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An Indian painting workshop led by Shammi Bannu

Indian painting workshop

Indian painting workshop led by Shammi Bannu. Photography by Mike Wheeler

Shammi Bannu is a renowned master artist in India with a very long family tradition of miniature painting which stretches back several hundred years. His father Bannu was well known across India as both an artist and as a skilled restorer of miniature paintings. Shammi was invited to England to demonstrate painting techniques in the Hamzanama exhibition space for a period of two weeks. His visit to the UK was generously supported by the Friends of the V&A. He kindly agreed to also hold a workshop at the V&A during his visit.

Based in Jaipur, Rajastahn, Shammi is among a small group of artists in India working in a completely traditional style using mineral pigments which they prepare and grade themselves. Jaipur is renowned as a centre for arts and crafts and has a tradition of both painting and jewellery making, as well as being a centre for trading of minerals and precious stones. Many of these same minerals are used as both settings in jewellery and as artists pigments. Lapis lazuli is a good example of this type of semi-precious stone used for both purposes. Likewise, the knowledge of gold and silver working techniques are useful in the preparation of the metallic leaves used for preparing gold and silver paints.

The target audiences for this one day workshop were both artists and conservation specialists. It was hosted by the V&A Paper Conservation Section in May 2003, as part of a programme of events designed to tie in with the Adventures of Hamza exhibition organised by the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC that was exhibited at the V&A from 15 March -8 June 2003. Twenty people attended the workshop which was conducted in the Paper Conservation studio and in the Hamzanama exhibition space.

The day began with a slide lecture designed to introduce the audience to the pigments commonly used for painting as well as explaining some of the basic preparation methods, that include grinding, washing to remove impurities and grading according to particle size. It was of interest to notice the variety in the colour of pigment originating from different natural sources and the degree to which the colour may vary according to the amount of grinding and preparation it has received. Gold paint is made from gold leaf which has been mixed with gum and ground down with the palm of the hand on a flat saucer until a liquid paint is produced. It takes many hours to produce only a very small quantity of this precious paint which is commonly used in place of gold leaf for the decoration of Indian miniature paintings on both cloth and paper.

Participants examined both pigments and papers and learned how to use the traditional, curved squirrel hair brushes which allow extremely fine lines to be drawn on the paper and are used for applying the paint to small areas. Samples of the different pigments were painted out by participants while Shammi showed the audience his method of assembling a cloth and paper support, which was similar to the laminated type used for the Hamzanama folios in the Hamza exhibition. He also demonstrated the way of stretching out the adhesive-soaked cloth on glass and adhering the dampened paper to it with wheat starch paste. By the end of the day, participants were left with a far greater appreciation of the time and effort which goes into producing a miniature painting and the painstaking nature of the painters craft. It is to be hoped that this rich tradition will continue to thrive in the rapidly changing world of twenty first century India.