’Art & Soul by BN Goswamy: Mahabharata once more, in art form : The Tribune India

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’Art & Soul by BN Goswamy: Mahabharata once more, in art form

Four volumes of the epic bring together more than 2,000 paintings commissioned by Udaipur’s Maharana Jai Singh in 17th century

’Art & Soul by BN Goswamy: Mahabharata once more, in art form

Ganesha, the great God invoked

“The dharma of release, where calm prevails,

And the dharma of kings, where force prevails,

How far apart they are.” — Ashvaghosha

A long time ago — it might have been some 40 years — Peter Brook, that legendary director, an icon of his times, was preparing for presentation of the ‘Mahabharata’ and he was looking for a complete translation into English of the great epic. Somehow, he reached me but, honoured as I was, I was not able to help much, for much was not available, apart from Kisari Mohan Ganguly’s work, which had problems of its own. So much has changed since then. Different translations apart, we now have access even to an extensive series of paintings which covers the entire text. Will more surprises, and pleasant ones like that, keep emerging?

The paintings are not new. They go back to the end of the 17th century. They have been lying in the vaults of the Government Museum at Udaipur for all these years. And now — thanks to two tireless scholars, Professors Alok Bhalla and Chandra Prakash Deval, and I must not forget to mention Niyogi Books of Delhi — they are there for everyone: four handsome volumes replete, page after page, with paintings. But some facts first. The entire series consists of some 5,000 paintings of which nearly 2,000 form a selection which goes into these volumes. The paintings were apparently made at the behest of the Maharana of Udaipur, Jai Singh (1653-1698), somewhere between 1680 and 1698. Allah Baksh was the painter; Joshi Kishan Das played his role in inscribing in a panel above each single painting a caption-like text in Marwari, indicating its contents. Each folio is horizontal in form — landscape format in our times — and measures 25 x 41.5 cm (small scale for a large subject!). On every folio, below the painting, a Hindi rendering, more or less, is given and further down a rendering in English of that text.

A fierce battle scene; dialogue about rivers between Arjun and a Gandharva

There is richness beyond belief here, for every single Parva of this epic is covered, from the Adi to the Mahaprasthana, embracing all the better known or popular ones like the Vana, Udyoga, Bhishma, Ashwamedha and the Mausala. The style of the paintings is not unfamiliar, being the one that we associate with Mewar, specially Udaipur, and has all those glowing colours, dominated by the three primaries — red, blue and yellow, but also their endless mixtures and variations. These colours are a riot, making folios spring with joy, dance to a rhythm, elevating the spirit. And when it comes to composition, there is no end to innovation. Suddenly, on a page when the painter wishes to bring in more than one episode, he arbitrarily creates new spaces within the same page, now shifting from an elliptical to rectangular, background colours changed, shapes now touching one another, now appearing as if they are far and long distance apart. To the viewer initially, it can be a bit unsettling, but slowly one gets used to it and even begins to savour the freedom that the artist revels in. Since the story moves in a given sequence, there is some sameness — at least apparent sameness — among leaves, but that is in the nature of things. And yet every now and then, the painter comes upon an episode for which he has no model in mind and takes off on his own: singing as it were, enjoying gusts of cool wind blowing across his face, on occasion feeling the grit between his toes.

All folios from the ‘Mahabharata’ series. Government Museum, Udaipur.

There are standard conventions that one knows or gets used to: conventions for the treatment of water, clouds, mountains, caves, fire, serpents, foliage, cisterns, straw huts, elephants and horses, deer and fish, birds and divine wings, for instance. One can get a bit tired of repetitiveness, but then what else, one can ask oneself, do we expect the painter to do. Create a new hut each time? Turn a bird’s beak each time? Alter the colour of foam at the edge of water every time? Conventions are after all conventions.

The whole setting in the folios is — apart from divine, impossible to imagine locations — as the painter saw all around himself. A Rajasthani court like that at Udaipur: noblemen dressed in the contemporary fashion, wearing long robes and Aurangzeb period-like heavy turbans sloping slightly backwards, sporting long sideburns, carrying arms, and so on. Sages and sadhus move about in their austere garments; workers with the barest coverings. One finds oneself suddenly in the midst of Rajasthan. Every now and then, leaves, as required by the narrative, are filled with scenes of battles: swords flashing in the air, bows stretched to the ears, hands tightening over the reins of spirited horses, footmen running between formations. There is nothing unusual about it, for, after all, it is the great war which looms over everything else. Speaking for myself, however, I enjoy folios where the painter abandons his comfort zone and enters uncharted territory.

Garuda, detail from a folio.

Let me take this one, just one, instance: an episode in which Arjun and a Gandharva are in quiet conversation. Arjun describes the merits of bathing in rivers that are held sacred. Here, seven of them emerge from one region — Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswati, Vitasta, Saryu, Gomati and Gandaki — and another four flowing in a different direction emerge from a different region. Thrown entirely upon his own resources, the painter takes off. The seven sacred rivers are to be seen at left emerging from a golden mountain and descending against a pure white background in more or less zig-zag formation towards the ocean. The other four are seen against a green ground emerging not necessarily from any mountain. Everywhere, individual bathers are seen dipping themselves in the waters while in a crescent-shaped area at the top right, somebody looks down upon the entire scene. There is great innovation here. And one senses the thrill that the painter must have experienced himself while composing this singularly unusual sight.

One needs to end here for one can go on and on, considering the length of the epic and the immersive scale of this exciting series of paintings, but one does not end without feeling grateful for what we have here and can access. After all, it is the ‘Mahabharata’: if not of Peter Brook, that of a Maharana and his retained artist.

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