A much-loved tale

The romance of Lorik and Chanda has been the theme for some of the
most stunning paintings ever during medieval India

Everyone, just about everyone, loves a good story. And the story of the love of Lorik and Chanda had been around for a long time, recited to delighted audiences and sung by folk singers in Uttar Pradesh for generations. But the first time it was put in verse form was in the 14th century when a Muslim poet, Mulla Daud, composed it — interestingly enough in Avadhi — in a classical format, gave it a structure, and titled it Chandayan. He could not possibly have known at that time that his work would provide the theme for some of the most stunning paintings ever to have been painted in medieval India. Those paintings make for compelling viewing, but perhaps a little of the story first.

The narrative begins with the birth of a lovely daughter, Chanda, to Sahadeva, chief of a small principality with Govar as its chief town. She is married off while still very young to a man, who turns out to be blind of one eye as also impotent. Courageously, Chanda leaves her husband and returns to her parents’ home. As she grows up and turns into a great beauty, a series of events begin to unfold. A number of characters come into the story: Rupchand, the ruler of a neighbouring principality, who begins to covet Chanda; Lorik — Laur is another of his names — a handsome young man of the Ahir tribe, whose help is sought by Chanda’s father in overcoming and killing Rupchand, but who himself falls passionately in love with Chanda; Brihaspat, Chanda’s confidante, who arranges meetings between her friend and Lorik; Maina, Lorik’s wife, who gets to know about her husband’s illicit love and devises ways of getting him back when he elopes with Chanda; Mahipat, chief of another principality, who also falls for Chanda’s beauty on seeing the lover couple wander about, invites Lorik to a game of dice in which Lorik loses everything that he owns, including his beloved, but is then outwitted by Chanda herself, who defeats him in the same game of dice; Sirjan, a caravan leader, whom Maina entrusts with the task of locating her husband. And so on. Scattered over this long tale are other characters like a wandering ascetic, traders and herdsmen, sadhus and pretenders of all description. There is the narrative, of course, but woven into it are long and intensely poetic passages.

“The Month of Pusa”: leaf from a Laur Chanda series
“The Month of Pusa”: leaf from a Laur Chanda series. Northern India. Early 16th century. Chandigarh Museum and Art Gallery

What Mulla Daud does with great skill is to bring in themes and motifs that were known to, and loved by, everyone: long and lingering descriptions of Chanda’s beauty ‘from tresses to toenails’, songs of separation and union, the Baramasa compositions that celebrate the cycle of changing seasons, accounts of stirring battles, and the like. It is evident that in the telling of the tale, he drew upon familiar, even stock, episodes or situations that figure in other, known works of literature: like the game of dice from the Mahabharata, the falling in love through only hearing of the beauty of a maiden sung by a wandering ascetic from the Madhavanala-Kamakandala, the ruses of lovers from the Rasamanjari, and their surreptitious meetings from the Chaurapanchasika.

But in his work, everything comes together and with an air of freshness: a seamless, lyrical narrative is what he succeeded in composing.`A0

The tale, as it is told by Mulla Daud, has an undercurrent of Sufi thought in it: the author developing, as has been said, ‘a narrative logic for the play of desire between humans, God, and the world’ in the form of an erotic relationship. But little of this seems to have been of concern to the painters, who were attracted to the idea of telling the story in their own earthy, plainly joyous, terms, as paintings.

Different painted series of the story — generally referred to as the Laur-Chanda — are known, but the most brilliant is the one of which, fortunately, we have 10 folios in the collection of the Chandigarh Museum (out of the 24 that have survived from the several hundred that must once have been painted, the remaining 14 being in museums in Pakistan). But these 16th century folios — broken, abraded, torn as they might be — are a treasure in themselves. For each leaf has an astonishing surge of energy, constitutes an audacious statement to the effect that what truly matters is not what the eye sees, but essentially what the ‘truth’ of things is, for that is what touches the heart. Nothing in these folios is close to ordinary life, and everything is highly stylised — the colouring, the stances and gestures, the rendering of figures, the division of spaces; boldly the painter keeps moving, with that ‘noble artificiality’ of which one often speaks,`A0into the domain of the mind. What truly interests him is the rhythm of life, and of things. When a distraught maiden stands under a slender tree, sending through a bird a message to her lover in the month of Sawan, he is able to communicate to perfection a state of mind, using the visual language that is his. When two women fight over the affections of their lover, one can sense the fire that rages in their hearts. And so on.

Most engagingly, the painter also brings, in every single known folio of this series, the figure of Mulla Daud, the poet, himself, who sits in a quiet corner of the page, as if keeping an eye on all that is unfolding in his narrative, apparently poring over a holy book.

There are surprises, and artistic twists, of this kind in these paintings. But nowhere does the painter lose touch with reality. Despite the stylisation, there is, in fact, an earthiness in his work that never truly leaves him. One sees this in a brilliant page, for instance, where he renders or visualises the town of Govar, principal seat of the principality over which the beauteous Chanda’s father, Sahadeva, ruled. Some structures are brought in, but no great mansions come into view.

Here, in the top half of the page, a well — seen directly from above — occupies the centre of the space; a water pond with ducks and lotuses appears below it, although seen at eye-level; men sit reading in their chambers or converse with holy men; women holding rosaries occupy domestic paces; flights of steps lead downwards. In the lower half of the page, however, everything, bar the chamber in which the Mulla sits addressing a young man, moves out into the open. Sadhus of different hues and persuasions practice austerities or blow upon ritual horns, a mendicant dressed in a patchwork garment strides across the space, hunters or traders move along, a dog on a chain raises his head skywards as if to take all the sights in. Saturated reds and blues that define different spaces nudge the viewer’s eye, urging it to move; the range of sights imprints itself upon the mind; the poetry of ordinary things takes over.