In paintings: Bhil hunting deer at night

A series of paintings created in the 18th century, across royal courts depicts ‘a Bhil couple hunting deer at night’. Many of the paintings even portray royals dressed as Bhils. We wondered why this was such a popular theme in the art of the time, and thus began our quest.

Who are the Bhils?

The Bhils are a tribal people of Central and Western India who often served as shikaris or soldiers, given their in-depth knowledge of the terrain. Famously, they appear on the Mewar Royal family’s Coat of Arms – an acknowledgment of their heroism in the guerrilla campaign against the Mughals on behalf of Maharana Pratap Singh of Mewar (r. 1540-1597) during the Battle of Haldighati.

Image: Mewar Royal Family , Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. This design was commissioned in 1877.

The Bhils are known for their expert archery skills; in the Mahabharata, Eklavya, the prodigal archer was born to a Bhil couple.

The scene of Bhils hunting deer at night was a popular subject and was repeated throughout the Rajput and Mughal painting ateliers.

Art Historian Ebba Koch draws from the Ain-i-Akbari (written by the Mughal Emperor Akbar’s court-historian) to establish that these paintings point to the ‘Mughal fascination with indigenous people and their hunting techniques’.

The provincial force is formed of Kolis, Bhils and Gonds. Some of these can tame lions, so that they will obey their command, and strange tales are told of them. 

Abul Fazl’s description of Khandesh in Ain-i-Akbari

In the paintings, you will notice Bhil people, approach animals in what is described by Abul Fazl, the ghantabhera hunt technique. A bell is rung to rouse the deer (any animal), while an oil lamp lights up the scene. The lamp is reflected through a concave basket, spotlighting the animal, and hiding the hunter.

Describing a painting based on the subject in their collection the Harvard Art Museum states:

The sound of the bell and the light of the lamps attracts the animals toward the hunters; as Abul Fazl describes, “Sometimes hunters will charm them with a song, and when the deer approach will rise up and cruelly slay them.”

This painting comes from the provincial Mughal school at Faizabad, a center known for producing many versions of this subject. A red sandstone fortress rises in the distance, drawing attention to the division between the ordered urban space of the Mughal empire and the rugged wilderness of the tribal people who lived at its fringes.

It is quite possible that the artists of the court, fascinated by those that lived an “alternative” life in the forests attempted to create dramatised versions of the scene, while mastering their skills in depicting light and shadow.

Here’s a selection of paintings from different museum-collections, depicting the Bhil Ghantabhera Hunting Technique

1. A Deer Hunt, circa 1775, Kota (Rajasthan) Walters Art Museum

If you look closely, and as pointed out by the Museum’s note on the painting, the woman in the painting, with all her jewellery does not seem to be a Bhil. Could it be a lady of the court? Could it be that she wanted the court painter to represent her in this “adventurous look” ? This sort of representation was not an unusual practice, as we understand by looking at the next image which was made before this one.

Image License: CC0

2. Maharana Jagat Singh II of Mewar (r. 1734–51) Dressed as a Bhil, Hunting Deer at Night c. 1735-40, Cleveland Museum of Art

The museum description reads: The ruler, who has the title Maharana, wears the leaf skirt of the Bhil people of Western India, as he hunts deer with a female tracker. They both wear a girdle of bells to scare the quarry out of the underbrush, and she illuminates them using directed light from a lamp in a pot. The king has shot a deer in the neck; rabbit, antelopes, and boar scamper away.

Why do you think the royals wanted to feature as Bhils?

Image License: CC0

3. (Detail) Bhil Couple Hunting Deer at Night”, Folio from the Davis Album, mid-18th century, Mughal, The Met Museum

Image License: CC0

4. Bhil Hunting Deer at Night, 18th century, Mughal, Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian

Image License: CC0

5. 18th century, Mughal & Awadh Painting in the collection of Princeton University Art Museum

Image Licenses: Copyright, Princeton University Art Museum.

6. Bhil couple hunting deer (blackbuck) at night, 18th century, Mughal Indian Museum, Kolkata

Image License: Unknown

7. Bhils hunting black buck at night, Mughal, Oudh, late 18th century

Image location and license: Unknown | Exhibited at Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden: Oriental Illuminations 10 October-10 December 1939

If you think we missed a painting showing the same subject, do share with us in the comments below. Which one did you like the most?

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