’art & soul
An enigmatic painting
The works of Nainsukh of Guler, celebrated painter from Himachal Pradesh, are without parallel in Indian art
B. N. Goswamy B. N. Goswamy

THERE is a painting — a painted sketch, really — by the celebrated Nainsukh of Guler (ca. 1710-1778), that "great Indian painter from a small hill state", which has puzzled me for years. This, despite the fact that I wrote on him many years ago an ‘authoritative’ book in which I brought together all the (then) known works of his, some 99 of them, scattered all over the world in public and private collections.

By that token, I should have known something definitive about that painting: as for example if not the year in which it was painted, at least the exact subject of it. And yet that subject has eluded me for all these years. I am baffled by it but also continue to be teased by it and drawn to it, for the work is extraordinary in so many ways: without a parallel in Indian art in respect of its subject; drawn with such lightness of touch that — to use that telling description of a Leonardo drawing — it seems to have been ‘breathed rather than drawn upon paper’; a reminder of Nainsukh’s ability to take a moment and ‘throw it clear beyond the reach of time’.

A Boat Adrift on a River by Nainsukh of Guler: ca. 1765-1775. Bharat Kala Bhavan, Varanasi
A Boat Adrift on a River by Nainsukh of Guler: ca. 1765-1775. Bharat Kala Bhavan, Varanasi

But it is fair to describe here the painting first. On a sheet of paper, not more than 14 inches in height, one sees a massive barge, carrying virtually a whole kingdom, floating down a steeply angled hill torrent. On the further bank of the rushing river, a blazing fire rages, consuming like a thousand hungry mouths as they say, all that comes its way. The middle of the barge is densely packed with a crowd of men, many wearing conical Gaddi caps, and animals and objects, even a mountainous rock and a segment of a palatial building. But at either end of the boat sits an isolated figure: at the stern a youthful-looking prince, with a plume prominently stuck in his turban; at the prow a somewhat heavier and older man, burdened with the weight of cares. At the dead centre of the crowded boat stands a tall man wearing a Muslim-style jama tied under the right arm and holding in his right hand a very long pole; by his side stands a diminutive little figure, a young woman, her whole form draped in a veil with only the face visible; the tall man is conversing with a sanyasi, a bearded holy man with long matted hair, clothed in leopard skin, with a staff tucked under his arm.

What exactly is happening here is hard to tell: all that one registers quickly, however, is the sense of drama, the brooding quality, in the work.

When I published this superbly drawn and painted work years ago, I spoke of it as ‘A Boat Adrift on a River’. That distinguished scholar, William Archer, however, who published the work in 1973, saw it as ‘An Allegory of Disaster’. His point of reference was the life of the prince, Balwant Singh, who was Nainsukh’s patron. That prince’s life seems to have been filled with troubles: and in his last years, in particular, some disaster appears to have struck him. Archer, therefore, interpreted this work as Nainsukh’s rendering of that disaster in his own poetic manner, an allegory of a life. He spoke of the left half of the painting possibly showing Balwant Singh as he once was, and the right half "the hard, harsh state to which he was reduced". The sanyasi in the centre he saw as symbolising a property-less condition and the fire on the further bank as "the burning and sack" of his former palace.

"In this sudden catastrophe, (Balwant Singh’s) former way of life was swept away as if by a raging torrent... (while) only memories, ruins and rocks remained.

Silkily persuasive as this interpretation is, it poses problems. The different meaning of some other features in this crowded work apart, my view of the work is influenced by my reading of the three inscriptions that appear on it. The words are written in Takri, that difficult script which once prevailed in the hills, and were regarded by Archer as ‘undecipherable’.

Over time, however, I was able to make sense of most of them. The lines that appear above the head of the prince at the stern are in a Pahari dialect, and read: "ehe galanda je eh hai ahmak; ehe kuhn vela hai rasyan de sikhne da ate viahe de karne da" (He is saying: who could be such a fool? Is this the time to learn the secrets of preparing the herbal potion and to get married?). Above the head of the man at the prow at right appear the words: "ehe aakhda je ehe kadeha mir hai" (He says to himself: what kind of a Mir is this man?). Finally, at the bottom left the inscription — which is only partly legible — contains the words: "Mir awwal mallah hoa tan beda dubea `85." (When a Mir such as this becomes the first boatman, the boat is all but sunk). It is all quite obscure, but the reading leads me clearly to believe that what is happening in the middle of the boat — the ‘foolish’ Muslim Mir standing with a pole, the young woman whom he has married, and the sanyasi — who holds the secret of the rasayan potion — are critical to understanding the subject of the work: filled as it is with great energy and inventive power, combining grandeur with fine detail, evoking a sense of wonder and of mystery.

It is difficult to know what all this truly means but my guess — prosaic as it might be as compared to Archer’s — is that Nainsukh was availing himself here of some locally current folk legend. One knows generally of tales in vrata-kathas of disasters that occur on waters in distant lands, but this seems to be different. What is it, however?