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The story of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj in the paintings of M.V Dhurandhar

Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj was a man of great valour, a charismatic leader and the founder of the Maratha Empire. Countless stories of his wit, administrative abilities, resourcefulness and bravery have been told through novels, comics, plays, ballads, songs, and visual art and have inspired generations.

Interestingly, unlike usual practice in royal courts, Shivaji did not employ artists or painters. Yet, in visual art itself there are numerous depictions of Shivaji – in miniatures, sculptures as well as modern art. In the 19th century painter, M.V Dhurandhar’s works, there are several watercolour paintings featuring Shivaji Maharaj.

According to the Bhau Daji Lad Museum that exhibited these works in 2018 as part of an exhibition:

These are illustrations from books commissioned by Balasaheb Pantapratinidi, Raja of Aundh. These works resulted from the numerous trips Dhurandhar made with Purshottam Mawji, who wrote a history of Shivaji Maharaj’s military and its role during warfare.

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In the study of Indian art history, painters of 19th and 20th century Bombay hold a special place. Amongst them, M.V Dhurandhar was one of the foremost and most significant artists, maintaining a fine balance between academic realism and popular commercial art. He studied at the Sir J. J. School of Art between 1890 and 1895 and went on to become its first Indian director (1919 -1935). Particularly skilled with watercolours, Dhurandhar was an illustrator and portraitist of great repute. His well-known works included a series on the city of Bombay and its people, scenes from Hindu mythology as well as a series on the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

In a series of paintings featuring Shivaji Maharaj, M.V Dhurandhar captures the valour, aura and a humanitarian side of the Maratha King.  

Shivaji, the great Maratha warrior king, (named after the goddess Shivai) was born to Shahaji Bhosale & Jijabai at a time when power in Deccan was shared by three sultanates: Bijapur, Ahmednagar, and Golkonda. Shahaji Bhosale served as a general in the Deccan Sultanate and maintained his own small kingdom in Pune even as he was stationed at different locations. Shivaji grew up in Pune under the care of his mother. Over the subsequent years, he helmed the reign of the Maratha Empire. He established a competent and progressive civil rule with well-structured administrative organisations. Shivaji’s military forces expanded the Maratha sphere of influence, capturing and building forts, and forming a Maratha navy.

Here are some paintings depicting key moments from the life of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. Let’s take a look! 

1. Escape from Panhala : Shivaji inspired loyalty

This painting features Baji Prabhu and a small group of Shivaji’s followers who gave up their lives to protect him. It captures the essence of the Shivaji’s ardent followers who were loyal and ready to lay down their lives, fighting for his safety. Later, Shivaji would honour their sacrifice by immortalizing their memory.

The backstory: In 1660, Shivaji Maharaj was trapped in the fort of Panhala, under siege and vastly outnumbered by an Adilshahi army from Bijapur led by Siddhi Johar. The Adilshahi had suffered several defeats from Shivaji in the past. Despite being at odds with Mughals, they joined hands to derail Shivaji from his ambition and seek revenge. To escape from Panhala, Shivaji hatched a high-risk (and audacious) plan and high-risk plan. Along with his commander Baji Prabhu Deshpande and a select band of troops, they attempted to break through the siege at night and make for Vishalgad. In order to deceive the Bijapuri forces, Shiva Nhavi, who had an uncanny physical resemblance to Shivaji, volunteered to dress like the king and let himself be captured. His sacrifice lent the fleeing Maratha force some more time. Baji Prabhu decided to stay back with half of the troops while Shivaji marched forward with the other half. Baji, his brother Phulaji and the remaining Bandal Sena of about three hundred men blocked the route and fought against thousands of Bijapuri soldiers in the Ghodkhind Pass for more than eighteen hours. The Ghodkhind pass was subsequently named Pavan Khind (“Holy Pass”) by Shivaji, in honor of the sacrifice of Baji Prabhu and his troops. Now known as the ‘Battle of Pavan Khind’.

2. Shaista Khan Surprised : Shivaji’s fearlessness

This painting recalls the time (April 1663) when Shivaji launched a surprise attack on Shaista Khan in Pune, along with a small group of men. After gaining access to Khan’s compound, the raiders were able to seize control. Shaista Khan made a narrow escape from the grasp of Shivaji, losing a finger in the confrontation. Looking at the painting, it is apparent that Shaista Khan was enjoying his treats (or hookah) before he saw Shivaji and ran towards the window to escape. Dhurandhar has skillfully rendered all the elements together to portray the tension of the moment; Shaista Khan’s fearful expression heightens expression, which heightens the sense of drama of the ‘surprise’.

The backstory: Until 1657, Shivaji maintained peaceful relations with the Mughal Empire. He even offered his assistance to Aurangzeb in conquering Bijapur in return for formal recognition of his right to the Bijapuri forts and villages under his possession. Dissatisfied with the Mughal response, he launched a raid into the Mughal Deccan. Upon the request of Badi Begum of Bijapur, Aurangzeb sent his maternal uncle Shaista Khan, with an army numbering over 150,000 along with a powerful artillery division in January 1660 to attack Shivaji combined with Bijapur’s army led by Siddi Jauhar. He pressed his advantage of having a larger, better provisioned and heavily armed Mughal army and made inroads into some of the Maratha territory, seizing the city of Pune and establishing his residence at Shivaji’s palace of Lal Mahal.

3. Campaign for Kondana (Sinhagad) fort: Shivaji’s friendships were strong

This painting features Shivaji, his mother Jijabai and one of his generals and close friends, Tanaji Malusare. Shivaji’s mother Jijabai occupies the central position in this scene and seems to be giving her blessings to Tanaji – when he takes his famous vow.

The backstory: The story of this painting dates back to 1665, when the fort of Kondana was acceded to the Mughals as a part of the Treaty of Purandar. Shivaji was disappointed about losing such a strategically important fortification, which is visible in his body language. With an aim to recapture the fort, Shivaji called his generals and discussed this task. Among them was Tanaji Malusare, who agreed to take up the challenge. Now Tanaji was actually visiting to invite Shivaji to his son Rayba’s wedding. After reading the invitation, Shivaji implored upon Tanaji to focus on his son’s wedding, assuring that he would give this task to someone else. However, Tanaji, determined as ever, took a vow for the Kondana campaign saying:

Aadhi lagin kondhanyache mag mazya Raybache

(I’ll capture Kondana first, Rayba’s marriage can happen later).

The confidence on Tanaji’s face is well documented in this painting. The ‘Battle of Sinhgad’ took place during the night on 4 February 1670 on the fort of Sinhagad (then known as Kondana), near the city of Pune. The battle was fought between Tanaji Malusare, (commander of the Maratha Empire under Shivaji) and Uday Bhan Singh Rathore, a Rajput fort keeper under Jai Singh I (who worked for the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb). Even as the battle unfolded in favour of the Maratha army who won the Fort, Tanhaji was killed.

The battle and Tanaji’s exploits are still a popular subject for Marathi ballads. It is said that when Shivaji got the information about the victory but Tanaji lost his life during the battle, he exclaimed “Gad ala pan sinh gela” (The fort has been captured but we lost the lion). A bust of Tanaji Malusare was established on the fort in the memory of his contribution to the battle. The fort was also renamed Sinhgad to honor his memory. 

4. On the way to Purandar Fort: Shivaji was a practical leader

This painting features Shivaji acknowledging the greetings of the people on the way, to Purandar Fort (and perhaps reassuring them). This fort had special relevance in Shivaji’s rise as a King : as a young warrior, Shivaji had raided and captured the fort of Purandar in 1646. It was one of his first victories for the Maratha empire; moreover, his first son Sambhaji had been born at Purandar Fort.

The backstory: In 1665, the forces of Aurangzeb besieged the Purandar Fort under the command of Mirza Raje Jai Singh assisted by Diler Khan. The killedar (keeper of the fort), Murarbaji Deshpande of Mahr offered strong resistance against the Mughal forces ultimately giving up his life in a struggle to retain the fort. When Shivaji learned about the loss of Murarbaji and the prospect of the fall of his grandfather’s fort, he embarked on a journey to the Purandar fort filled with resolve to find a solution to the situation.

In order to make peace, Shivaji had to sign a treaty known as the ‘First Treaty of Purandar’ with Jai Singh on 11 June 1665. According to the treaty, Shivaji had to hand over twenty-three forts including Purandar, keeping twelve forts for himself and pay a compensation of 400,000 gold mohurs to the Mughals. Shivaji agreed to become a vassal of the Mughal empire, and to send his son Sambhaji to fight for the Mughals in the Deccan as a mansabdar along with 5,000 horsemen.

5. When Shivaji was invited by Aurangzeb to Agra : Shivaji had immense pride and self-respect 

In this painting, Dhurandar has featured  one of the most dramatic moments in Shivaji’s life. If you look closer at the painting, the courtiers, the guards, little Sambhaji, the others – they are all in shock at the audacity of Shivaji to speak in the Emperor’s presence. Aurangzeb has been restricted to one side of the painting, whereas Shivaji occupies the centre stage and dominates the narrative. 

The backstory: After signing the Treaty of Purandar, Shivaji agreed to fall in line with the orders of the Mughal empire. He and his son, Sambhaji were summoned by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb to Agra in 1666. Aurangzeb’s plan was to deploy Shivaji at Kandahar to consolidate the northwestern frontier of the Mughal empire. However, Aurangzeb made Shivaji stand behind the mansabdārs of his court. Being a man of pride, Shivaji took offence at this treatment, protested in his defence and stormed out. As a result, he was placed under house arrest under the watch of Faulad Khan, Kotwal of Agra. Shivaji’s position under house arrest was perilous, as Aurangzeb’s court debated whether to kill him or continue to employ him. Meanwhile, Shivaji used his dwindling funds to bribe courtiers to support his case. Orders came from the emperor to station Shivaji in Kabul, which he refused. Instead he asked for his forts to be returned and to serve the Mughals as a mansabdār. Aurangzeb refused and said that he must surrender his remaining forts before returning to Mughal service. Unable to give into the emperor’s demands, Shivaji managed to escape from Agra, likely by bribing the guards. According to a popular legend, it is believed that Shivaji and his son escaped in large baskets, that were claimed to be sweets to be gifted to religious figures in the city. Although, the Mughal Emperor was never able to ascertain how he escaped despite an investigation.

6. Coronation of Shivaji : How Shivaji became ‘Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj’

This painting shows the coronation of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj and is filled with people. The painter does not really focus on the interiors but instead focuses on the ‘crowd’ that had gathered at the event. Look closer and you’d realise that every face in this painting is distinct; no two women are dressed similarly nor do any faces look the same. In the painting you can also spot Gaga Bhatt (a renowned priest from Banaras who officiated the ceremony) advancing the golden umbrella over Shivaji’s head. There is also an unidentified British official seen extending his greeting to the recently crowned king.

The backstory: Though Shivaji had acquired extensive lands and wealth through his conquests, he lacked a formal title. This meant that technically he was still a Mughal zamindar or the son of a Bijapuri jagirdar, with no legal basis to rule his de facto domain. A royal title would address this and also prevent any challenges by other Maratha leaders (to who he was an equal). It would also provide the Hindu Marathas with a fellow Hindu sovereign in a region otherwise ruled by Muslims.
Shivaji was crowned king of Maratha Swaraj in a lavish ceremony on 6 June 1674 at Raigad fort and became the first Chhatrapati of the Maratha Empire.

Shivaji was a staunch supporter of women and their honour. During his rule women were protected and their dishonor was not taken lightly. He opposed all kinds of violence and harassment against women.

Under Shivaji’s rule, anyone caught violating women’s rights was severely punished. In fact, women of captured territories were also released unharmed, and with integrity. An example of this can be seen in this painting which shows Shivaji receiving the daughter-in-law of the Subedar of Kalyan, who had been defeated in a battle. While the story of the Subedar’s daughter-in-law is widely believed to be a legend and is not a historical fact, Shivaji’s support for women is undeniable.


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Arunesh Varade
Arunesh Varade
Art enthusiast. On a pursuit to discover and learn more about Indian culture and heritage.
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