Making a case for south Indian miniatures
- Art historian BN Goswamy’s new study of a rare 19th century manuscript from Mysore reveals the little-known world of miniatures from south India
- The Mysore manuscript, which narrates a part of the Bhāgavata Purana in Old Kannada, contains 215 illustrations
In 1990, The San Diego Museum of Art received a donation that permanently marked its place on the map of Indian art. The donation was small but significant, from the collection of Edwin Binney 3rd, museum trustee and heir to artists’ supplies company Crayola. Binney’s collection consisted of close to 1,500 works, including fine miniatures from the Mughal, Pahari, Rajasthani and Deccani schools. Among them was one particular manuscript from the 19th century, made under the patronage of Krishnaraja Wodeyar III in the royal court of Mysore. This has gone on to become the subject of a new study by art historian B.N. Goswamy.
This Mysore manuscript, which narrates a part of the Bhāgavata Purana in Old Kannada, contains 215 illustrations, making it a rare find. Titled The Great Mysore Bhāgavata, Goswamy’s study takes into account the characters, the mythic universe, the context and the artistic style, allowing readers an entry into the miniatures and the sociopolitical conditions that resulted in their creation.
This study is significant because it is not often that one encounters miniatures from the erstwhile kingdoms of southern India, save for those from the Islamic Deccani sultanates, which depicted portraits and courtly scenes. Mewari paintings or those from Kangra in the north are generally what come to mind when we talk about Indian miniatures.
Goswamy, 85, is professor emeritus of art history at Chandigarh’s Panjab University. He is unarguably India’s foremost scholar in the art of the miniature, having authored important books on the subject: Pahari Painting: The Family As The Basis Of Style (1968), a monograph which established how miniatures were created by families, much like the gharanas of Hindustani music; and, more recently, The Spirit Of Indian Painting: Close Encounters With 101 Works 1100-1900 (2015). In The Great Mysore Bhāgavata, Goswamy guides us through the manuscript’s folios with his characteristic lucidity, along with essays by scholars Caleb Simmons and Robert J. Del Bontà.
On 17 July, Goswamy lectured on his study at The Museum of Art & Photography (MAP), Bengaluru. In a phone interview, he spoke to Lounge about the significance of the Mysore Bhāgavata and the uncharted realm of “south Indian miniatures". Edited excerpts from the interview:
Is the ‘Mysore Bhāgavata’ a one-off manuscript from the Mysore court or are there more such examples, both from this court and from other parts of south India?
There have been some publications on south Indian paintings before but only sporadically. Jagdish Mittal published, for instance, an Andhra Ramayan back in 1969. But complete published manuscripts are rare. Deccani miniatures apart —such as those from Golconda or Bijapur—it is not easy to find bound manuscripts of the same quality as the Mysore Bhāgavata from south India.
The Mysore court was very productive and out of it emerged a sizeable volume of work. There is a Ramayan manuscript in a private collection; also at least one Devi Mahatmya. In the case of the Mysore Bhāgavata, we have sterling information: the ruler’s stamp on the fly-leaf, for instance. But the commonalty of style leads us towards placing other manuscripts in the same Mysore atelier. I would place nearly all of them in the second quarter of the 19th century. I see them as a family of manuscripts, and, like members of a family, these are now scattered. Some were vandalized, others pilfered, most of them dispersed.
What are some of the defining features of the ‘Mysore Bhāgavata’?
Would we ask the same question of Rajasthani paintings? Even though they are grouped under Rajasthan, the styles prevalent at different courts, and the hands of different painters, were quite different. One gets to know and recognize all this from one’s total experience of the body of work.
In the Mysore Bhāgavata, there aren’t features that one can call defining; you observe and you conclude. What I can say with confidence is that nearly all of them have a religious context and go back to ancient Hindu texts. In contrast, one can say that Deccani miniatures are different both in respect of subject matter and treatment. Portraits and court scenes and classical Islamic texts are what one associates with them in general.
These miniatures “from the south" also seem to be closely related to the mural tradition, almost seeming to descend from it. This is a major distinction from the north: In the Pahari tradition, for instance, it is the murals which appear to take off from the miniatures. These “portable" south Indian miniatures must have been meant to be moved around with: One is reminded of how Jain pilgrims or travellers often moved with a sacred image, turning to it early in the morning and paying homage to it.
What is the significance of the ‘Mysore Bhāgavata’, in the context of both religious imagery and miniature art?
The Mysore Bhāgavata treats the second half of Krishna’s career, something that is only sparingly treated in other miniatures. One might come upon self-contained passages such as his marriage to Rukmini, or defeating the demon Narakasura elsewhere, but rarely does one see a complete narrative as one sees in this volume. You won’t see a single frame in the Mysore Bhāgavata where Krishna wears a peacock feather in his hair or plays the flute or wears yellow. We see a very different Krishna here.
Stylistically, the strength of this manuscript consists of its colouring. Traditionally, connoisseurs are known to pay homage to the quality of line, to draughtsmanship. But colour is the glory of these miniatures. Folio after folio is drenched in colour: malachites and emeralds and amethysts, so to speak. When a mountain is set on fire, the whole page on which it is painted seems to be on fire. But the colour is not “local", belonging to figures and objects, but colour is used as an abstraction: as a value in itself.
In a folio where Krishna is fighting seven different bulls whom he has to subdue to win the hand of a princess, one can see how the painter plays with colour. The line is uneven, can even be dull at times except in the hand of the master painter himself, but the colours keep glowing, shedding iridescent light.
In your study, you draw our attention to the presence of the East India Company, such as the Yadava army marching with both the Mysore pennant and the Union Jack . Could you elaborate on this?
The Company was everywhere at the time that these miniatures were made. In fact, the first time I saw the manuscript, I was a bit jolted by the doll-like soldier figures, all dressed in European uniforms, in folio after folio. But after a point it stopped mattering. For the presence of the “Company" was limited to material things: European uniforms, boots, flags and the like. There is an awareness of the Company’s presence.
But, interestingly, there is no stylistic influence of “Company" paintings here. In fact, there is a total defiance of the European tradition in the way in which the painters of this manuscript treat, for instance, time and space.
The ‘Mysore Bhāgavata’ appeared at an exhibition overseas in 1982 and was later auctioned rather than being kept in a museum in India. Why do you think south Indian miniatures haven’t been considered with the seriousness that they deserve?
By and large, the south Indian tradition of miniature painting has suffered from neglect. Pick up any book on “Indian painting" in general and you would hardly see anything reproduced in it that is from “the south". It has so far not entered, substantively, the awareness of historians or those concerned with art in general. I hope that the Mysore Bhāgavata can turn into something of a window through which we should be looking at the miniatures of south India more seriously, and more substantively.