Here, There & Elsewhere | A magnificent folio

Manjula Padmanabhan | Updated on January 17, 2020

In this climate of mass unrest and social strife, my subject for this week may seem a little unusual: An album of paintings of verses from The Gita, in a beautiful hardcover volume by that name, published by Niyogi Books. Over 500 exquisite miniature paintings from 17th-century Mewar have been published for the first time ever. The paintings are the work of one artist, whom we know only as Allah Baksh. These pieces are part of an even greater collection of paintings by the same artist, illustrating some 4,000 scenes from The Mahabharata.

This extraordinary work may have languished virtually unseen if not for the equally extraordinary determination of Alok Bhalla, critic, poet and author, along with Chandra Prakash Deval’s elegant translation of the original Mewari verses into Hindi, to bring the work to a wider audience. Bhalla has written the warm and highly readable commentary that accompanies the reproductions, guiding the viewer’s eye towards details and symbols in each of the glorious illustrations.

My response to the book has little to do with the verses or their religious and philosophical content. Instead, as an artist and illustrator I am absolutely humbled by the paintings themselves, by the sheer scale of the project. Every single painting from the series, barring about 20 in the final quarter, shows the figures of Arjuna and his divine charioteer Krishna, locked in conversation as they sit in a chariot drawn by two white horses.

It’s hard to even begin to explain what this represents in terms of effort: The same chariot, the same two horses, four legs apiece, eight legs per painting, over and over and over, more than 500 times, yet alive with delight in every instance. Plus all the surrounding details of sky and costume and foliage and other characters, animals, plants, symbols, borders and written text. Plus the grace and beauty of the lines, the textures, the expressions, the stylised elements, the little touches of whimsy.

It is a truly magnificent work. A majority of the paintings have, of course been reduced so that two can fit on one page, whereas each one deserves to be enlarged to poster-size (at least!). In writing about the book here, I can only focus on a couple of the elements that I especially enjoyed. One is the clothes. Such a range of shades, textures and folded arrangements! The huge majority of characters depicted are men, but they are clothed with the same exquisite sense of style as if they had been women.

The other is the animals. I’ve mentioned the lovely horses, but there are deer and monkeys, sarus cranes and cattle, as well as some very lively demons. My favourite creature has the body of a milk white horse topped with a dainty white elephant’s head! Then, of course, the thrilling colours: Magenta fields, vermillion chariot wheels, gamboge-yellow woodwork, midnight blue skies, chutney green fields. A carnival of beauty and richness, framing a conversation of cosmic and tragic consequence.

Manjula Padmanabhan, author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US, in this weekly column

Published on January 17, 2020

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