’Art & Soul
A Deccani romance
Visual and poetic metaphors abound in Pem Nem, which is ostensibly a story of deep passion: love and longing, separation and union
B.N Goswamy

(1) Shah ji kneels at the King’s feet. Folio from the same PemNem manuscript. Deccan, from Bijapur; ca. 1600. The British Library, London; (2) Mahji is entertained by women of her court. Folio from the PemNem manuscript. Deccan, from Bijapur; ca. 1600. The British Library, London; and (3)The flames of Mahji’s love are doused by an attendant. Folio from the same PemNem manuscript. Deccan, from Bijapur; ca. 1600. The British Library, London

I should probably have titled this piece as A ‘Dakhani’ romance, and not Deccani, for that is how the language that grew up in that region — arguably the earliest-known form of Urdu — was called. In any case, terming it that way would have brought one closer to ‘dakshina’, meaning the South, the original Sanskrit word which turned into ‘Deccan’ through alien usage; but then few might have caught the reference. So, Deccani it remains, especially in context of the illustrated manuscript that I write to draw attention to here: the Pem Nem. That manuscript has, of course, been noticed before by scholars, including Deborah Hutton, and always placed, accurately, in the Deccan, specifically in Bijapur in the period when that Sultanate was ruled by the famed Adil Shahi dynasty.

The ‘Dakhani’ title of the work needs obviously to be read as a version of the words: Prem Niyam, meaning ‘The Rules of Love’, and is given to this lyrical text in masnavi form that Hasan Manjha Khalji wrote under the pen-name ‘Hans’at the end of the 16th century: completed, to be specific, in 1591.

By now, much is known about the brilliance of the court of Ibrahim Adil Shah of Bijapur and of that ruler’s distinguished taste but even though it is a work of the sub-royal level, Pem Nem makes a clear contribution to our understanding of what was going on at Bijapur at the time that, in the north, Mughal painting was close to reaching its high point in the hands of great painters of the Akbari atelier.

Pem Nem is ostensibly a story of deep passion: love and longing, separation and union. Shah ji is the name of the lover, and Mah ji that of his beloved whom he falls desperately in love with. The two live in different geographies, he in the north in a region called Kuldip, and she across the waters, on an island named — how often does one come upon this name in folk tales! – Singaldip: clearly the word “dip” standing in both these names for “dvipa”, meaning island, and ‘Singal” for ‘Simhala”. In any case, long distances are sought to be established through these far-off locations, and it is, oddly, a tortoise — capable apparently of moving across waters — who becomes the messenger, carrying missives between lover and beloved. For the two lovers, however, everything does not go according to plan: hindrances appear, unexpected events show up, misunderstandings arise. Finally, however, after all possible twists and turns, everything gets resolved and the two are united. The last part of the masnavi poem is devoted to wedding celebrations. But, in the eyes of knowers, this is no ordinary wedding. There is a higher meaning to everything, for the ‘romance’ consists of Sufi concepts in veiled form. What is needed is interpretation, the poet implies, and the will to enter the web of the story at a different, elevated level. After all, the work falls in the category of Prem Marg literature, as the Sufis put it.

The work is illustrated but not profusely so, for in the 239 folios that it consists of — there is only one copy of the work which has survived, and it is in the British Library — there are no more than 34 paintings in all. There is much sophistication in the renderings but also a measure of naïve charm that one associates with folk work. To take examples: when Shah ji speaks to his beloved in one painting, one sees — literally — a spray of petals issuing forth from his mouth, the suggestion being that in his words there was nothing but freshness and fragrance. Again, when the beloved ‘burns’ in the fire of separation, we see flames emerging from her shoulders which a companion attempts to douse. But slowly one realises that there is far more to these images than this, and what one sees initially as a naïve rendering is in fact something that is designed to nudge us into a different direction. Thus, at first, one is surprised — but also struck — by one detail: each time that one sees Shah ji, one notices a small face peeping out at the chest level from under his elegant jama- gown. It is the face — the image, one should say — of his beloved, Mah ji, which he carries ‘inside his heart’ all the time.

Curious, to say the least, one might think. But then one realises that it is the text which is leading us in that direction. We learn thus that when, after the lover has travelled through difficult and long terrains to reach his beloved, he comes face to face with her, he is suddenly bewildered and goes into lonely rumination. What is real, he asks himself: the image of the beloved he is carrying in his heart, or the beloved who, in fact, is seated facing him? The eternal Sufi question: what is haqeeqat and what is majaaz?; reality and the illusion of reality? Is it easy, even possible, to distinguish between them? As the story goes, for the lovers, things are finally resolved after Shah ji withdraws from all this and goes into the wilderness to first contemplate upon these questions. It all ends happily, but not before they have gone through the ordeals of trial and tribulation.

Visual and poetic metaphors abound in the work, and reading the text and the paintings —together or separately — yields delight of its own kind. If there are ‘dark ambiguities’ in the work, one tries to take them in. If issues of gender and audience — for whom were works of this genre painted: the women of the royal households, those who ‘lived behind the veils of chastity’, or for men-folk? — are raised by this manuscript, one knows that one is being propelled into the world of speculation. But all this while, there stay in the reader’s mind all those lush details that so much of Deccani painting at Bijapur is rich in: elegantly attired men with the hems of their dresses brushing the earth; statuesque women, every exposed inch of their bodies covered with jewellery; fanciful rocks looming in the background and ‘Chinese clouds floating above; characters bending with the same suppleness with which long cloth-flywhisks waved over royal heads swish about. An occasional weakness in the drawing might come in the way, but their poetry lingers.











Broad brush
A Spectrum selection

(1) An English painting: Visitors look at the painting "Tatiana and Bottom" of Swiss painter Johann Heinrich Fussli, as part of the exhibition of paintings "Hogarth, Reynolds, Turner, English painting towards modernity" at Palazzo Sciarra Museum in Rome. Photo: AFP; (2) Paper cut-outs: A gallery assistant poses with "Nu bleu II" (L) and "Nu couche II" (R) by French artist Henri Matisse at the "Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs" exhibition at the Tate Modern gallery in central London. Running till September 7, the exhibition is the most comprehensive collection of the artist's paper cut-outs made between 1937 and 1954. Showcasing around 130 works, the exhibition will also be in cinemas as "Matisse Live" from June 3. Photo: AFP; and (3) Spray can@@Cans of used spray paints are glued on a wall at "No Respect", a graffiti and street art exhibition, in Athens. The exhibition at the Onassis Cultural Centre showcases 40 works of art created in situ by different artists. The works cover the walls and floor of the exhibition space as well as on cars. 
Photo: Reuters