’Art & Soul

The story of a fake manuscript

For years, a small unpublished text lay at the Alice Boner Institute in Varanasi. That it was fabricated became clear only long after it had been written to claim that Odisha too had its own age-old traditions embedded in ‘Vedic-Sanskrit’ culture

The story of a fake manuscript

A set of palm-leaf folios tied together, from the Chaitanya story; Shuka-Sarika, from a Nayika series; mother and child. Images by Sadashiv Rath Sharma

… (when) we found this small hitherto unpublished jewel of a manuscript in the Alice Boner Institute in Varanasi, we spontaneously decided to publish it… (Much later) it became more and more clear that this palm-leaf manuscript was fabricated with in-depth and shrewd intelligence as proof to the claim that Odisha too had its own age-old traditions, embedded in ‘Vedic-Sanskrit’ culture. — Eberhard Fischer and Dinananth Pathy

The reliability of a text should not be taken for granted from the mere fact that it is a palm-leaf manuscript or is written in archaic style …(It) should be tested by cross-evidence and by making a critical analysis of its contents. — KS Behera

… how much sastric knowledge is in this text? If the ‘Citrashastra’ is not an old prescriptive handbook for painters, what is it then? One could answer these questions in a larger perspective… In this sense, this volume should help us to take a fresh look into the production of normative treatises on art. — Editors of the ‘spurious manual’ titled Citrashastra

BN Goswamy

IN eminent and undeniable ways, I have no title to be writing this piece, deals as it does with the highly controversial palm-leaf manuscript titled the Citrashastra, which is at its centre. I do not read a word of the Odia script; my knowledge of Odisha and its history is pitiably sketchy; I did not know the learned Pandit Sadashiv Rath Sharma to whom the work and the manuscript are attributed. In fact, when, long years ago, I first joined the University of Heidelberg’s South Asia Institute to teach as a Visiting Professor, I spent the first few days there in a state of utter bewilderment, for learned colleagues there — those who had interest in India — were constantly talking about things I knew absolutely nothing about: the revered chronicle of the Jagannath Temple, the ‘Madala Panji’; the Pandit whom I have just named; the progress the great Orissa Research Project, in which many of them were involved, was making; how Alice Boner, the iconic Swiss scholar and artist who had made India her home, was in danger of being misled, even duped, by Odia scholars surrounding her.

Folio with different patterns, from the Chitrashastra palm-leaf manuscript.

In odd ways, not much has changed since then. And yet I write on this monograph because this work — I speak not of the palm-leaf manuscript but of this publication: ‘The Citrashastra Palm-Leaf Manuscript from Odisha (India): A Spurious Manual for Painters from Odisha’, formerly in the Collection of Alice Boner — which came out recently in the Alice Boner Dialogue series from the Museum Rietberg at Zurich and the Alice Boner Institute at Varanasi, I recognise as highly significant. Significant because not many like this are around; significant also because it is courageous and bold. It raises questions of importance to the entire field of art history and points towards issues of authenticity and authority, as the editors put it.

In sharp focus in this study is, basically, a single manuscript consisting of 19 palm-leaf folios, all incised with texts and drawings, and all held together under a pair of wooden covers. Each folio is predictably small: just 3x28 cm in size. But the work opens a window to a wider world through which one can cast a long and lingering and critical look at other productions of its kind. From the brief passages cited above, it should be fairly clear that scholarship has been swimming in a sea of fakes: manuscripts, documents, illustrations that are the products of a brilliant mind kept active, but misguided, by a wayward moral compass.

It is, of course, the priestly figure of Pandit Sadashiv Rath Sharma, soaked in learning and traditional knowledge, that looms large in all this: a ‘legendary figure: a painter, faker, and polymath’. His connection with, and sway for a period of time over the mind of, Alice Boner has been well documented by now. An early encounter between the two is especially revealing. Alice had concluded after visiting many sites in Odisha that there was a specific compositional pattern that was being followed. She, however, writes: “I had nothing to prove the correctness of my thesis… no theory of composition known to me that would confirm my findings.” It was right in the midst of this longing for authentication, this mental struggle, that there appeared on the scene this scholar by the name of Pandit Sadashiv Rath Sharma. The year was 1957. Alice Boner was delighted, and she recorded years later: “I drew the diagram of a sculpture I had analysed on a scrap of paper. To my great surprise, the Pandit, without a moment’s hesitation, drew a similar diagram for another sculpture, and thus gave me striking proof, that he perfectly knew and understood what I was looking for.” This, apparently, was the precise moment when the Pandit struck. He had ‘immediately understood’, as has been mentioned in the Foreword to this volume, ‘what kind of text she needed’. And he had the learning, the scholarly wherewithal, to ‘produce’ such a text. Not once, but repeatedly, old manuscripts, like the one under discussion, which had turned up, according to the Pandit, “after careful survey of thirty-two villages”, after “years of research in obscure (mostly rural), places”, or had been lying on the dusty shelves of libraries. The rest, as we know, is sordid history.

It is through this maze of facts and fiction, this challenge of staying on the strict course of fairness, that Eberhard Fischer and Dinanath Pathy lead us in this important volume. Each statement, each development, each colophon, is meticulously gone through and, focusing strictly as they do on this one ‘Citrashastra’ manuscript, but drawing lessons and inferences from it, we have from them just and unprejudiced words: “We consider the insights that this obviously concocted ‘Citrashastra’ provides as useful information for a better understanding of works produced by painters in the Odishan pictorial tradition… (We find it) important enough to wish to share with the reader the joy of experiencing this well-composed, eloquently written treatise equipped with neatly drawn, elucidating sketches — without being constantly reminded by us that one could, folio by folio, also cry out loudly: ‘This is a fake, nothing else than a fake!’ But this …would not do justice to this fine ‘Citrashastra’ pothi.”

Will others, analysing other ‘finds’, other ‘fakes’, write like this? One wonders.

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