Several schools of miniature painting flourished in the sub-Himalayan states towards the close of the Mughal rule in India during the 17th and 19th centuries, which are collectively referred as ‘Pahari’ paintings. Rajput kings or chieftains who were all great connoisseurs of art ruled the hilly region, comprising of twenty two princely states, extending from Jammu to Almora. This art dealt with themes from literature and mythology and infused new ideas and techniques in their creations. A typical ‘Pahari’ composition consists of several figures, skilfully grouped and full of movement, and each is distinct in terms of clothing, hairstyle and pigmentation. Some of the great Pahari painters include Pandit Seu of Guler and his sons Manaku and Nainsukh. The Pahari paintings can be classified into two groups: the northern series called the ‘Jammu or Dogra School’ and the southern series called the ‘Kangra School’.
The early Pahari paintings of the mid-17th century were in the Basholi style and were characterised by faces with receding foreheads and great expressive eyes, shaped like lotus petals and the strong use of primary colours (red, mustard yellow and blue). Apart from clothing, which was borrowed from the Mughal paintings, the Basholi paintings had adopted individual styles and themes. The first dated examples of this kind of painting is from the reign of Raja Kirpal Pal (1678-93), which include the illustrated leaves of ‘Rasamanjari’ (1695), the ‘Gita Govinda’ (1730) and the ‘Ramayana drawings’ (1816) . Bhanu Datta’s ‘Rasamanjari’ provided the most popular theme for the Basholi paintings, which was liberally used by the renowned Basholi artist Devi Das (1694-1695). Love themes based on the episodes of Madhava-Malati and Radha-Krishna were the other favourite themes, besides portraits of the local rajas in plain white garments. These paintings closely resemble the Rajasthani and Malwa paintings.
The arrival of painters from the Mughal court in the second quarter of the 18th century led to a complete transformation of the existing Basholi style of paintings and the birth of ‘Guler-Kangra’ style of paintings. This late Pahari style of paintings first appeared in Guler and then in Kangra. Raja Goverdhan Singh (1744-1773) of Guler was an early patron of this art form. The Kangra paintings reached their maturity during the reign of Maharaja Sansar Chand (1775-1823). These paintings are marked by their liquid grace and delicacy. Many themes like the ‘Bhagwad Purana’, ‘Gita Govinda’ and the ‘Sat Sai’ of ‘Nala-Damayanti’ were portrayed in these paintings. Another subject of the Kangra paintings was the “Twelve Months”, in which the artists tried to bring out the effect of seasons round the year on the emotions of human beings. According to art historian J. C. Harle, the Kangra style is by far the most poetic and lyrical of the Indian styles. The Kangra style became well entrenched in the hills and many offshoots emerged in the regions like Kullu, Nurpur, Chamba and Mandi. This genre of painting continued till late in the 19th century, after which it declined in its importance.