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Posted at: Jun 9, 2019, 2:05 AM; last updated: Jun 9, 2019, 2:05 AM (IST)’ART & SOUL

Bhagavad Gita: An illustrative narration

Most handwritten versions of the scripture come with a few illustrations, but there is bold innovation on view in this one

BN Goswamy

I am certain that I have written about that great text — the Bhagavad Gita — in this very column before: perhaps even more than once. But each time one comes upon a different handwritten copy of the text, especially one that is also illustrated, one sits up and takes notice. For, there’s always so much to learn. Each rendering turns into one more opportunity to draw from that ‘great, ancient well of wisdom’ that the sacred scripture is. Like American thinker Henry David Thoreau, who took a copy of the text to his retreat in Walden Pond a little less than 200 years ago, one needs to do what he did. “In the morning”, he wrote,“I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat Geeta, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial….”

In the course of one’s researches one has come upon countless manuscripts: copies of the Bhagavad Gita: some bare texts, others with glosses and commentaries. I remember having once seen an old, old volume in the Raghunath Library at Jammu which carried texts of as many as 18 commentaries, each by a different author — the number apparently deliberately chosen, for there are 18 chapters that make up the text as one knows — in this order: each original verse followed not by one but words taken, whether in prose or poetry, from 18 different commentaries. It was an astonishing volume: rich and remarkably textured. However, when it comes to illustrated manuscripts of the Bhagavad Gita — in which, as an art historian, I have been principally interested — things dry up. It is rare to come upon a manuscript which carries more than four or five illustrations. If there are any more, they are, generally, peripheral to the text. The reason is not far to find: the Bhagavad Gita is essentially a philosophical text, filled with abstract thought and rarefied teachings. Even though it begins like a narrative, it moves quickly into a different, much higher realm where ideas and universal truths take over: the meaning of life is laid bare. And how does one render all this in visual terms? What happens, therefore, is that the painter ‘illustrating’ the text picks on some obvious ‘themes’ or ‘motifs’. There is almost always an opening image showing, predictably, Arjuna in his chariot with Krishna driving it while, often, turning back lightly to look at Arjuna as if speaking to him. Quickly, sometimes, this could be followed by an image of Sanjay and the blind patriarch, Dhritarashtra, in conversation, and then might come in a rendering of the armies of the Kauravas and the Pandavas ranged on the field of battle, with ‘conches and kettledrums, tabors and trumpets’ being blown on either side. Somewhere past the middle, in the eleventh chapter for the most part, shows up a painter’s vision of Vishwa-rupa, that grandiose, blinding, description of Krishna revealing his True Self, to Arjuna: a thousand faces and eyes and arms, and whole worlds being swallowed up by the ‘great mouth of Time’. This rendering is central to the text in visual terms, but poses a true challenge, and there the painter is called upon to summon all his energies to meet it.   

One speaks here not of the quality of illustrations — for this can vary enormously — but of the themes generally followed in illustrated manuscripts. It is easy to understand the painter’s reluctance, or inability, to take up other themes that the text is so rich in. “Lucidity (sattva), passion (rajas), dark inertia (tamas)” — the three gunas of which the text speaks at length for instance — cannot be easy to ‘visualise’. Nor can one think of rendering something like “obscurity and inactivity”, or “negligence and delusion” with ease. “I am Time grown Old” — that exquisite description of himself by Krishna at one place — could be, one imagines, really hard to translate in visual terms.

It is in this context that I found a Rajasthani manuscript of the Gita, now in the National Museum at Delhi, of great interest. It is illustrated, although not in one of the familiar, classical court styles, but the range of illustrations in it goes far beyond the usual run. The opening folio, begins with an image of Ganesha in one corner at the top, and Dhritarashtra in conversation with Sanjay in the other. Straightaway, however, even from the way the text is written, apart from the style of the illustrations, one can see that it belongs to the sub-classical, if not exactly folk, strain. ‘Shri Ganesaye namah’, the deity’s name spelt like this rather than as ‘Ganesha’, is how it opens.

Then follow renderings in Hindi verse, with an occasional input from the Rajasthani dialect, of the Sanskrit verses. Thus, the first verse uttered by the old king: “dharam-kheta kuru-khet mein jure judh key saaj”, and so on. The diction is simple, but the text does not seem to miss anything. And when it comes to illustrations, there is great innovation on view. Even when such abstract things as the tattvas — parts of the Sankhya system — are spoken of in the text, the painter renders each one of them: personifying buddhi, manas, rasa, gandha, rupa, and so on. The five sense organs, the five subtle elements, the five gross elements: everything is ‘represented’. At one place when ‘dukh’ and ‘sukh’ are spoken of in the text, the painter renders ‘sukh’ as an affluent person walking with a confident step, and ‘dukh’ as a dark-bodied figure.

There is great delight in seeing these visual leaps taken by the painter, for one does not often see their like. The manuscript ends with a colophon which gives a lot of information even if it is full of spelling errors. The text, we learn, is by Harivallabh; the scripting was done by Guru Bhavani Das for a princess of Chawand — a tributary of the great Mewar state, and the painter — chitara in local terms — was Dungaji. No date is mentioned but clearly, judging from the style, it is a 19th century work.

All images are from the same manuscript copy of the Bhagavad Gita

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