Archive for the 'art' Category

Samhita Arni – An Interview

A contemporary political thriller set in Ayodhya is never going to be an easy sell and Samhita Arni admits that publishers aren’t yet queuing up.  But Samhita, who won international acclaim at the age of 11 with her version of the Mahabharata, is more likely to pull it off than most.  In the meantime, she’s been keeping herself busy with Sita’s Ramayana, the first-ever graphic novel to use Patua art.

Samhita admits that she wasn’t initially enthralled with the Ramayana, which has few shades of grey especially in the “whitewashed versions” that have become standard fare today.  It was the Mahabharata’s questions that really interested her as a child – for instance, Yudhisthira’s final ascent to heaven where we suddenly find ourselves wondering whether dogs can go to heaven too.  In particular Sita, who tends to be a convenient depository of “all the ideal qualities” a wife and daughter-in-law should have, was not a figure to whom Samhita could relate.  But two episodes in the epic suggested to her that perhaps there was something more to this cardboard cut-out: the first when Sita asks Rama why he’s carrying weapons in the forest; the second when she chooses to be swallowed up by the earth after Rama subjects her to a (second) public test.

This first incident appears right at the beginning of Sita’s Ramayana.  The Patuas (or Citrakaras) of Bengal are itinerant painter-singers who illustrate a story frame by frame to form a scroll which is then displayed when they perform the narrative.  Their Ramayana – just one element of their large and varied repertoire which includes modern themes as well as tales of Muslim saints, for the Patuas worship both sets of gods – tends to have three main sections: Sita’s banishment, rescue and exile. The graphic novel takes the images from these scrolls and starts, as the Patuas’ version does, in media res with a weeping Sita surrounded by flowers.  Samhita worked mainly with the images – although she did also read transcripts of some song performances by the Patua – innovating where necessary, as here by investing the flowers with speech to help unfold the story (see image from opening page above).

Many subsequent versions of the Ramayana have, in retelling it, tried to rectify and improve parts of the epic, thus in effect re-creating it.  Tulsidas burnished Rama’s divine credentials; Periyar celebrated Ravana as the true hero.  Samhita’s contemporary novel is set when Rama and Sita have just returned to Ayodhya.  In this it is similar to Bhavabhuti’s Uttararamacarita, one of the earliest Sanskrit texts to try to grapple with the Ramayana’s troubling ending. Samhita smiles at the comparison.

An excerpt of the novel, called Searching for Sita, explains the smile.  Ayodhya is a successful and wealthy country presided over by Rama, whom everyone adores.  Beneath the posters of the white-kurta-wearing king and out of sight of the giant public televisions that beam his image across the kingdom, Ayodhya shines considerably less.  The country’s most celebrated journalist, Valmiki, has penned an official biography of Rama and the media tows the party line. It is hard not to associate Samhita with our narrator, a young female journalist who identifies with the ostracised Kaikeyi and Sita.  The narrator is summarily fired and has to make a speedy exit from the kingdom for asking Rama, in a live interview, what happened to Sita.  Whether or not you see today’s India in this – especially now that the BJP’s glory days are long gone and the India Shining campaign derided into oblivion – it offers an insight into the kind of response this most politicised of poems invokes.

The Mahabharata: A Child’s View (below) was published by Tara Books in 1996; it is currently out of print but is being released again soon.

Sita’s Ramayana is being published by Tara Books and will be released soon.


Varanasi to Tibet


When he attained enlightenment the Buddha set off for the city of learning, Varanasi, keen to share his newfound knowledge.  Just outside the city he preached his first sermon at Sarnath and Buddhism was born.  Along with the Buddhist temple and stupas that mark this spot, it is thus appropriate that Sarnath is also home to a Tibetan institute which aims to return to India its Buddhist heritage – thousands of Sanskrit texts detailing the teachings of the Buddha. 

The Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, or CIHTS, was set up as by Nehru and the Dalai Lama a few years after China took control of Tibet in 1959, primarily to provide a centre for students of the Himalayan region – who had previously come to Tibet – to study Buddhism.  In 1981 it started a restoration programme designed to reconstruct the original Sanskrit texts which had travelled to Tibet from the 7th century AD onwards. 


While Buddhism flourished in its adopted home in Tibet – as well as elsewhere in Asia – it declined in India and many of these Sanskrit texts were subsequently lost.  In many cases, the only extant versions are the Tibetan translations which came out of a large and well organised translation programme in Tibet, sponsored by its kings.  Indian scholars such as Shantaraksita and his disciple Kamalashila, and Atisha – who revived Buddhism in Tibet after in faltered in the 10th century – travelled to Tibet and took with them the teachings of the Buddha, the canon known as Kagyur, as well as their commentaries on the canon, called Tangyur.  In the 9th century the Tibetan king created a Tibetan-Sanskrit dictionary, the Mahavyutpatti, to standardise the translation of these many texts by prescribing the particular Tibetan term for each Sanskrit word.  He also set rules which determined which texts should be translated and appointed an editorial board to vet each translation. 

As Dr Pempa, an editor in the restoration department, explains, these efforts to control and standardise the translation into Tibetan greatly help the Institute’s programme to reconstruct the originals.  Tibetan scholars work with Indian Sanskritists; the Tibetans explain the meaning of each text, in Hindi or Sanskrit, to the Indian scholars who then render it in Sanskrit.  The Sanskritists use the metre to ensure that the reconstructed text matches the original exactly, or as closely as possible.  Where a fragmentary Sanskrit manuscript is available, as is the case with some tantra texts where fragments have been found in Nepal, this is also used to rebuild the original.   The Institute’s translation department then works to translate these texts into Hindi, and occasionally English, to make them as widely accessible as possible in India.  As Dr Pempa puts it, “We want to return the generosity of the Indian scholars who first brought these texts to Tibet by bringing them back to India.”


The Institute’s library houses an extensive collection of Tibetan and Indian manuscripts, all beautifully wrapped in yellow cloth. These manuscripts are quite different from the palm-leaf manuscripts found in India. Tibet set up four main printing presses which allowed for the mass production of these manuscripts.  The blocks might take several years to create but once ready they could be used to print many copies.  The Tibetan ones are simply decorated with a Buddha at either end; the ones from Bengal have elaborate paintings of various gods on the wooden boards that hold the folios together and include a series of delicately drawn mandalas.  Tibetan manuscripts were printed on a handmade paper which is remarkably durable – some in the library are over 200 years old.  The librarian, Mr Sunaam, explains that many of these manuscripts were brought to India by Tibetan exiles fleeing the Chinese occupation in the 1960s thus providing the material needed for this restoration programme.  It is thanks to them that the teachings of the Buddha have returned to their original birthplace and can once again make themselves heard in India.   

For more about the CIHTS see their website here


Leather Puppets In Action


Stones hang from electricity pylons to ensure a ready supply of siphoned off power in Vaderahalli, a village in between Bangalore and Kanakapura.   A cluster of five or six pale green houses on each side of a narrow street form the village.  Each low tiled roof juts out above a verandah filled with fodder upon which cows are grazing.  The verandah of the second house on the right though houses not cows but a makeshift theatre for this evening’s   Togalu Gombeyaata performance.

Togalu Gombeyaata is a the particular type of shadow puppetry – an ancient art form which originated in India but is now most famous in South East Asia – practised in Karnataka.  It is used most often to narrate episodes from the epics, and tonight’s performance is taken from one of the many sub plots of the Mahabharata, that of the duel between Arjuna and his son, Babhruvahana.


Four puppeteers  – two men and two women – from Kollegal, another village in Karnataka not far away, enact the violent confrontation between Arjuna and the son he disowns.   The play opens with Ganapati, the god for all beginnings, flanked by two troll-like creatures and two elaborately decorated trees.  Behind the white cloth that forms the screen for the shadow play the artists break into a wild-sounding Kannada song, accompanied by a harmonium and a dhol, as one of the women sweeps the invocatory god and his foliage offstage to be replaced by a narrator with a maniacal dance.  Next come the epic characters, each beautifully crafted on fine almost paper thin leather and painted in colours brought out to vivid effect by the back lighting – a single, pendulous bulb.  Recognisable characteristics identify each character: Bhima has his club, Krishna is an electric blue. 

Babhruvahana challenges his father’s ashvamedha – a sacrificial rite involving a horse by which rulers assert their sovereignty – by stealing the horse.  Despite the intercession of various tiny women – all the male characters are at least twice the size of the females – the father and son eventually proceed to a duel.  The ‘sarpa-bana’ – ‘snake arrow’ – warrants a wonderful display of the puppeteers’ skill as the snake slithers up and down before shooting across the screen.  Each puppet is controlled by one or more bamboo sticks that are used to push the flat leather shape across the screen – the humans all have stick-controlled arms so Arjuna can touch Krishna’s feet, the two warriors can fight with sword and bow and the women can indulge in almost perpetual frantic gesticulation.  Undoubtedly the best scene involved the mass decapitation of certain evil characters that would appear in hideous splendour before a shooting arrow separated their heads from their bodies. 

In between the singing, the puppeteers share the dialogue between the characters on the screen.  They sit opposite one another shouting with a very convincing agression as they act out the father and son dispute.  The stories, like the puppets and the techniques, are passed on from one generation to the next.  This performance was only an hour long, but the team could use the same puppets to entertain a village for a whole night or longer.

In addition to the 15-odd city types with large cameras and an unusual interest in local traditions, many villagers crowded round to watch the performance.  The children watched in delight, favouring this novel type of entertainment to the television in the house behind the stage.  Two old men came up at the end of the show to congratulate and thank the artists and the woman who had organised it, a software engineer who runs a quirky travel company.  They explained how they used to do Yakshagana theatre as well as ‘bayalu’ in their village many years ago, with real people running up and down ropes rather than just puppets.  ‘Santosh ayata’, announced one with a large grin, “I am happy”. 

The puppet show was organised by Vasanti Panchakshari who runs the travel company Tazad – click here for more details.


A sketchbook Ramayana – 1

Edward Ernest, an American art student, has started a series of Ramayana sketches inspired by his love of the story.  This first one is of Rama and Hanuman, just after they first meet in Kishkinda, as told in Kishkinda Kanda (Book 4) chapters 3 and 4:

Edward Ernest Ramayana 1

Here’s a (very dated I’m afraid – from the 1870s) translation of their meeting, by Ralph T.H. Griffith.  Below this is a transliterated version taken from the Gretil site.

Chapter 3

The envoy in his faithful breast
Pondered Sugrivá’s high behest.
From Rishyamúka’s peak he hied
And placed him by the princes’ side.
The Wind-God’s son with cautious art
Had laid his Vánar form apart,
And wore, to cheat the strangers eyes,
A wandering mendicant’s disguise. 
Continue reading ‘A sketchbook Ramayana – 1’

Illustrating the Meghaduta


Sanskrit poets dedicate much time to describing nature – often an idealised nature – in all her glory.  For many readers, even for those in India, it can be hard to picture the description of a luxuriant forest grove or a tree-lined seascape full of flora with beautiful but foreign names.  If you do not know that the malati jasmine is white and the ashoka tree’s flowers red (as in the picture above), you will find it difficult to appreciate their comparison to the pink lips and bright teeth of a woman’s smile.

Tomomi Sato, a student at Australian National University, has created an illustrated catalogue of the plants and trees of Kalidasa’s Meghaduta.  The online site presents Tomomi’s watercolour paintings of the 26 plants, from the japa (at bottom of page) to the yuthika (below), found in the poem, along with the verses in which they appear.  Tomomi referred to photos and descriptions in botanical catalogues to paint each as faithfully as possible.  The result is a series of colour-rich illustrations, simple and vibrant – perfect, in short, for Kalidasa’s elegant verse.


The site also has English and Japanese translation and an audio recording for each verse, all done by Tomomi.  Tomomi explains that her linguistics background helped her to master the pronounciation – by understanding the “logic behind the sounds” she was able to learn how to voice them – although she admits she did struggle with the aspirated consonants.   For her, the Japanese translation did of course come far more naturally but she doesn’t attribute this solely to the fact it is her mother tongue.  “As Japanese is a SOV [subject-object-verb as opposed to subject-verb-object – English is the latter; Sanskrit the former] language, which often drops the subject, I think it’s actually closer to Sanskrit, grammar-wise.”

Tomomi was only able to find one other translation of the Meghaduta into Japanese, published in 1962, and says that the poem is barely known in Japan where most Sanskrit interest revolves around Buddhism.  A kavya-enthusiast, she hopes to try a few more translations into Japanese in the future.

The only disappointment in this project is that the artist didn’t attempt a description of the legendary ‘kalpa-vrksha’ – the wish giving tree – which, as she quotes, “produces anything one would desire, and hence anything celestial beings need, such as clothes, ornaments, and foods, would spring out of the trees”.   This must be left to the reader’s imagination.

Venetia Ansell

Click here to go to the website


Illustrated Kavya


The Gaudya-Vedanta Heritage Foundation together with Goloka Productions has created a beautifully presented electronic exhibition which showcases several different illustrations of well known Sanskrit kavyas.  Black Peacock, the site, hosts classical genres, such as Mewari (above) and Khagra (below), as well as contemporary styles.  Alongside the paintings runs a commentary and occasionally the full quotation of the verse being illustrated, with an English translation.

Click here to go to the exhibition.


Interview with Anna L. Dallapiccola


Sita and Hanuman in Ravana’s garden, from the kalamkari 5457A  in the V&A’s collection

Kalamkari is probably best known in India for its use in kurtas, saris, pajamas and bedsheets.  In the 18th century, it was the British who favoured the use of the block-printed cotton cloth for clothes; now it’s trendy Indian lifestyle stores and social groups who promote it for its traditional techniques and natural dyes.  Less well known and certainly less readily available are the hand-painted kalamkari textiles depicting epic and mythical material which were made from the 13th century onwards and spread all along the Coromandel Coast and as far as Japan, where they proved very popular. 

Professor Anna L. Dallapiccola, former Professor of Indian Art at the South Asia Institute at Heidelberg, Germany, recently wrote the British Museum’s catalogue of South Indian Paintings and is currently working with the kalamkari collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A).  Professor Dallapiccola talks to Venetia Ansell about several of these kalamkari canopies and the art that produced them.

19th March 2009

Professor Dallapiccola talks about kalamkari hangings with unreserved enthusiasm.  Late last year she came to India for Siyahi’s Mantles of Myth – The Narrative in Indian Textiles and discussed two hangings from the V&A which both depict an entire version of the Ramayana.  She wanted to explore “what was deemed to be interesting”: which bits of the story the artists highlighted and which parts they have skipped over.  The canopies, both of which date from about the 1880s and originate from coastal Andhra Pradesh, are large (about 2 by 3m) but even so space is limited when you are illustrating events from an epic the size of the Ramayana.  “Both devote a lot of space to the Bala [childhood] Kanda [book] with all of its pageant”, says the Professor, while the Kishkinda [the monkeys’ kingdom] Kanda is almost entirely omitted, and the Aranya [forest] Kanda makes only a guest appearance.  Neither includes the controversial ending in which Rama throws his wife out after their return to Ayodhya.  Professor Dallapiccola has seen that only once, in a Sri Lankan kalamkari, “but there it is complicated by regional myths.” 


It is not clear what exactly these enormous canopies were used for, but there are “extensive Telugu captions” on the Andhra ones which suggest that they may have been displayed to an audience while a narrator went through each scene of the story.  (See image above of a Chirala Ramayana scene, Kamadhenu and the parijata tree, with particularly lengthy notes.)   They were commissioned by temples and were probably used to decorate temporary pandals for festivals, although the Professor admits that “it is very difficult to know for certain”.

The hangings consist of simple pieces of unlined cloth sewn together.  They are not designed to be durable especially in a climate like India’s.  Many of the kalamkari temple hangings from Tamil Nadu have seen such heavy use that they are in a terrible state.  One of the best preserved is a piece from Chirala, Andhra Pradesh, signed and dated by the artist, which was bought almost immediately by the then Director of the Indian Museum in 1883 and so never actually used.  If there are hangings still housed in temples, the Professor has not seen them and suspects that almost all the extant ones are now in private collections or museums. 

The art itself though has not died out, thanks to a post-Independence effort by art activists to set up a government kalamkari training centre in Sri Kalahasti, Andhra Pradesh.  One of the best living artists, Gurappa Shetty, made what Professor Dallapiccola calls an “absolutely extraordinary” kalamkari canopy depicting the life of Jesus.  The canopy was later bought by the V&A. 

The representation of Christ is presumably fairly new, but the pre-twentieth century kalamkari artists did not limit themselves to the Ramayana, they also worked on Mahabharata versions as well as regional Telugu literature.  The Professor describes some Tamil kalamkari hangings which focus on a particular temple, such as Srirangam, and illustrate the events from that temple’s mahatmya [devotional Sanskrit text glorifying the local deity] on the border.

It may not be possible to see these canopies in their original temple settings, but there are several museums in both India and abroad that house them.  In India, the Calico Textile Museum of Ahmedabad is probably the best bet. In London, the British Museum has a few and the V&A itself has about 20 in total.  Professor Dallapiccola, who is currently writing the V&A kalamkari catalogue, recommends the V&A.  You must make an appointment as the canopies are not on general display, but the museum is apparently extremely helpful and keen to organise special viewings for those who are interested. 


Subahu and Maricha pollute the rishis’ sacrifice

All images courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum

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