By Eletta de Rapalje
"Pictures, poetry, and every work of art produce no effect —save on souls prepared to receive them." It is not surprising, therefore, to find the average person brushing aside much of Oriental art with the remark that it looks "ugly," or even "funny." Even the exquisite grace and charm of Indian miniatures is lost upon such a person, for the simple reason that no thought has been given by him to the countless hidden treasures lying beneath the surface.
There are two distinct schools (or styles) of Indian miniature painting, one being the Rajput—coming from the Rajputana, or Hill States of the Punjab—and the other —that which flourished under the Mogul emperors. Once this latter was commonly referred to as Indo-Persian, because of the evident influence of the Persian artists brought to India by the Moguls. The writer prefers taking as an example the unpretentious Rajput miniature here illustrated. It is not rare in any sense of the word, it is not an "antique," and was not painted by an artist of renown—so let us see what we can get out of it.
Until we get at the story behind the outward expression of an art, it is only a piece of paper or a block of stone, or so much canvas. In the case of Indian miniatures, an enormous amount of trouble has to be taken by way of preparation of paper, pigments and brushes, even before the staggering work of painting a miniature is begun.
In the Orient, miniatures were not painted on ivory, so they had to go through an intricate process in order to give the right glaze to the surface of the paper. Mr. E. B. Havell tells: "The papers used were of three kinds;
(1) called bavasaha, made from crushed bamboo,
(2) tataha, made from tat, or jute,
(3) tulat, made from tula, or cotton.
A smooth enamelled surface was given to the paper by placing it face downwards on a polished stone and rubbing the back of it with a polisher. Tracing paper (charba) was prepared from deer-skin. Drawings were transferred by pricking and pouncing with charcoal powder. For fine work the charcoal was made from the arahar plant (Cajanus Indicus); for ordinary work, charcoal made from mango-tree twigs were used.
"Brushes were made from the hair of a squirrel's tail. Worn brushes were carefully kept for fine outline work. Dr. Coomaraswamy says that in Ceylon, brushes for fine lines are made from the awns of teli-tana grass (Aristida adscensionis), and are admirably adapted to their purpose. The first outline was always made with Indian red (Gairika—a red used by mendicants for colouring their cloths) used without gum. The finishing outlines were made with lampblack, prepared by burning camphor wick in a mustard-oil lamp.
Only the purest gold was used, and in some of the more elaborate miniatures —depicting court scenes, tiny seed pearls were stuck onto the paintings.
The miniature used as illustration is of Rajput workmanship, and painted, probably, in the early 18th century. Paintings for the Punjab were truly indigenous—"religious, domestic and mystic,"—so it is no surprise to find our example representing a scene from the Ramayana, the great Hindu Epic. We see Rama in the final stage of His battle with Ravana, the ten-headed monster. Rama, being a reincarnation of the God,Vishnu, is painted with a turquoise-blue body, and is using the Brahma weapon given to Him by Agastya. He had sent forth arrow after arrow to no avail, for He would no sooner cut away one of the ten heads, than another would appear in its place, both antagonists fighting like "flaming lions"—until at last the divine shaft was chosen. We learn of Rama's "blessing that shaft with Vedic mantras." after which He "set it on His bow and loosed it, and it sped to its appointed place and cleft the breast of Ravana, and, bathed in blood, returned and entered Rama's quiver humbly."
The conqueror is accompanied by His brother, Lakshman, (His faithful companion in exile), and the scene is laid in Ceylon, where we find Them on a hillside in the background of which, behind some forbidding rocks, is the castle of Lanke,—the stronghold of Ravana, the evil one, who has been keeping Rama's bride, Sita, hidden behind its impenetrable walls.
The colouring of this miniature is most charming, as are its flowing lines, its limpid blue sky, fresh green grass, dense masses of trees, the weird rocks and well-drawn castle,—forming a properly balanced background for the all-absorbing action in the foreground. It is framed in one of those delicate flower borders we like so much in Indian miniatures. That, of course, is the visible picture, but the subject itself goes much deeper. It represents the eternal battle between good and evil, pointing out the fact that one must use Divine (blessed) means, or weapons in order to overcome the world. In fact the weapons which Rama fought against His demon adversaries are represented as "animated beings sent by the gods."
One of the strangest features of Indian miniatures is that they represent "picture music," or musical modes, called Rag Mela. Here, again, Rajput artists expressed in so much greater degree the indigenous art —than did the painters of the Mogul court— that they greatly surpassed them. The Mogul artists sacrificed simplicity to an over-elaboration in treatment.
Raga means "to be read," and also means "to dye," "to blush," and signifies "passion,"—so it is not difficult to understand the paths along which this strange feature of art was worked out. Musical modes, or Ragini, go in sets of thirty, or thirty-six, and their accompanying poems, or verses, are often illuminated on the upper part of the picture itself, or around the border. These musical modes are expressive of certain seasons or hours—even going so far as to illustrate the months themselves. Dr. Coomaraswamy tells us that "Each Raga is associated with an hour of the day or night when it may be appropriately sung, and some are associated with particular seasons or have definite magical effects."
It is just because of this element of magic, and the association of Ragas with the rhythmic ritual of daily and seasonal life, that their clear outlines must not be blurred by modulation; and this is expressed, when the Ragas are personified as musical genii, by saying that "to sing out of the Raga is to break the limbs of these musical angels."
The ragas originated from various sources. Pahari, for instance, came from local folksongs; others, like Jog, from the songs of wandering ascetics. A certain number were created by great musicians, and go by their names; while "over sixty are mentioned in a Sanscrit-Tibetan vocabulary of the seventh century, with names such as 'with-a-voice-like-a-thunder-cloud,' 'Like-the-God-Indra,' and 'Delighting-the-heart.' Some of the Ragas in present-day use are called 'Spring,' 'Evening beauty,' 'Honey-flower,' 'The Swing,' 'Intoxication.' One of their favorite themes is "The sweet, sweet rumbling of thunder is heard," wherein the cry of the peacock is invariably mentioned, for it is a warning of the approaching storm, which promises relief for the intense heat.
Hindu painters seem to excel in night scenes and in reproducing the effect of moonlight, or of artificial light. One of their masterpieces shows a bon-fire around which old men are seated in a circle. The night is dark, the woods in the backgrounds are dense, the only light is that which arises from the fire and is reflected in the various faces staring into it. The marvelous detail and the colouring of this particular miniature make it easy to believe that Rembrandt received his inspiration through Indian miniatures. This is a proven fact, and it is known that he was an enthusiastic collector of Oriental art. But it appears that Sir Joshua Reynolds, in 1777, "was the first connoisseur to acknowledge that Indian miniature painting was anything extraordinary, and to declare his great admiration of the drawings . . . inserted in an album in the British Museum."
Indian painting had reached superb proportions in the first centuries of the Christian era—as seen in the remnants of the Ajunta frescoes. It is known that there were miniature paintings before the reign of Akbar, and, in fact, that a high degree of art had been reached in remote ancient time, but it is to Akbar, the first of the "Great Moguls," who reigned in the sixteenth century, that the greatest development of Indian art of all kinds is justly attributed. His son and successor, Jahangir, builder of the Taj Mahal, took up the patronage of art with great enthusiasm, and advanced it in countless ways, to the everlasting glory of his native country.
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