ONE sees very little of the art of the north-eastern region of our land, at least in these parts. An occasional glimmer is all that one might catch, even in our museums: a brooding sculpture of a standing man, a warm and rich textile, a stray but intricate carving of the ‘tribal’ kind. But of texts, especially illustrated manuscripts, remarkably little comes to notice.
And yet there are
reminders, from time to time, of the riches that lie, virtually hidden,
in that corner. A wonderful group of paintings on hastividya–
a manual on the rearing, training, and medical treatment of elephants
– showed up some years ago; some leaves from a Bhagavata Purana
manuscript, of truly dazzling quality, were published a long time
back. Quite recently, however, I came upon two sizeable publications,
both devoted to illustrated manuscripts, and both authored by Dr R.D.
Choudhury in collaboration with another scholar. One of them draws
attention to a group of illustrated manuscripts in the Assam State
Museum, Guwahati, and the other to those in the Kamarupa Anusandhan
Samiti, also in the same town. Rich, saturated colours spread out and
stretch in front of the eyes as one leafs through these manuscripts; a
whole world of thought opens up. As I said, there are nuggets that lie
hidden everywhere, and these two publications draw one’s grateful
attention to some of them.
It is in these satras that most of the manuscripts one speaks of here were written and illustrated, and later found. The Bhagavata Purana, among the most sacred texts of Vaishnavism, has a place of pre-eminence among these works, but there are others that centre upon Vishnu and his many incarnations: the Ramayana, for instance; the Gita Govinda; the Lava-Kusha Yuddha; the Gajendra-moksha. The style in which most of the works are painted have a distinctly local air, but it is not difficult to make visual connections. Written and painted not on paper but either on sanchi-pat, which is made from tree bark, or on tula-pat, pressed cotton, the paintings remind one now of Nepalese work, now of Orissa patas. Flat, flaming red backgrounds; stylised figures with sharp features and staring eyes; clear, exaggerated gestures; minimal architectural detail; highly conventional renderings of water, trees, rocks, and the like; an affecting simplicity of compositions: it is through them that one enters the world of gods and demons and titanic conflicts, on the one hand, and of tender love, on the other hand. While the narrator sits at one end of a painted page, inside a boxed space, armies march, Vishnu’s dreaded chakra whirls through the air, elephants spray each other with water, sakhis carry messages between lover and beloved. One knows this world well.
The painters go about their work with great terseness, abbreviating forms and distorting or exaggerating them at will. And the nature of abstraction that one sometimes sees takes one’s breath away. In one of those works that are to be found only in the north-eastern region, the Anadi-patan – a philosophical text authored by Sankaradeva himself, dealing with primal causes and cosmology and great myths – there are passages that challenge the painter’s imagination. And more often than not, he rises to the occasion. As in his rendering of the great cosmic mountain, Meru, in one of the manuscripts in the Kamarupa Anusandhan Samiti. Nothing in this leaf even remotely resembles a mountain. But, mistrustful as he is of appearances, and charged as he feels with the task of rendering a cosmic mount that no one has ever, ever seen, he creates a wondrous, magical form, glowing with colours, emitting an inwardly seen light, as it were.
I do not know what the text on this page says, for I do not read Assamese, but I know what the image says to me.
As I read about the satras and namghars, and the devotional practices followed in them, I was struck by several things. There is no image: instead, it is the sacred book, or puthi (pothi), as it is locally called, ceremonially placed upon a pedestal, that receives worship. Then, in the faith, there is marked emphasis upon some things: a feeling of commonalty among the devotees; Nam (the sacred Name); Dev (deity); and Guru.
Does not all this sound wonderfully familiar, especially to those of us in the Punjab?