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'Dyed in the colour of Krishna'

Here is a book that is both a celebration and an exposition of an era when artists were very much a part of a feudal world that required their services.

AT first glance a volume that concentrates on the lives and work of a small group of artists working around the precincts of a famous temple in Rajasthan might seem a somewhat precious undertaking. It could be likened to the specialised needs of a lepidopterist researching the markings of a species of butterflies to be found only in Borneo. Or in hunting for a particular style of miniature painting as the hero does in Orhan Pamuk's extraordinary tale "My Name is Red" on the nature of traditional art in the Ottoman period of Istanbul in Turkey and the erosions of change that were to destroy it from within a closed society.

At the same time, Tryna Lyons who has concentrated her study of the artists at Nathadwara, a temple in Rajasthan famous for its splendid Rajasthani style paintings belonging to the Mewar School, has produced a work of such meticulous research and gorgeous illustrations, that it will interest both the scholar and the general reader. The paintings revolve around the image of Shri Nathji, the enigmatic black-faced figure of Krishna who is shown holding up Mount Govardhan. It has already been explored in another Mapin publication Krishna as Shrinathji (l987) by Amil Ambalal, in a lushly illustrated volume that looks at the miniature paintings of the Nathadwara School.

Lyons' work dives into the background of what to the casual browser might seem like a two-dimensional landscape of fairly familiar imagery and forces the reader to recognise the multitudinous layers that might be lurking there.

Like Orhan Pamuk's novel, Lyons' study is both a celebration and an exposition of an era when artists were very much a part of feudal world that required their services. Just as Pamuk's artists lived and worked under the shadow of the Sultan and the court and were in a sense performers who both entertained his vanity and artistic historians who recorded his achievements for posterity, much as we know from our own tradition of the Akbarnama and other such records of the Mughal court, the Nathadwara artists also worked for a patron. In their case, however it was Shri Nathji, the child-god enshrined in the temple, the courtiers, temple priests, who initiated every new painting for a particular occasion. In their different ways, both writers describe the systems of patronage that inspired the artists to explore and experiment with new ideas even while apparently repeating themselves with well-rehearsed themes.

One of the major issues that Lyons tackles is the one of artistic freedom and innovation in such a system. She attempts to locate the artist within the fecund Pushtimarg world, where the painting of the Pichavais, or painted cloth backdrops that are created as a visual counterpoint to the image of Shri Nathji offer the viewer a chance to engage in a relationship with the deity that is filled with emotional allure. She does this by giving us a charmingly personal view of the entire Nathadwara experience, so that as in some of the paintings in which the artist has tried to integrate both a Western and Eastern perspective, you can choose multiple points of entry. At the same time, she never lets you forget that her main purpose is to bring to life the actual experience of the artists themselves.

She has concentrated on five main artists who lived and worked in the last decades of the l9th Century and early 20th Century. This was already a period of great change. Photography, cinema, cheap and popular printing firms, the increasing lure of the big city that offered alternate modes of earning a livelihood, but most crucial as far as the artistic vision was concerned the impact of both European models of art and the teaching of the Western ideal of art forms derived on the Florentine methods of perspective. The last found for instance a willing and winning response in the work of an artist such as Raja Ravi Varma. He figures in a walk-on role in the drama of the Nathadwara artists, one of whom he appears to have crushed by decisively putting him in his place.

* * *

Pushtimarg is a term that means "the path of grace". The wealth of material riches, or images in the form of jewels, flowers, decorations, ritual enactments of which the Pichavais are just one element sanctioned by the hereditary priests settled around Nathadwara are part of this grace, or joy that the worshipper both gives and comes to experience. The word darshan is of course familiar to most Indian readers and does not require further elaboration. What is interesting is to notice how another Western scholar Christopher Pinney in his study on the printed images of Indian gods and goddesses that are generally derided as calendar art, singled out this quality, or darshan, or of this engagement between the viewer and the painted image, temple icon, or religious figure and now politician, as being a defining characteristic of Indian art. Pinney also forefronts the work of Narottam (1896-1990) a Nathadwara artist, whose Krishna images re-produced by the Karachi-based printing firm of S.S. Brijvasi were popular all across North India as being far more influential than the works of Ravi Varma. It's his sketch that appears on the cover.

Lyons' study allows us to experience this "path of grace" in which different perspectives and even contradictions are admitted. "Pushtimarg emphasises the freedom of the worshipper, who may imagine Krishna as a friend, a lover, a superior, or as his or her own child." She is both the discerning scholar from the West who has managed to keep a sense of perspective and balance in a diffuse narrative and an enchanted participant in the action. Or to use a phrase that she herself borrows from Mirabai, so compelling is Lyons' study that by the end of it you willingly submit to the idea of being "dyed in the colour of Krishna". Or, more prosaically, to become absorbed in the process of the darshan that she provides into the world of the Nathadwara artists.

The Artists of Nathadwara, The Practice of Painting in Rajasthan, Tryna Lyons, Mapin ( , p.360


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