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India’s Mona Lisa and Kishangarh’s Radha: Bani Thani
This is the story of a simple, everyday girl called Vishnupriya and how she became the wife of a King, through the recognition of her unparalleled beauty and artistic skills. This recognition leads her to be the face of some of the most famous miniature paintings India has ever seen.
Bani Thani. Illustrated by Miloni Munipally: Visual Storyteller at ThisDay

Story of Bani Thani

Kishangargh’s 7th King was an ardent lover of the arts and thus, all forms of dance, painting and poetry flourished under his rule. Maharaja Savant Singh (reigned 1748–57) was himself a poet, writing many prose under the pen name of Nagaridas.

It was under his rule that his mother introduced a beautiful girl named Vishnupriya to the court, as a court dancer. With elegant grace, unparalleled beauty and a plethora of talent, Vishnupriya soon took over Savant Singh’s heart.

A graceful dancer, a melodic singer and an intricate poetess under the pen name of Rashikbihari, Vishnupriya knew well how to create magic and Savant Singh wanted to restore this magic. Like we keep our love in a photograph, Savant Singh got his best artist, Nihal Chand to turn Vishnupriya and their love story, into art.

First his courtesan and later his wife, Vishnupriya started to deck up in the rarest of jewels and the nicest of garments and was soon to be known as the famous Bani Thani or as translated to “ the decked-up woman”.

Nihal Chand took to himself to portray Bani Thani’s pure beauty in the most delicate fashion possible. This soon gave rise to the Kishangarh School of Painting and the main characteristics of this school of miniature paintings developed around it.

One of the major features that were glorified in these paintings was the eyes. It is often said that Savant Singh was absolutely captivated by Bani Thani’s beautiful eyes and wanted Nihal Chand to especially capture them. This is the reason why Bani Thani’s eyes were drawn as big curvaceous ones with thin arched eyebrows, a style that continued in this school of painting.

Bani Thani’s most famous painting was her portrait. Her beauty in this portrait is often compared to that of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Monalisa.
Bani Thani, Kishangarh; Miniature from c. 1750, at the National Museum, New Delhi. Source: Wikimedia Commons

There are secret meanings and explanations that the portrait painting holds. Apart from her eyes, the sharp nose, chin and jaw are features that represented the ideal beauty standards of a woman at the given time and thus Bani Thani’s portrait was a symbol of grace and unending elegance. Her look in the portrait is similar to a bride, adorned with gold and pearl jewellery and her face is half covered with a Rajasthani Sheer Odhni or veil which is symbolic of a woman’s honour and modesty. The Rajput’s often had religious characters drawn in their painting which is why it is believed that this portrait was inspired by Radha’s figure. She is also holding a lotus bud, which symbolises purity, another parallel that is drawn to Radha in regards to her purity.

The paintings of Bani Thani were rich in the Sringara rasa (or romanticism and beauty) and soon became an important depiction for Nihal Chand’s art. In this Kishangarh School of Art, the main women in every painting were replicated in the same style as Bani Thani and thus began to be known as Bani Thani themselves.

Under Savant Singh’s rule, Kishangarh was under the influence of Krishna Bhakti. Thus a lot of religious paintings depicting Radha-Krishna were also very common. The same style and sceneries are seen in Savant Singh and Bani Thani’s paintings as Savant Singh wanted their love to be portrayed as that of Radha-Krishna. This also popularised Bani Thani to be Kishangarh’s Radha.

After Nihal Chand, no artist was capable enough to successfully take up this style of art with the same effort, intricacy and detail. Therefore, Bani Thani and this style of painting died out.

However, to honour Bani Thani’s beauty and the artistic excellence of Nihal Chand, India issued a commemorative stamp in 1973 with a face value of 20 paisa which helped regain its lost popularity.

Both the lovers, Maharaja Savant Singh and Bani Thani passed away in the 1760s. They have to themselves a dedicated pair of twin Chatris near the Nagari Kunj Temple.

Sayantani Majumder Author
I’m all about exploring different forms of art and storytelling, to tell the tales within me and of the people around me. Might be a human, might be a cat, we’ll never know.

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