The title sounds a bit heavy but the weight lifts when we realise that it is an exact translation of the words Bhagavata Purana, that most revered of texts among the devotees of Vishnu: ‘Ancient Tales’ standing for Purana, and ‘the Lord’ standing for ‘Bhagavata’.
In any case, this is the name that a superbly produced portfolio of uncommonly large paintings, newly published from Mumbai, bears. There are only five works in the portfolio, all relating to early events in the life of Krishna — the 8th form in which the great Vishnu descended to the earth, incarnated himself in other words — as told in the sacred text.
But the quality of the works is breathtaking and when one goes through them, one by one, bit by bit, one realises that, however small the group, one is in the presence of something utterly commanding. Seeing them, the poetry of Surdas comes to mind, celebrating Krishna and singing of him, now with heart-warming adoration, now with wistfulness, now with poignancy.
These five paintings form clearly a small fragment of what must once have been a very extensive series based on Book Ten of the BhagavataPurana. The leaves — no more than 15 of these are now known — are now all but scattered making it very hard to estimate the extent of the series: there are no numbers; no text at the back that can help.
For five of them together to be in one collection is, therefore, a fortunate circumstance. Between these five leaves there appears to be no serious break, however, for they follow a quite dense sequence.
Briefly put, the segment of the story told in these leaves is all about little Krishna’s arrival in this heartless, threatening world. Serially, as things unfold here, the evil king, Kamsa, has an inkling that the child born of his sister Devaki’s womb will be the one who will eventually destroy him, and begins therefore to take precautionary measures; in the next leaf, he orders Devaki and Vasudeva to be confined to prisonlike quarters where constant eye can be kept on them; then the great god Vishnu, who redeems his promise of descending to the earth as Krishna, gives darshan to his parents even as all fetters fall off Vasudeva, and all guards go off to sleep, while he escapes for taking the newborn to safety across the river; in the fourth leaf, Kamsa dashes the baby girl, who has already been exchanged with new-born Krishna but whom he now mistakes for his sister’s son, on a stone slab to kill her but she assumes her real form of the Goddess Yogmaya, and flies off heavenwards while cursing him; and, then, now utterly repentant, Kamsa begs pardon of Devaki and Vasudeva, and releases them.
It is all graphically, but wonderfully tersely, told. It is as if the painter wanted the viewer — his patron, and now you and I — to return to his work again and again for taking in all that resides in it: not the exquisite detail alone, but also the bhava.
In respect of art history, there is much controversy that surrounds not only this series of paintings but others that come from the same stylistic complex.
Whether these were made in the hill state of Mandi in Himachal Pradesh or at Bikaner in Rajasthan has been a subject of debate for decades; how did the visibly Mughal influence they bear come into them is still unclear; who the painters were, and who commissioned them, is a complete blank; what relation the paintings in this style — if they were indeed painted at Mandi — bear to the emphatic looking and technically far less refined work that one has known from Mandi for years, is a question that remains to be answered.
Of late, the fog has started lifting a little, and some of the questions the style raises are being answered with confidence. But there is no gain saying the fact that there still remains much room for fine argument and intricate detail.
In the knowledge of the fact that those arguments might never end, what may be important then is to enter, and savour,the spirit of these paintings, for to get embroiled in debate would be the equivalent of rasa-bhanga in the classical Indian tradition. One should hasten in fact to move inside these works in leisured fashion, lingering over every delicious detail.
Take two examples: to begin with, one, the very first folio in this series of five where Kamsa — his slight but evil figure possibly based on the Nurpur ruler, Jagat Singh — is instructing his confidantes in the palace to be on the alert at all times and orders an old woman to report to him the moment she learns anything about Devaki’s conception.
The import of the occasion is clear but it is in the superb detailing that one finds great, heightened delight: the air of quiet conspiracy, the hushed whispers behind exquisitely painted jalis, the two groups of women musicians that keep playing — each instrument, from sarangi to dholak to majira and mridanga, superbly studied, each hand precisely poised — the remarkable details of architecture and soft furnishings, the flower that keeps dancing on the top of the jet of water that the fountain throws up; and so on.
The mood is vastly different, and the action sanguine, in the leaf with the killing of the baby girl — in reality the goddess, Yogmaya — by Kamsa. But the astonishing attention to detail remains, everything feeding into the emotion that the painting soaks the viewer in.
Curious and anxious onlookers crowd the scene; inside their dark little chamber, Vasudeva and Devaki sit, heads bowed in despair, unable even to look up at the dastardly act that they know is going to be committed; Kamsa, brilliantly dressed and full of hubris, striding forth, untouched by any feeling, all set to kill the new-born; the goddess slipping out of his grasp, and rising heavenwards where everyone can see her — fully formed, eight-armed, holding in each hand divine weapons that belong to different gods — standing flanked by dark clouds and throwing imprecations upon the evil king.
"What have you gained, you dunce, by killing me", she asks Kamsa? And adds that brooding warning: "Your destroyer, your adversary in former birth, has been born and is alive, but lives now in a place unknown to you."
These are truly uncommon works. For one realises that armed though they were with remarkable skills, the painter/s of these leaves did not aim only at establishing their virtuosity — the colouring, the grouping of figures, the individuation of characters, the studied stances and attitudes, the awareness of ranks and stations, the compositional devices —; they appeared to have set out to lead us into a different mental space, where there are to be experienced things that are different, very different, from earthly happenings.