’Art & soul
Muffled voices from the past

B. N. Goswamy on how an Avalokiteshwara image, dateable somewhere in the
first quarter of the 20th century, sets one thinking about the times

EVERYONE — or nearly everyone — who has studied the past of India, knows something about the great Bodhisattva, Avalokiteshwara Padmapani, I think. For his is the image that surfaces in most minds whenever Ajanta is mentioned. There he stands, on one of those great painted walls: embodiment of compassion, eyes gently lowered as if coming to rest upon those whose suffering he has vowed to alleviate, body gracefully flexed, a blooming lotus held between the delicate fingers of a hand. Literally does his image remind one of the very meaning of his name: Avalokiteshwara, "the Lord who gazes down upon the world"; Padmapani, "bearer of the lotus in his hand", symbol of detachment and of grace.

The Bodhisattva Avalokiteshwara Padmapani. Painted by Manzoor Ahmed Siddiqi of Aurangabad; ca 1925
The Bodhisattva Avalokiteshwara Padmapani. Painted by Manzoor Ahmed Siddiqi of Aurangabad; ca 1925 

I speak here, however, of an Avalokiteshwara image that I saw the other day on what looks decidedly like a postcard: not printed but painted by hand in the wash technique. It was with a small-time collector who says he found it in a pile of papers and documents that an old Muslim family of Delhi was selling. There were all kinds of things in that pile: old letters, sheets of accounts, roznamchas — that is, a record of daily occurrences — that someone in the family must have kept, copies of sale deeds, and so on. This little postcard with the Avalokiteshwara image stuck in that pile was a surprise, for there were no other paintings or images in the lot. It was in nearly perfect condition: no bends or wrinkles or creases; and it was obviously the work of a very neat hand. I looked at the card with curiosity; great interest in fact. In the bottom right hand was a signature in English, reading: "M.A. Siddiki".

What enhanced my interest further, however, was what was at the back of the painting, for — looking very much as it did, like a card sent by post — on the right half of the card was an address, and on the left hand a letter consisting of nine lines. The collector who owns the painting now could not make anything of what was written on it, for the entire text, barring a word or two, was in Urdu, in the Persian script, which he had no access to. I read it out to him, however, and was, most courteously, allowed to photograph it. But what the text said set my mind running in all kinds of directions: raising questions, fuelling speculation.

Let me, however, reproduce first what the text was, for there is so much flavour in it, and so much to read into. The address was as follows: "bakhidmat-i sharif, janaab Nazeer-ud din Sahib, musavvir, Matia Mahal, Jami’ Masjid, Delhi". Meaning, simply, that it was intended to reach "the honoured presence of the respected Nazeer-ud din Sahib, painter, resident of Matia Mahal, in the neighbourhood of the Jami’ Masjid, Delhi". All in neat Urdu in a now faded ink in two lines. Then followed the word "Delhi" in English, re-emphasising the place where the card was intended to go.

On the same half of the card, at the bottom, was also the name of the sender, in these courtly words: "niyaz mand Manzoor Ahmed Siddiqi, artist, Aurangabad Deccan." The sender, clearly the same person whose signatures appear on the painting, speaks graciously of himself as ‘the humble servant’, now living in Aurangabad. The letter, on the left half of the card, opens with the words: "Id Mubarik" (Happy ‘Id) and addresses itself to "Bhai Nazeer-ud din Sahib", the word ‘bhai" evidently conveying fraternal feelings, and not necessarily to be interpreted as a real ‘brother’.

After greeting him with "tasleem basad ta’zeem" (a hundred respectful salutations), the writer goes on to say: "Mujhe waqt na milne ki wajah se maine pehle ki tayyaar shudah ek tasveer aap-ki khidmat mein guzaari hai; mumkin hai aapke pasand aaye." Meaning, ‘on account of not having found the time, I am sending to your gracious self a painting which I had made earlier. I hope that it is to your liking." And then adds: "Id ke ba’ad aate waqt main kuchh painting saath letey aaoonga jo dilli mein hargiz nahin `85 hain." (After the ’Id festival, I shall, while coming, bring some more paintings the kind of which are certainly not known in New Delhi".) Three other sentences follow in which the writer, Manzoor Ahmed, makes a slight complaint about not having heard in reply to his earlier letter and requests that his ‘salaam’ be conveyed to "your brother", and to "Muhammad ‘Ali Sahib, ittar farosh", that is, the perfumer Muhammad ‘Ali.

What is it, one might be wondering, that I found so engaging in this painted card — even though undated, dateable somewhere in the first quarter of the 20th century — with its message? Many things, I would say.

First of all, the painting of Avalokiteshwara Padmapani: neatly executed as it was, one could see that it was a mirror image of the original fresco in Ajanta. There, in the cave, the Bodhisattva stands with his head slightly bent towards the left, his weight resting on the right leg and holding the lotus in his right hand, while here it was the exact opposite. Why would that be so? Was the painter attempting to produce a variation, and not a copy?

Again, I thought it was most interesting for a Muslim painter to send an image of a Buddhist deity as a greeting on the occasion of the ‘Id festival to another Muslim friend. Was it because Ajanta was then ‘in the air’, so to speak, Yazdani’s great 1930 work being in the process of being finished then for the Nizam’s government in Hyderabad? And was the Aurangabad artist, living so close to the Ajanta caves, hoping to get commissions in Delhi — where, according to him, such kind of things ‘are certainly not known’ — for copying some frescoes, using the good offices of his colleague or friend, Nazeer-ud Din? Was this a specimen of the work that he possessed the skills to make? Were these two painters, one in Delhi and the other in Aurangabad — at least one of them with some access to English, and both unknown to us till now — descendants of old families of painters, still active, still trying to eke out a living when the old arts were gasping for breath? 

Whatever the case, whatever the answer to these questions, I find the charm in the painting and in the letter hard to resist.