“IT MUST SEEM rather didactic to write an entire book devoted to one manuscript,” art historian BN Goswamy says as we settle down to talk in the sitting room of his suite at the Bangalore Club last month. “Especially one where every single illustrated folio has been reproduced and discussed in considerable detail.”
Yet, when you inspect the volume under question—a handsomely produced hardbound book, encased in a cardboard box—there is not a whiff of pedantry about it. The images, all 215 of them (some of which are unfinished), are vibrant and alive, the commentary is scholarly but accessible. The invitation to immerse yourself into the mystical universe that this manuscript conjures up is irresistible.
That same evening, as Goswamy presented his findings about this exquisite work of art at a public lecture at the Bangalore International Centre, there was not a single empty chair in the 180-seater auditorium. If it’s rare to have such a strong crowd turn out to hear a scholar speak about an obscure manuscript, it’s rarer still to have such an evening end with rousing applause. But then, there’s never a dull moment in Goswamy’s public lectures, nor any dreary history lesson.
Soft-spoken and erudite, the 85-year-old sparkles with a gentle humour, sprinkling his learned analyses with anecdotes and reminiscences drawn from his long and august career as a pioneer in the field of Indian miniatures. Not only does Goswamy make the audience see beyond the obvious, but he also harnesses his vast knowledge with tales of mystery and imagination, drawn from mythology and folklore.
The Great Mysore Bhagavata (Niyogi; Rs3,500; 320 pages), his latest work, which includes essays by historians Robert J. Del Bonta and Caleb Simmons, is the result of a blend of these two modes in his personality, bringing the scholar and story-teller together. A piercingly academic study of a historically important manuscript, the book is also informed by a sensibility that is unafraid of making informed guesses.
The Great Mysore Bhagavata is a survey of an eponymous 19th-century manuscript, which is in the custody of the San Diego Museum of Art in the US, where Goswamy first saw it during his tenure as a consultant. Created as a codex (in the form of a modern book) instead of the traditional pothi format, it must have slipped out of the holdings of the Mysore royal family’s library and entered the market in Britain in the 1980s. Part of a collection bequeathed to the San Diego Museum of Art by a collector called Edward Binney III, this manuscript is a treasure trove on several counts.
For one, it is a unique testimony to the miniature style of painting emerging from south of the Deccan. While Mughal miniatures from the north of the subcontinent, alongside Pahari and Rajasthani paintings, have a wide public currency, very little is known about this genre from the south, except for some paintings from the kingdoms of Bijapur and Golconda. Commissioned in 1825 by Krishnaraja Wodeyar III (1794-1868), who was nominally appointed king by the British after Tipu Sultan’s death in 1799, The Great Mysore Bhagavata is among the few surviving examples of miniature art from South India. The Sanskrit text of the original scripture is rendered in it in Old Kannada and embellished with stunning artwork, which is illuminated by vivid colours and modes of story-telling that are non-linear and often abstract in a distinctly modernist sense.
What’s even more remarkable is the subject of this manuscript: the tenth skanda of the Bhagavata Purana, which describes the life of Krishna, though only the latter part of the text, or the uttara-ardha, is depicted in the paintings. Goswamy believes the earlier half, or the purva-ardha, must have once existed, though it is now probably lost forever.
As a result, the many miracles from Krishna’s childhood—such as the killing of Kaliya the serpent and Putana the ogress with the poisoned breast, or the boy-god showing his mother Yasoda the entire universe inside his mouth—are absent from the narrative that is now extant. Instead, we are taken on a wild and often treacherous journey through the many battles Krishna fought as an adult, when he was the ruler of Dwaraka, the invincible city built by the divine architect Vishwakarma. We see him in combat with enemies old and new and, as always, he remains susceptible to amorous dalliances. In one spectacular scene, for example, Krishna ends up marrying 16,000 beautiful women after freeing them from the clutches of a tyrant.
“Research into miniature painting traditions of the South might open a door to a period that has until now remained obscure,” says BN Goswamy, art historian
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The world that “resides inside these paintings”, as Goswamy says, is far more complex than what meets the eye. While remaining as faithful to the text as possible, the artists who worked on this manuscript took unbounded liberties with styles. Formalist realism (which is sometimes, rather amusingly, evoked through casual references to the Union Jack, or soldiers wearing gumboots) frequently dissolves into abstract shapes. The notion of space is manipulated with abandon to suggest action and motion, while time—both in its progression and regression—is rendered with just as much fluidity.
A true understanding of the Bhagavata Purana hinges on a peculiar conundrum. The meaning of the text, as scholars have pointed out, is not merely confined to what is written. To understand it in all its fullness, it has to be heard and recited. Imagine, then, the challenge before the artists to convey these layers of aural truths in an idiom that is inescapably visual. In one instance, an entire chapter, made up of nearly 60 shlokas (verses),which describes Krishna teasing his consort Rukmini and then consoling her, is condensed into a single, multi-layered painting. The sheer imaginative leap involved in such a process of turning speech into vision strikes us as outstanding.
“It is evident there was one—or two—master painter(s) involved in the project,” says Goswamy, “they were helped along by apprentices.” The difference in the quality of the artwork, especially with regard to the facial features of the key characters as well as the detailing of their attire, makes this possibility evident.
In most instances, the retinues of warriors, fighting either on the side of good or evil, are rendered with doll-like faces, while the primary characters assume depth and definition. Krishna, for instance, is never depicted with his trademark peacock feather. Instead, in spite of the brevity of the scale of the paintings, keen emotions are etched into his face. His clothes, frequently tinted with gold dust, indicate his royal stature. While the master painters laboured over these nuances, the assistants filled colours into the outlines and did some routine copy-pasting. Several incomplete illustrations appear, like spectral white splotches, on the pages. “Perhaps the artists ran out of gold,” Goswamy says.
Even more intriguing than these absences is the liberty that the artists take with time and space. In most paintings, the events depicted don’t follow a linear left to right, or top to bottom, sequence. “There doesn’t seem to be much interest in establishing credible planes,” Goswamy points out. Instead, the eye is provoked to roam over the entire vista and figure out the story line.
A CLASSIC EXAMPLE OF this technique is seen in the episode of Krishna and his brother Balarama taking refuge in the Gomanta Mountain, as they flee their arch enemy, Jarasandha. The mountain, “eight yojanas in height”, is made up of a pell-mell assortment of rocks, trees and buildings. Jarasandha and his men lurk among these natural and man-made structures, hunting for Krishna and Balarama. As the mountain is set on fire, flames lick the vegetation, and our eye is drawn to the summit, where the brothers are stationed, plotting their next move. When we see them again, they have reached the bottom right corner of the painting, making good their escape. The eye is urged to fill in the gap between the pursuit and the flight.
The images in the book, all 215 of them (some of which are unfinished), are vibrant and alive, the commentary is scholarly but accessible
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One of the recurrent attractions in the paintings is the sky—inky blue and curling up with clouds, where deities assemble to look upon the earthly drama unfolding beneath them. Just as the action moves from plains to mountains, it also traverses from the sea to the heavens. In depicting the chain that links the creatures of the ocean with those on the earth and the ones in the sky, the painters invoke a mythical cosmology that blurs the boundaries between human and divine, the mundane and the miraculous.
In doing so, the artists urge us to suspend disbelief and not judge their work by the conventions of geometric proportions and probabilities. The scene where an enraged Balarama drags the city of Hastinapur with his ploughshare into the Ganga captures one such moment of instability. It is a point where we must take a leap of faith. Over a double page, this incident plays out with a chilling clarity: the panorama of the city, depicted on the recto, slides into the river on the verso. The rules of life and art are suspended for a second. And everything turns into magic.