’Art & soul
The essence of blending
B. N. Goswamy

B. N. Goswamy
B. N. Goswamy

A curious mix of terms, blending Hindi, Persian and Rajasthani words, strikes as one walks through the wonderfully spacious complex that makes up the Sawai Man Singh Palace Museum at Jaipur. This may not be a-typical, and surely one encounters it at countless other places too, but since the memory is fresh, the thought comes readily to the mind. One enters the glittering Sabhanivas — the hall of public audience, where royal darbars used to be held — or the Sarvatobhadra building — name derived from Sanskrit, designed on tantric principles and now used for a chamber open on all sides. But one also goes into the arms and armour section called the Silekhana — sileh being a Rajasthani version of Persian asliha, meaning weapons, and khana, from Persian again, meaning home or dwelling — and comes upon references to the records of the Chhapakhana — where block printing on textiles used to be done. And so on.

It is a seamless mingling — segue is perhaps the right word — of languages and dialects. There is nothing wrong with it but, interestingly, nobody even gives it a thought: this is the way we live our lives, taking it all in our stride.

Couched in the form of an account of the poet’s visit to the court of the Peshwa, Bajirao II, Pratap Prakash gives a glimpse of how things merge

Maharaja Sawai Pratap Singh of Jaipur. Portrait by a Jaipur court artist, ca. 1790. Collection: Sawai Man Singh Palace Museum, Jaipur

The blend, we speak of I thought I saw in the persona of one of Jaipur’s celebrated rulers, Sawai Pratap Singh (ruled 1778-1803) when I started going through a delightful book, a slim little volume, that I picked up there — courtesy, the director of the museum — titled Pratap Prakash.

Written towards the end of the 18th century by the state poet of Jaipur, Kavi Krishnadatta, and copied by a journalist in 1802, it centres round the Maharaja, who was many things at once: a warrior, poet, builder, administrator and devotee. But it is neither a dedicated eulogy of the monarch nor a history of his reign. It is couched in the form of an account of the poet’s visit to the court of the Peshwa, Bajirao II, who represented Maratha power in the Deccan, and the dialogue between him and the Peshwa.

Naturally curious about a Rajput ruler, who had defeated the powerful Maratha chief, Mahadji Scindia, in the recent battle of Tunga, the Peshwa took the opportunity of asking the Jaipur poet to describe his patron, his interests, daily routine and an account of the battle, if he had witnessed it.

When asked thus, the poet, it seems, came into his own, drawing upon well-worn bardic encomiums of great monarchs and applying these to his own king, but also entering upon the sharp, chiselled descriptions of things he had observed. It is a fascinating account, a revealing glimpse of how things merge.

Consider this passage — translated from the Dhundhari dialect of Rajasthani by well-known scholar G. N. Bahura — in which the poet speaks, after having waxed eloquent about the proud lineage of his king, of how he begins his day. "The minstrels start singing in praise of the family quite early, before dawn. The king, having heard this, rises in the Brahmamahurta (the hour of Brahma). He meditates on the Lord, his ishta and places his left foot on the earth after having a darshan of the sacred cow and performing chhayadana. Then he sits on a chowki studded with jewels and washes his mouth. The petitioners submit their appeals and singers sing some padas composed by the king. He, then, attends to his daily morning routine.

Arrangements for his bath are made. Waters brought in kavads from Triveni, Gomati, Gangasagara`85 Godavari, Pushkar and the Yamuna under strict guards, are placed for ablutions. Having taken his bath, he attends to the worship of panchayatana (the five deities) with Vedic hymns. Then, he distributes the daily gifts among Brahmins and pandits, who come to receive these from far off Kashi and Kashmir."

One notices that till this point, everything is in consonance with the ancient Hindu tradition of royal conduct, and all terms go back to Sanskrit.

A little later, however, a description of the king’s dressing up comes in. "The king, then, prepares to dress himself. The khawases put forth various sets of dresses arranged in trays. The Maharaja chooses one to his taste."

A close description follows: "He puts on the durbar costume, turban just like a mukuta, chhonga, turra and kalangi of pearls, kiran rumal, an embroidered jama, earrings with the white, red and bluish pearls representing Shukra, Mangala and Budha, embroidered and embedded partala, aliband in his waist, a dagger tied up, and he holds a dhoop in his hand. Thus dressed, the Lord of Amber proceeds to the darbar hall followed and attended by hundreds of his bodyguards, khawases and officials`85."

Suddenly, in this picture, other things have come in, many of them bearing the imprint of the Mughal court: the turra, the aliband, the rumal, the jama, for instance. See this together with a description of a portrait by the artist Navala — from the records of the court — recording exactly what Sawai Pratap Singh is seen wearing in it: "a khuntadar turban, a karanpech of badala in the ears, a jama of dardavan, chaukidar hawasi ornament tilai and nuqrai around the neck, Gujarati phenta, pohnchis of pearls `85"

Once again, khuntadar, karanpech, dardavan, chaukidar hawasi, tilai, nuqrai — all from Persian or Persian-derived, and badala, phenta, pohnchi from local Hindi/Rajasthani usage. This is the essence of it. I admit I do not have an exact understanding of all the terms, even though I know a few. But I recognise that the blending of which I spoke. This is the manner in which the entire text proceeds — evocative descriptions of the glitter of the darbar, eloquent recounting of a sanguine battle, quiet passages with an account of the music made and the poetry recited — and this is how the entire situation must have been. Between all this, chobdars and gunijans, darogas and tazimi sardars, keep weaving in and out. Whatever the outsider reader’s problems may be — the text proceeds smoothly, following its own natural rhythm.

For decoding some terms, I had to turn to Dr Bahura’s helpful text. Some opaqueness persists but there also comes in, I need to add, some excitement because, as someone interested in painting, and, therefore, portraits, I begin to look at all these things with greater care. When I saw a portrait of Sawai Pratap Singh in the museum, I realised that I was seeing it with a different pair of eyes.