The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, April 20, 2003
'Art and Soul

North-eastern lights
B. N. Goswamy

Meru, the Cosmic Mountain. Folio from an Anadi-Patan. Assam, 18th century
Meru, the Cosmic Mountain. Folio from an Anadi-Patan. Assam, 18th century

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.


The horrors of war
April 6, 2003

Masks, make-up & entertainment
March 23, 2003

The axis of Eros
March 9, 2003
Subversive and restless
March 2, 2003
Should cultural property be returned?
February 9, 2003
Art in the times of war
January 12, 2003
The world of art sales
December 29, 2002
Caught in a time warp
December 15, 2002
Crafts and craftspersons
December 1, 2002
Of ‘golden pens’ and others
November 17, 2002
Portraying the Parsis’ past
November 3, 2002
Of girdles, sashes & patkas
October 20, 2002
Celebrating with the Lion Dance
October 6, 2002

An elegy to a bygone era
August 25, 2002
Those seductive jades
August 11, 2002
Gifts from an ambassador
July 28, 2002
Enigma of the Iron Pillar
July 14, 2002
Having a keen eye
June 30, 2002

In some ways, the themes that these illustrated manuscripts dwell on are predictable. A few deal with jyotisha, smriti, sangita and like subjects, but most of them are Vaishnava in content. And this is predictable because over the whole of Assam, and contiguous areas, a most remarkable figure looms: that of the great Sankaradeva (1449-1569)- devotee, saint, poet, composer, reformer, leader of men – who established Vaishnava worship firmly in an area previously dominated by Shakta cults. It is a household name that one speaks of here, but hardly anyone refers to him without his epithets: "Mahapurusha Srimanta Sankaradeva" is how he is called, as much to distinguish him from the great Adi Shankaracharya of the South, who lived several centuries before him, as to affirm his truly elevated status. Bhakti, personal devotion to a chosen ishta or deity, was the movement that Sankaradeva was in so many ways part of – in his case, devotion centred upon Vishnu-Krishna – but he brought a very distinctive local flavour or slant to it. Shelves of books have been written upon him and his contribution to the culture of Assam, but one has just to look around oneself to see, everywhere in Assam, the imprint he left upon minds. And upon institutions, two of which he founded: satras and namghars, both monastic establishments. Always a centre of Vaishnava devotion, the satra, peculiar to those parts, is well-defined as "that supreme place adorned by gods and Vaishnavas where ardent devotees perform duties pleasing to God, and where nine-fold bhakti prevails"; further, "Vaishnavas who reside in them are naturally prone to Harinama."

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.

Unexpected parallels

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?