‘art and soul
Guardians of the sacred word

B.N. Goswamy talks about the astonishing range of materials and artistry in the world of Indian book covers

Book covers for a manuscript of the Narayaniyam
Book covers for a manuscript of the Narayaniyam

THERE are book covers and book covers. One can speak in their context of modern dust jackets and sumptuous leather bindings, but I write this essentially about covers between which the folios of our early manuscripts — whether on birch bark, palm leaf, or paper — used to be kept. Their function was simple: to protect and guard. But the elaborate, painstaking attention that was paid to the making of them appears to me quite moving at times. The covers could of course be very simple: oblong wooden strips with holes in them through which the string or cord holding palm leaves would also pass, or stiffened cloth turned into pouches within which sheafs of birch bark or paper could be safely kept.

Even in these simple versions one can come upon considerable variety: wooden strips neatly cut and colourfully coated with paint for instance, or cloth covers decorated with embroidered motifs or bead work, and the like. But this does not come anywhere close to capturing the astonishing range — even leaving out Islamic-style bindings for the moment — of materials and artistry that belong to the world of Indian book covers.

From Buddhist manuscripts of the Himalayan region — finely carved and painted and gilt — to Jain manuscripts secured by what are called patlis bearing elegantly crafted ashtamangalas — the eight auspicious symbols — or the fourteen dreams of the mother of the Saviour, to pairs of carved ivory covers guarding some Hindu texts, one sees some exquisite work turned out by skilled hands and devout minds.

Take the case of two outstanding book covers that I happen to have come across in the course of my work recently. One of them is among the most celebrated of Jain wooden patlis from western India, dateable to as early as the 12th century. Plain on the outside, it is on the inner sides of two long wooden strips that the work springs to life. For on them are painted, in crisp, graphic detail, scenes related to an actual ‘historical’ event, a disputation between the Shvetambara monk, Devasuri, and his Digambara rival, Kumudchandra.

The disputation is said to have taken place at Patan in Gujarat, at the court of a Solanki king, in which the Shvetambara monk emerged triumphant. The way the painter lays it out, against a rich red ground, we are made witness to stirring happenings, but in doing this he departs from the high stylisation generally seen in Jain illustrated manuscripts such as the Kalpasutra.

There is great freedom and verve here, as he leads us through a range of vignettes: a Jain shrine with an elaborate gateway; monks seated delivering sermons to laity; a market buzzing with activity; the monk Devasuri setting forth for Patan with his band of followers among which are animated musicians and dancers; the other monk, Kumudchandra, carried in a palanquin but seeing bad omens on the way; a wavy river that needs to be crossed, a tree to which a serpent clings. And so on.

There is wonderful liveliness here: sinuously rendered bodies, an alertness that informs frames, the sweep and the flutter of scarves and loin-cloths, gauze-like lightness of textiles. In the patli the rhythm of that age seems to flow.

If this Jain wooden book cover captures a sliver of time, the other, an ivory pair, addresses itself to eternity as it were. For it was meant to guard one of the most revered of Vaishnava texts from Kerala, the Narayaniyam of Narayan Bhattadri. The outside has a floral meander painted in green and red, but on the inside, interspersed with two holes, are most lively renderings of episodes from the Krishnalila. In the centre is seen the youthful Krishna playing upon his flute, standing under a wavy, sinuous tree, as all kinds of creatures look up at him: cows with heads raised, peacocks perched in the branches of the tree, attentive gopas, each with his cowherd staff. And, at a slight distance, Krishna, now as a boy, dances on the hood of the serpent Kaliya whom he has subdued while a woman devotee – gopi? Yashoda? – stands nearby, watching, hands joined in adoration.

The figures, small as they are – for after all how much space can be there on a narrow ivory strip? – are most delicately drawn, every detail down to tapering fingers precise and crisp, every figure in perfect character. But more than the drawing and the neat colouring, it is the feeling that runs through the scenes that takes hold of the viewer. For the work is charged with bhakti, devotion, of the kind that runs through the great 16th century text.

Narayan Bhattadri’s is no common commentary or interpretation of the Bhagavata Purana: his is a long, impassioned hymn, a work steeped in devotion. And the painter of these book covers, who might well have come from the environs of the celebrated Krishna temple at Guruvayoor, appears to have been moved, like millions of others, by the great scholar’s lofty thought and simple surrender to a playful god. This in any case is how sacred words were once guarded, and enhanced.