Rawat Gokal Das celebrating holi in the zenana
Signed Bagta, Devgarh, dated 1808
Opaque watercolor and gold on paper; the imposing ruler dressed in a white jama and adorned in a slightly reserved selection of jewels, commences the celebrations by squirting colored water from his syringe. The courtesan before him raises her hand spilling red powder ready to return fire. Three other courtesans in the group are armed with syringes with gazes fixed on the ruler ready to join the festivities. On the ground before them are silver rosewater sprinklers, perfume bottles and an array of large silver trays and bowls brimming with red and yellow powder, along with European blue and white bowls filled with the same. Behind the ruler five attendants offer more trays of powder, his favorite hookah, refreshments, and his sword and shield. The steps leading to the terrace are occupied by musicians in full swing. The joy of the composition is completed by the presence of mating and strutting pigeons below the railing and a multitude of parrots and minor birds perched on the ledges of the upper chambers.
This previously unrecorded large format painting by Bagta (active 17611814) is a masterpiece of the artist's work in the traditional court scene format. While he is heralded for his innovative landscapes found in his works of the 'Hunting Trip', also dated 1808, in the Prince of Wales Museum, Mumbai and 'Shooting Fowl at Singh Sagar Lake' in the Howard Hodgkin Collection, the present holi celebration is purely focused on the human figures at level unmatched by other works. Unlike many holi scenes that are heavily saturated with color, this composition shows the start of the event and barely any color registers outside containers other than light smudges on the ruler's bolstes. Thereby Bagta leaves the absolute focus on the individuals and their sumptuous textiles. Compare with a later holi scene with Rawat Gokal Das by Chokha, see Andrew Topsfield, Court Painting at Udiapur, 2000, fig. 206, p. 227.
This is a rare example of Bagta's larger scale depiction of female figures during his employ under Gokal Das. Bagta did not only give the four primary courtesans attention with distinctive faces and body types, even down to the toes, he also extended the same level of detail to the attending figures behind, as well as the musicians in the lower corners. A smaller format painting dated to the same year in the Prince of Wales Museum showing the ruler "with his women on Holi day" in Painting from the Thikana of Deogarh Prince of Wales Museum Bulletin, no. 10 (1967), no. 45. The women appear to be very similar to the same three that stand before him in the present painting, but a slightly stiffer by comparison.
The highly decorative, yet conventional treatment of the architecture is delicately embellished by a menagerie of parrots set on the ledges on the right side. While dancing and mating pigeons preform by a pond below the terrace, flanked by Bagta's familiar treatment of flowers and bushes. Another special detail of note are the small erotic scenes painted on the tympanum of the drum held by female on the lower left corner. The female figure on the right, also with a drum is also noteworthy for her portly physique and significantly darker skin.
For a comprehensive listing of portraits of Rawat Gokal Das see Beach and Rawat Nahar Singh II, Rajasthani Painters Bagta and Chokha 2005, figs 64-76, pp. 55-65. In his summary of Bagta style, Beach notes (ibid, p. 136) "Bagta..was not a great painter because of the orginality of his commissions, but because he refused to repeat the familiar, to lapse into formula." and perhaps the most telling observation "..It was ultimately this ability to observe the world with extraordinary care and sensitivity, and to articulate - in purely visual terms - his perceptions for others, that created one of the greatest periods of painting anywhere in India."