INDIA • INSPIRING FIGURE
In Savant Singh’s eighteenth-century court in central Rajasthan, a new artistic movement was born when the prince fell in love with the beautiful commoner, Bani Thani.
Prince Savant Singh of India was the leader of the Kishangarh. He was devoted to local Kishangarh art, which is renowned for its miniature paintings. These paintings are influenced by the theme of Radha Krishna: a Hindu belief in the great, unconditional love between the Supreme God Krishna and her lover, Radha. It is believed that the two gods’ souls were connected, transforming them into one spiritual being. Having been trained in literature and the arts, Prince Savant was an established poet himself. He wrote poems under the name Nagari Das, many of which were composed specifically to praise Krishna.
Savant Singh’s love interest was a singer, poet and muse. She came to his attention when he heard her singing at his Kishangarh court. Although her original name is unknown, she was soon dubbed ‘Bani Thani’, which translates as ‘Lady of Fashion’, because of her charming and distinctive style. Savant Singh fell in love with her immediately, and his devotion was reciprocated.
The lovers were followers of the Krishna cult and compared their own relationship to that of Radha and Krishna. Savant Singh wanted to immortalize their love through his court paintings, so he commissioned his master artist, Nihâl Chand, to paint him as Krishna and Bani Thani as Radha.
This endeavour initiated a new artistic movement in the Kishangarh School of Painting. What started with Nihal Chand continued in Kishangarh ateliers, and soon, Bani Thani’s distinctive face and revered beauty became a source of inspiration for many artists. Her features were elegantly exaggerated to become the symbolic face and form of Kishangarh art: a new Krishna figure with pulled-back, lotus-shaped eyes; a high, arched brow; thin lips; a pointed chin and a long, sharp nose. This formula was subsequently reserved for Radha Krishna representations, although it did occasionally influence other figure paintings.
Savant Singh and Bani Thani spent the rest of their lives worshipping Krishna. The prince died in 1764 and Bani followed him a year later. Like Radha and Krishna’s endless and unconditional devotion, their relationship is immortal, for it lives on in the Kishangarh paintings.