The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, July 15, 2001
'Art and Soul

The arts of heraldry
B.N. Goswamy

THE 'divinity that doth hedge a king' apart, one knows that royalty did need to surround itself with spectacle, great spectacle in fact, in the past. The glittering pageantry one reads about, the great public assemblages at which all the panoply of power was formally paraded, was an essential part of the kingly image. For, always and insistently, a 'message' needed to be sent out: meant alike for friend and foe, subject and foreigner. And when that message had to be visually established, heraldry, and heraldic devices, among other things, came into play.

Images of heraldic beasts from England: Red bull and white ram
Images of heraldic beasts from England: Red bull and white ram

The word comes of course from 'herald', in itself of uncertain (although probably of Teutonic) origin, which described, as the dictionaries tell us, "an officer having the special duty of making royal, or state, proclamations, and, of bearing ceremonial messages between princes or sovereign powers". But the herald also was "employed in the tourney to make proclamations, convey challenges, and marshal the combatants". Clearly, in our minds all this raises distinctly European associations, and heraldic images, like coats-of-arms, printed on our minds from all those medieval paintings and tapestries - and, more recently, from movies - swim into view: pennants flying atop domed tents, buglers in serried rows with diverse signs suspended from their instruments, helmeted knights wielding bucklers painted with symbols and other devices; and so on. One can almost see whole armies on the march, preceded by sinewy men carrying tall signs - sculpted figures of animals and birds (hawks, eagles, lions, unicorns, and the like), and, of course, selected geometric symbols - even as trumpets blare and horses pound the earth with their hooves. One thinks of pageants and arenas, rich with imagery and drenched in colour.

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Taoism and the arts of China
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Some fakes and a scandal
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Gutenberg and his ‘new art of writing’
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Difficult business of authentication
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Artist’s view of Kutch: A place apart
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Arts and the common man
January 28, 2001
Voices from China
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The persistence of memory
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December 3, 2000
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November 19, 2000

But, nearer home, too, there is a rich context of spectacle and imagery, even if heraldry is not the word we use. There are long and vivid references to symbols and other 'heraldic' devices, as much from our ancient past as from the medieval times. The customised dhvajas that flew from the chariots of figures in our own myth and history, the distinctive personal symbols that one associates with heroes and deities, the devices and apparel that identified whole arrays of fighting men, are all (or should be) a part of our awareness. And when it comes to the evidence of art - the range of Mughal paintings, for instance - one can become intensely aware of a whole language of symbols and signifiers in use.

If there is difficulty in decoding some of these wholly on one's own, help is at hand, for Abu'l Fazl, in his great and encyclopaedic work, the Ain-i Akbari, has a whole section on what he calls 'The Ensigns of Royalty'. Among the insignias, thus, he mentions, the saya-ban, also called the aftab-gir, "of an oval form, a yard in length, and its handle, like the chhatra or umbrella, covered with brocade, and ornamented with precious stones". The alam, according to him, is the standard. "When the king rides out, not less than five of these are carried along with the qur (a collection of flags, arms and other insignia, apparently of Central Asian descent), wrapped up in scarlet cloth bags. On days of festivity, and in battle, they are unfurled." Again, the chatratoq, we learn, is "a kind of alam, but smaller than that in size, adorned with the tails of Tibetan yaks", and the tumantoq is 'like the chatratoq, but longer'. "Both insignia are flags of the highest dignity, and the latter is bestowed upon great nobles only". And so on. Apparently, there is a whole world of figure and meaning out there: culture-specific and complex, as is to be expected, but stimulating in the extreme, for one encounters in it ideas embedded in history, images hovering in the collective unconscious, as it were.

I am now beginning to wonder what led me into this area of heraldry in the first instance. Apparently, it was the image of four superbly crafted heraldic beasts, from England, that were in the news some time back. Tall and imposing, these figures of a red bull, a black gryphon, a white ram, and a crowned salmon, each holding aloft in his hands a long and colourful standard painted with symbolic devices and coats-of-arms, and all carved from the single trunk of an oak, are a part of English history, having been around since the 1520s. Called 'the Dacre beasts'—commissioned by Thomas, Lord Dacre, who threw in his great military prowess on the side of Henry Tudor against Richard III on the battlefield of Bosworth—these are proud reminders of a tumultuous past when ensigns such as these could only be devised and put to use by express royal consent. For nearly 500 years, they were housed in the powerful Naworth Castle, around which the dread cry, "a red bull, a red bull, a Dacre, a Dacre", used to ring in the air.

The art of giving

The Dacre beasts were in the news because they were on loan to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London from the Naworth Castle for some time, and the museum, deeply interested in acquiring them, was mounting a campaign for raising funds to be able to buy them. Just a few months after the campaign was launched, the museum announced that it had been successful in its effort. The Friends of the V&A raised more than a hundred thousand pounds from contributions that came from the members; the National Art Collections Fund, and the National Heritage Memorial Fund chipped in with matching amounts. The result? The V&A is now the new home of the Dacre Beasts. This is how museums function elsewhere, bringing passion to their work, and this is how people give for causes that would go all but unnoticed in our own land.