials that he uses in his palette comes from having observed his elders practice fresco paintings in the homes of their patrons and traditional herbal medicine that helped cure the ailing locals.

The training in making one’s own paper, colours and brushes by hand has served Mahaveer well. He works mostly on wasli handmade paper, by joining two or more layers together. Given his training in calligraphy he used to sign his work in Urdu until 1982 but shifted to vernacular and English later. He has also set up a workshop/residency facility in his studio where he teaches and shares his knowledge and expertise with others including artists from Japan, Korea, and France who come to learn Bikaner style of miniature art from him. And in turn the exposure has also helped, “widen my vision to research and explore newer themes and forms ”.

The form and narratives of Mahaveer’s work stem from his studies of Mughal and Rajasthani miniature art traditions. The renderings reflect his command over technique acquired through rigorous discipline practiced over the years. And the life style of holy men and women, as well as mythological stories and themes that he has grown up hearing, all figure in his art. The striking profiles, meditative demeanors, expressive eyes, elaborate hair styles, impressive costumes and elegant 10 11 jewelry; in ethereal colours and exquisite brushwork combined with a unique inner vision and sensitivity of the world around, are executed with finesse.

What makes his compositions more engaging is his experimentation with imagery that explores newer subjects, contexts and forms of expressions. His paintings around daily life of Indian women, a theme rarely explored by other miniature artists, bridge the gap between contemporary and traditional art. They represent the revival of the original sophistication and refinement of the Bikaner School of painting with delicate lines and tonal range associated with Mughal school pictorial quality though sans its emphasis on architectural details. Mahaveer Swami’s subject matter is often drawn from the lifestyle of ascetics and mystics- sufis, pundits, saints, sages, yogis, and yoginis. He has also developed a series of paintings on Indian epics, games and festivals as well as ordinary people and their life.


The artist’s skill in drawing and painting, and his ability to distinguish the refined from the mundane, come from his innate understanding of the mode and materials he uses. The qualities and characteristics of the selected base material are kept in mind in planning the composition. “The ivory was washed in sea foam to rid it of oily surface, before I would begin to draw and paint”. Though this medium is no longer in use, the artist has a wide choice of other material to work on, mostly handmade acid free rice paper and pure silk. He also works with equal élan on cotton, board, or wall, though paper and fine silk continue to be his preferred mode. Silk is stuck on board and paintings are made in wash technique and tempera. Chinese black ink with thin and fine brushes is applied to create shah i.e. jet-black effect and the desired texture.

Along with natural pigments such as lapis, mica, and other earth stones, that he is able to source from across the country and abroad during his travels, he uses herbal extracts, raw vegetable and other indigenous minerals and pigments that his forefathers had collected; some for fresco paintings and others for medical practice. The artist enjoys grinding and mixing the herbal medicines with stones along with specific minerals for the desired palette such as Hara Bhata (sap green) and Shilu (light green) or brunt-sienna extractable only from fossils around the river bed in West Bengal that are not available in the shops.

The minerals are preferred for the shine they exude, and organic or vegetable colours for their pristine effect. Gold, silver and blackened metal are used to add texture. Other pigments such as sindur i.e. red and yellow gougali (extract from cow urine) are used for mythological imagery. “Though I can extract amazing colours from some of the stones and medicinal plants but given limited availability of such material, I also have to mix different pigments to get the right shade and also use synthetic colours now and then to get the right tone and texture”, laments the artist.

The basic layout known in local parlance as Charva or stencil, done by earlier masters in thin leather sheet is planned by the artist first on paper. Shujan Khaka, the technique of working with minutely pinned holes to draw the initial sketch in black ink or pencil with fine lines, follows then. Figures are drawn and filled in subsequently with amazing range of pigments while the background is often left blank. ”I enjoy playing with colours and technique”, says the artist who makes a mixed use of fine pencils and slender brushes. While some of them are synthetic and bought in the market, others are handmade with squirrel hair. He credits his expertise in drawing, painting and technique of wash and tempera to his experience of commissioned work on varied base materials and textures that involved making copies of eastern- Chinese, and Korean works besides those of Jain art and in Persian style. Preferring to work in series and explore the same subject or story from different perspective, the artist has created an impressive repertoire of saints, Gods, ladies, and scenes from Mahabharata and Ramayana. Remarkable are the costumes and adornments that his characters are embellished with. His compositions also feature social customs and festivals. “I like experimenting with different styles and themes.” And his botanical imagery of plants, roots, and flowers based on realistic nature studies of the flora and fauna, including the minute veins of leaves, make some remarkable compositions for their simplicity and accuracy. And birds in pairs “representing me and my wife” or in flocks to manifest the extended family and community, flying and fluttering their wings, is another recurring element in much of his imagery that make his approach to art non-academic and personalized.

Each painting goes through four stages of intensive work. Initial drawing is followed by bharai or filling in. Then follows colouring and pakai for the finish. Ghutai or rubbing is done with Akik or Agate stone on the backside of the base after each stage to make its surface smooth and allow it to soak in the colours. Embellishments are 12 13 added for glow and texture work known as pardash. It takes the artist at least a week to draw and paint a single figure while the group compositions could go on for months depending on the size and details of each composition.


The art track in this exhibition features about 60 paintings mostly on handmade paper and some on silk. Executed in Bikaner style, the works have clearly been impacted by Mughal traditions, particularly in terms of the detailed anatomical depiction, and the richness of the palette. The costumes the featured characters appear in include ghagra, choli and chuni (long skirt, shirt and stoll) for women; and men with their upturned mustache, are shown to adorn turban, embroidered sherwani (long lose overcoat) in mulmul (fine cotton) as common amongst Rajasthani Rajput folk. The detailed borders around some of the portraits and episodes painted in ornate style with finesse are reminiscent of the Mughal and Persian influence that is evident in the artist’s art track in this collection.

There is an impressive collection in the art track of ascetics, priests, sufi saints, sadhus, maulvis, and pilgrims, each differently turbaned, with flowing beard, and holy markings. Lost in their meditative trance, as the artist observed them during his sojourns to Khumbh or at Ganga Sagar Math or at the famous holy Dargah shrine at Ajmer, the sketches made on site were developed into paintings working later in the studio. Incorporating elements distinct for each sect, such as Shiva devotees with three horizontal lines on forehead, with rings in ears and tiger locket as necklace, they make aesthetically delightful narratives. Particularly remarkable is the larger and multicoloured composition of a religious congregation at a camp, featuring numerous sages, and worshippers as well as their animals. Men and women representing multiple cults and sects appear engrossed in their daily routine- cooking, practicing yoga, chanting and preparing for rituals, Yagya and other devotional acts, in the painting.

Images of Radha and Krishna, inspired by Geet Govind, religious literary text, appear in a wide spread of striking compositions. The loving godly couple appears in various compositions, postures, and acts with their beautiful expressions including some, where they are featured playing Chaupad (chess like game). And there is a scene of Rukmani Harna when Krishna decided to run off and marry beautiful Rukmini. Kamdhenu, and other rituals and ceremonies; mostly in miniature format along with some paintings in slightly larger size also figure in the spread. The series on Lord Hanuman features the monkey god in various frames. Sitting atop a high pedestal of his endlessly coiled tail in one case and striding ahead holding a fluttering flag proclaiming Lord Ram, in the other.

Hanuman also appears in various other incarnations, such as carrying his famous attribute gadha or simply floating on a lotus. His playfulness is manifest in different avatars such as dancing in one, and preparing and flying kites in the others. The elephant headed lord Ganesh makes his benevolent appearance in different compositions as a family ensemble, besides enthroned atop eight distinct mounds in other compositions, and appearing with his attribute rat in a couple of works.

The repertoire also encompasses 24 distinct avatars or godly incarnations based on studies of Bhagwat puran epic as against the tradition of depicting them in ten manifestations or dasavatar, that the artist has created. Each manifestation appears with its established attributes and other distinct signifiers. And there are other mythological paintings in larger format featuring godly couples Vishnu and Lakshmi and Shiva and Parvathi as well as those featuring episodes from Ramayana and Mahabharata. The Artscape of Mahaveer Swami, brings alive the richness in the art tradition of Bikaner. Inspired by his religious and artistic upbringing, along with his rigorous training, and now suitably supported by his young son Anurag, a trained and accomplished artist himself, Mahaveer is able to take forward his ideas and work into newer arenas. The elaborate background, distinct elements and facial expressions in each of his work add up to make his art dynamic and aesthetically distinct. Marked for their sophistication, the artistic renderings in the collection resonate with an inextricable intertwining between art and life that has won the artist sev- eral honours and exhibitions, besides publication and documentation in books.

Author of 5000 Years of Indian Art, and former Head, Arts & Culture, British Council India, Sushma K. Bahl MBE, is an independent arts adviser, writer and curator of cultural projects, based in Delhi. Guest Director for XI Triennale-India 2005, Project Consultant for Bharat Rang Mahotsav X11, and Jury Member for the 14th Asian Art Biennale Bangladesh 2010, curator of India- ASEAN artists’ residency & exhibition in 2012 amongst other projects; Ways of Seeing won her the best-curated group show IHC Art India Award. Editor and contributor for catalogs and artists’ books including those on Thota Vaikuntam, Paresh Maity, Satish Gupta, Sarla Chandra, and Shuvaprasanna, Sushma Bahl is a trustee and advisory board member of a select few cultural institutions in India and abroad

mahaveer-swami-200x200Mahaveer Swami is one of the finest traditional artists working in India today. His ethereal colours and exquisite brushwork are combined with unique inner vision and great sensitivity of the world around him by tempering his personal vision with the finely toned technique and rigorous discipline of his tradition. Mahaveer Swami proves that there is no real gap between contemporary and traditional, there is only art. His work demonstrates beyond a doubt that a rich and beautiful tradition is still very much alive.

Born 1959 at Bikaner, Rajasthan.

Education & Training:

1960s & 70s: Learnt mural painting from grandfather and father

1980: Passed Diploma in Painting & Sculpture, Rajasthan School of Art, Jaipur

1980- 1985: Learnt miniature art under various Gurus and did commissioned work



1986-96: National Craft Museum, New Delhi

1988-99: Surajkund Crafts Mela, Surajkund, Haryana

1991: Galeries Lafayette, Paris

1993: Israel Arts Festival, Jerusalem

1993: Richard Kimball Art Gallery, Denver, Colorado, U.S.A.

1994: Dubai Art Festival, Dubai

1994: Galerie 88, Kolkata

1994: Private Exhibition at the Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.

1994-95: Natural History Paintings from Rajasthan, Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Wave Hill, New York

1995: 8th International Exhibition of Botanical Art and Illustration, Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

1995: Exhibition organized by Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation, Bikaner

1995: World Trade Center, Mumbai, 1995

1996: Sufis, Saints & Sages, Bikaner House, New Delhi

1997: Painters & Princes, Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur

1997: Squirrels’ Tails and Burnished Gold, Cymroza Art Gallery, Mumbai

1997: The Painters’ Workshop, Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur

2002: Gallery J.M. Vallat, Paris

2005: Tradition & Continuity, Galerie 88, Kolkata

2005: Gallery Horikawa, Kobe, Japan

2006: Alankritha Art gallery, Hyderabad

2007: Line & Texture, Cymroza Art Gallery, Mumbai

2007: Waves Art Gallery, Pune


2007: Miniatures, Gallery Sanskriti, Kolkata

2007: Yesterday Once More: extending traditional techniques to current idioms, Apparao Galleries, Chennai

2007: Abstract Art Gallery, Bangalore

2008: From Influence To Confluence, Forty five Downstairs, Melbourne, Australia

2008: Rhythms of Brush and Pigment: Contemporary Miniatures, Ma Passion, Mumbai

2009: Harmony Art “A Tradition Revisited”, Mumbai

2009: Rhythms of Brush and Pigment: Contemporary Miniatures, Ma Passion, Mumbai

2011: Elementary Botanicals, Cymroza Art Gallery, Mumbai

2011: Harvest 2011, Arushi Arts, New Delhi

2011: Rhythms of Brush and Pigment: Indian Miniatures, Ma Passion, Mumbai

2011: Hues of Tradition, Gallery Rasa, Bangalore

2012: Miniature Traditions: An Artistic Endeavour, Alankritha Art Gallery, Hyderabad

2012: Harvest 2012, Arushi Arts, New Delhi

2012: Expressions & Emotions, Arushi Arts, New Delhi

2013: Cultural Commune – Botanical Odyssey, Sudarshan Gallery, Jawahar Kala Kendra, Jaipur



1986: Master Craftsman Award by President of India, New Delhi

1989: Kala-Mani Award by Chief Minister of Haryana, Surajkund, Haryana

1992: Sanskriti Award by President of India, New Delhi

1995: Padam-Shree Isamudeen Ustad Award by MLA of Bikaner, Bikaner

1997: Kala-Shree Award by Chief Minister of Haryana, Surajkund, Haryana

1999: Smt. Janki Devi Somani Award, Marudhara Shodh Sansthan, Kolkata

2002: Rajiv Ratna Award, Bikaner


Workshops & Camps Attended:

1996: National Workshop on “Modern Technics and Creative Arts”, Bikaner

1999: 13th Surajkund Artists Camp, Surajkund, Haryana

2002-03: All India Senior Artists’ Camp, AIFACS, Bikaner



2009: National Traditional and Folk Artists’ Camp, Neerja Modi International School, Jaipur

2013: 1st Jaipur Art Festival, Jaipur


Demonstrations & Workshops Conducted:

In India:

1986-96: National Craft Museum, New Delhi

1987: Department of Painting, Punjab University, Chandigarh

1988-89: Surajkund Crafts Mela, Surajkund, Haryana

1989: Kala Bhawan, Vishva Bhaarti, Santinikaten

1998: Surajkund Crafts, Haryana

1990: SAARC Festival, New Delhi

1991: Vanasthali Vidhyapeeth, Vanasthali

1991: Gwalior Trade Fair, Gwalior

1999: Marudhara Shodh Sansthan, Kolkata


1991: Gallery Lafayette, Paris,

1993: Israel Arts Festival, Jerusalem

1993: Egypt Museum, Cairo

1993: Dubai Art Festival, Dubai

1994: Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, U.S.A.

1995: Freer and Sackler Art Gallery, Smithsonian Institute, Washington D.C., U.S.A.

2002: Gallery J.M. Vallat, Paris

2006: National Institute for Zorig Chusum, Thimpu, Bhutan


Paintings Published:

  • “The Garden of Life” by Naveen Patnayak, Published by Aquarian Publishing.
  • “Natural history paintings from Rajasthan” by James J. White and Autumn M. Farole, Published by Hunt Institute of Botanical Documentation.




  • “8 International Exhibition of Botanical Art and Illustration” by James J. White, Autumn M. Farole and Sharon M. Tomasic, Published by Hunt Institute of Botanical Documentation.
  • “The Indian Healing Touch” by Export and Import Bank of India, Published by Mapin Publishing Private Limited.
  • “Aesthetic Vedanta” by Swami B.V. Tripurari, Published by Mandala Publishing Group.
  • “Beauty, Power and Grace” (award winner) by Krishna Dharma, Published by Mandala Publishing Group.
  • “Joy of Self” by B.V. Tripurari, Published by Mandala Publishing Group.
  • “The Bhagavad Gita: The Feeling and Philosophy” by B.V. Tripurari, Published by Mandala Publishing Group.
  • ‘From Influence to Confluence’, International Gallerie (Tenth Anniversary Issue), Vol 10 No.1, 2007
  • Yogini: The Power of Women in Yoga, Text by Janice Gates, Illustrated by Linda Sparrow, Published by Mandala Publishing Group.



In India:

  • Gallery Mansur, New Delhi
  • Gallery 88, Kolkata
  • Cymroza Art Gallery, Mumbai
  • Sanskriti Art Gallery, Kolkata
  • Modi Group
  • Bajaj Group
  • Tata Group
  • Birla Group
  • Poddar Group
  • Seagrams Group
  • Arora Group
  • Somani Group
  • Ambani Group


  • Ma Passion Art and Heritage Corp. Ltd., Mumbai


  • Rain-beau Art Gallery, Jerusalem
  • World Erotic Museum, Berlin
  • Hunt Institute Museum, Pittsburgh
  • Harbor Square Gallery, Camden, Maine
  • Sackler Art Gallery, New York
  • Gallery J. M. Vallat, Paris
  • Wave Hill Café Art Gallery, New York


Text: Sushma K. Bahl

Catalog Design: Phelelani Mdabe

Exhibit Layout: Martin Gurvich

Promotion: Stefan Goossens

Media: Claire Domoulein

Photography: Param Tomanec

mahaveer_invitation1There is an impressive collection in the art track of ascetics, priests, sufi saints, sadhus, maulvis, and pilgrims, each differently turbaned, with flowing beard, and holy markings. Lost in their meditative trance, as the artist observed them during his sojourns to Khumbh or at Ganga Sagar Math or at the famous holy Dargah shrine at Ajmer, the sketches made on site were developed into paintings working later in the studio.

Number of pages: 103
Pdf size: 22Mb