The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, August 12, 2001
'Art and Soul

The threshold of renunciation

Depiction of the legend of Ilaputra
Depiction of the legend of Ilaputra

THE wonderful tale that follows is painted on a wooden doorway that led, once, to a ghar derasar, a household shrine, installed in a devout, Jain home at Patan, in Gujarat. Built some 200 years ago, the shrine gradually turned into a place of public worship, and the family decided to throw it open to thronging Jain devotees, handing over its running to a trust. But things have a way of decaying, and when, following common Jain practice, a jeernoddhara(retrieval and repair) of the shrine was undertaken some 50 years ago, the painted wooden doorway, and a ceiling, were taken down, and sold by the trustees to a dealer.

From that dealer, the Sarabhai Foundation recovered this little treasure, and reinstalled it in its own Jain galleries in Ahmedabad. There, the finely painted doorway stands today, old crevices and all, at the entrance: not the entrance of a shrine any more, but of a trove of fine Jain objects. Not many visitors stop to 'read' the tale painted on the door with its folding panels. But if they did, they would see why the tale was chosen for being painted on a door: it is especially appropriate to a threshold. The threshold of renunciation, as the Jains would say.

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February 11, 2001
Arts and the common man
January 28, 2001
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The tale, movingly told in an early Jain text, is of one Ilaputra who lived a long, long time ago. Born in a wealthy merchant family, through the blessings of the Goddess Ila, the boy had a happy childhood and grew, before the fond eyes of his parents, into a fine young man, exceedingly handsome in appearance, and skilled in all the arts. His parents hoped to marry him to a high-born girl from a wealthy family. But fate willed otherwise. One day, as Ilaputra was going along with some friends to watch a wandering group of acrobats that hadcome to perform in his town, his eye fell upon Manjari, daughter of the chief among acrobats.

She was lithe of frame, and beautiful, and as she performed, one difficult feat after another, an unearthly light shone in her eyes. Ilaputra fell deeply, hopelessly in love. He longed for her day and night; it was as if the rest of the world held no meaning for him any longer. Gradually, his parents came to know of their son's distracted state and, though they were deeply disappointed that Ilaputra should wish to marry well below his status, they approached Manjari's father, the master acrobat, asking for her hand. They thought that the wandering acrobat would be overjoyed by this offer of matrimony from a wealthy family, but things turned out differently.

"We do not sell our daughters", the master acrobat said, proudly. "Our daughters earn their living; so do our sons-in-law." When pressed, he said he would agree to give Manjari in marriage to Ilaputra provided the young man learnt the skills that their group excelled in, and travelled with them wherever they went. But Manjari would be his only when he could earn enough from his own performance to be able to feast the entire troupe from those earnings.

Stiff as these conditions were, the story goes, Ilaputra agreed, readily, spurred on by his great passion for Manjari. He left his home, and began to travel the hard road with the troupe, learning to dance, act, beat the drum, balance himself on tight ropes. His dexterity grew by the day, and his fame spread. Hearing of him, a king in the neighbourhood invited the troupe to perform for him. On the appointed day, as the crowds gathered, and the king sat in state, with the women of the royal household peering from high balconies, the performance began. Manjari danced enchantingly, and Ilaputra got up, high in the air, to balance himself on a bamboo, making fencing movements with a sword, his toe resting only on a single areca nut inserted into the hollow of the bamboo. It was a dazzling act, and the populace sat mesmerised. The drums were beating, but almost louder than them was the beating of countless hearts. Everyone expected the king to load the performers with gifts, and Ilaputra certainly hoped to feast the troupe from his 'earnings', the last of the conditions he had to fulfil for gaining Manjari's hand.

But the king was in no hurry; he asked the troupe to perform a second time the same night, and yet another time. Each time, Ilaputra got up to the bamboo high in the air, sweat trickling, body faint with exhaustion. And then, suddenly, as night turned into dawn, and while he was still up there, balancing himself, he looked down, and his eye fell upon a Jain monk, out begging alms, going from door to door. He saw the monk stand in front of a house from which a most beautiful young woman came out to make an offering. But, Ilaputra noticed, the monk stood quietly, with his head bowed, not even lifting his eyes, as he received the alms in his bowl. And then he saw him move away, heading for his monastery.

All of a sudden, Ilaputra was struck by the situation. Here I am, he thought to himself, once wealthy and a much-loved son, performing like a monkey out of passion for an acrobat's daughter. And there is this monk, utterly detached, void of passion, peace written all over his face. What am I out to gain? What good would it do me even if I were to earn Manjari's hand: we will be separated again, caught as we all are in this mortal coil. The scales before Ilaputra's eyes fell, the story says, and a realisation of the futility of all this dawned upon him. In that instant, he decided to give everything up; he had reached the threshold of renunciation. As a kevalin, with the gods smiling upon him now, he roamed the land, preaching the True Doctrine.

A Jain construct

This tale of Ilaputra, as told in the texts, is quintessentially Jaina: terse and meaningful, engaging one's attention till the very end as a story, but then suddenly ending in a moral. Remarkably, the painter who renders it is able, somehow, to invest it with the same qualities. In the upper part of the panels, there is the excitement of the narrative everywhere: the exquisite balconies filled with eager spectators, the king watching from his royal seat, acrobats climbing up strands of wavy ropes, Ilaputra balancing himself at the very top with Manjari crouching within a bamboo triangle, even as the gods come sailing in their heavenly chariots to watch. But, at the bottom of the panel, the painter brings in the scene of the monk receiving alms, and, facing him, a monastery, where another monk sits, revered by devotees, reading from a text. Peace reigns here, all excitement banished from the scene. It is as if the painter were leading the viewer, quietly, towards an area of contemplation, inviting him to think.

And one remembers then that the scene was painted on a doorway that led once to a shrine.