Mahabharata in Indian Art

Mahabharata in Indian Art: Some of the Buddhist version of the Mahabharata themes have been discovered from second century BC.

Mahabharata in Indian Art

Bharata’s Natya Sastra (XXV.122-129) enjoins that among other themes ‘histories’ or ‘episodes from eminent peoples life’ should be depicted on the stage and here, all likelihood that the Ramayana and Mahabharata themes were presented on the stage and here. Similarly Patanjali (second century BC) in his Mahabhashya refers to sculptural relief’s or paintings of Krishna-lila scenes. Since Krishna lila is just mentioned as an instance, it might well be presumed that the Ramayana or Mahabharata panels were similarly produced.

Some of the Buddhist version of the Mahabharata themes have been discovered from second century BC; We have two instances of the Mandhata story as depicted in the early Buddhist sculpture. One is from Jaggayyapeta stupa (circa second century BC) where the “world conqueror king” stands surrounded by his queen consort, prince etc. As he raises his hand, gold coins rain from the clouds says Nayanika

It is only that we have not been able to discover actual examples from art sources so far bu tas the Buddhist stories have been found in great number from the Sunga period (second century BC) onwards, we can well presume that similar panels on Mahabharata themes were current in that period. Their non availability so far, can simply be taken as a negative evidence. But Brahmanical sculptures from the early period are known to us just limited to a few examples, on whose basis no conclusions can be drawn.

This is simply the organisational power of the Buddhist order that they could trigger such art movement which produced a wealth of such artistic material, which is also true with the Jain Sect but in a lesser volume.

Mahabharata in Indian Art
Mahabharata in Indian Art

A highly interesting reference to the Mahabharata painting is available to us from the Duta-vakyam play by the celebrated Sanskrit poet, Bhasa )dates somewhere between II century BC to II century AD). Here Krishna is depicted appearing before Duryodhana, who feigns to be looking at a cloth painting representing Draupati Chira Harana )”Denuding Draupadi”).

Duryodhana pretends that he is so absorbed in looking at the painted scene that he does not show any heed to Krishna’s arrival. His expressions refer to the quality of paintings as “colourfulness”, saturated with emotions” and “fine draughtsmanship”…. This can be cited as an instance of Mahabharata cloth paintings in ancient India.

From the archeological sources we have one of the earliest references to the Mahabharata in an oblique manner. The Heliodoros Garuda Stambha (pillar) at Besnagara, Bhilsa ends up with the following verse in mixed Prakrit language.

Trini amuta padani (ia) su anuthitani {/}neyanti {svagam} dama chaga apramada {//}. This corresponds with a verse in the Mahabharata:
Damatyagosapramadah=cha eteshvamrita-mahitam // M.B.XII.V 43.22

The above shows the popularity the Mahabharata enjoyed in the second century BC. Mahabharata themes were quite popular in ancient India although no specific art representations have been found so far from the early stage.

Some of the Budhist versions of the Mahabharata themes have been discovered from second century BC. We have two instances of the Mandhala story as depicted in the early Buddhist sculpture. one is from Jaggayyapeta stupa (circa second century BC.) where the “world conqueror king” stands surrounded by his queen-consort, prince etc.As he raises his hand, gold coins rain from the clouds. The bas-reliefs from Bhaja (Puna Distt, Maharashtra) shows Mandhata’s conquests in two large panels, which for a long timme had been identified as depictions of gods Surya and Indra. In the first panel the king drives on a chariot over-riding the demons who tried to block his way to the conquest of Uttara Kuru, the legendary land where kalpavrikshas, or the “wish trees” grew. The elegant forms of the royal party is well contrasted with the grotesque figures of the demons. In the next scene his elogated royal elephant drives in state, as he has uprooted as kalpavriksha, bearing rewels, costly textiles and even yound damsels:

The Sakuntla story has been identified in one of the stone carvings at udayagiri(Orissa) which could be dated in the beginning of christiana era, where the opening scenes like the king chasing the deer and his meetings with sakuntala are shown. A similar terracotta panel was discovered from bhatia (Near Allahabad), datable in the second century BC. This circular plaque shows the king entering the hermitage, as he drives on his chariot.

A carved pillar (about II century AD) from Mathura was identified as the representation of the teenager Rishya-sringa,since the young man appears in a coquetish attitude; however, this identification is debatable. Another pillar bas-relief discovered from the Govinda Nagara site of the same city clearly shows a doe giving birth to a male baby, as she is helped in the delivery by a rishi. This is obviously the “Birth of Rishya-sringa Scene”.

Chandi Mau in Bihar has yielded some interesting carved reliefs, being bands on the pillars (possibly of the mandapa-hall of a Gupta style temple). These are in black basalt of local origin and at present are limited to just a few examples. Again we can anticipate what wealth of material they would have presented to us in their complete form. These fragmentary pillar shafts are now in the Indian Museum Collection, Calcutta.

The story depicted on these relief bands is based on the Kiratarjuniya scenes. As is usual with Indian art, There is nno clear-cut sequence in the story. This might be due to the fact that such mythological stories whre very much popular in the society and since childhood a boy or girl, led by the parents, would easily identify these and put thenm in their proper perspective. there was also the tradition of story telling.

The large relief panel at Mamallapuram, south of the present city of Madras is a unique phenomenon in the Indian are on several counts, also noted for its epic quality.Unfortunately the scholarly world is divided, for nearly a hundred years, on its actual identificcation. While one group calls it as “descent of Ganga” scene, the other, “Kiratarjuniyam” panel. Both the stories are incorporated in the Mahabharata yet the “Kiratarjuniyam” is a main-stream spisode. But in either case it has ben represented as a cosmic event, that “all the world has turned out” to witness the event, a statement which is reflected by Banabhatta in his Kadambari describing the city palaces of ujjayani mentions the entire world, as it appeared on the painted wall. here in the Mallapuram panel, it is the animal kingdom which is projected, in a manner as though it is a Natural History Diorama…

Medieval temples are full of the Mahabharata scenes, which appear in Rajasthan, Gurjat, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Orissa. This shows a nation wide movement of such representation. The nara thara(“human band”) of the kailash Temple at Ellora of VIII century is replete with the Ramayana and Mahabharata scenes on its plinth. Here the frame story is shown at great length. Isolated scenes appear in the sun temple(XI Cent) at Madhera, Gujrat where several Mahabharata scenes are placed on the ceiling in small square shaped panels. Here a variety of Mahabharata scenes appear in crowded compositions. Similarly the Modhera Temple pillars have shallow niches where single figure depictions of the Mahabharata scenes appear. The lintels of the Ramappa temple (Rampet, Andhra PRadesh) have a few of the Pandava stories in great details.

The Amritesvara temple of the Chalukya-Hoyasala style (dated 1196 A.D.) has several Mahabharata Scenes like Arjuna driving on his chariot, Yudhisthira enthroned, the “Lakshagrihaepisode”, “Arjuna shooting the fish to win Draupadi’s hands”. This scene is popularly shown in the medieval Indian, Sculpture. The other interesting panel from the Hoyasala group is Arjuna shooting a volley of arrows.

Some of the Medieval Hindi texts inform us about themes of painting, including the Mahabharata scenes. There are invariably referred to the wall paintings: the earliest in date is the Sufi poem, Laur-Chanda by Mulla Daud (latter half of XIV century), where he mentiones the city of Lanka and other Rammayana scenes Besides he specifically mentiones the battle of scenes between the pandavas and Kauravas in addition to other folk stories etc. Qutuban’s Mrigavat(beginning of the XVI Century) referes simply to the Ramayana scenes. The Chhitai Varta could be of the same period or slightly later in date. This mentions a painter from Delhi who migrated to Devagiri (Daulatabad) and decorated the newly built palacewalls with a variety of scnes, including the Ramayana and Mahabharata scenes.

The Kiratarjuniya pained panel from the Lepakshi temple is a fine example of Vijayanagar school painting and is referred here just as a good example of that period.

Discovery of an illustrated manuscript of the aryanaka Parva Scetion of the Mahabharata (now in the Asiatic Society Library, Bombay) proved to be a major break through event in art history from several angles; it is a firmly dated manuscript, the date being equivalent to 1516 AD. The illustrations are also important as the very first known and dated examples of the proto Rajasthani painting.

The manuscript has nemerous illustrations which can be divided in two types: the wall painting tradition with snmall and long horizontal panels, (Known in carvings or painted wall surfaces since early times) or large rectangular scenes, corresponding to the “miniature” paintings tradition. One can loosly remark that the question of spatial length was totally left to the painter in colloboration with the scibe and the two together must have determined such picorialorganisational programming. The episodes run into small or big horizontal frames, each distinguished by primarily a monochrome back ground. Land scape is suggested by a standardized decorative trees or a wisp of cloud everhanging scene. Most of the frames have an extremely light type of an Architectural frame.

This manuscript is also noted for its pure landscope treatments, which are denied in the spisode-representations. This is introduced in course of the Pandavas wandering from one tirtha to the other during their exiled life. These are again small framed illustrations, yet they show an unprecedentedcreativity in the artist’s view of looking at nature and transforming the natural forms into a decorative form. In this process the scnes are, asif, electrified under this proces. A good example is the scene “Confluence of Ganga and Yamuna” at Allahabad-here the two rivers apear as winding ribons with mat-like decorative surfaces.

Abul Fazal records that the Emperor Akbar was undergoing a spiritual change in the seventies of the sixteenth century. He was at once exposing himself to various riligious tenets through their exponents. Both Hinduism and Indian Traditions attracted him equally, and as we know from Abul Fazl he remarked that the Hindu Epic were actual pieces of history and the episodes described in the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Harivamsa etc. were facts. He got these texts translated into Persian (in case of the Mahabharatra the translator was mulla Abdur Qadir Badauni, astaunch Sunni who abhorred Akbar’s this and similar “heretic” deeds) Akbar got the above three texts (along with other Hindu texts) beautifullydescribed and illustrated for his Royal Library. Both the Ramayana and Mahabharata illustrated editions were ambitiously produced, as these are large sized cidices, each haviing 125 or more illustrations, Where Akbar’s master painters joined hands in depicting the scenes….

Akbar Razma Nama PAintings are one of the great achievements of Indian Art. A second Razma Nama series was also produced by the same artists, yet the great paintings. The series is dispersed, bears several names of the Akbari painters and dates in the late nineties of the sixteen century. What is significant here is that these paintings evolved original compositions and didi not base themselves on the Imperial edition, a special type of creativity.

Another patron was in Abur Rahim Khane Khana of Akbar court, noted for his developed taste, maintained his own atelier of artists…

Local schools of Rajasthan did not show as it apprears from the known examples, predilection for the Mahabharata illustrations and no valid explanation for his neglect is hanmdy since the Mewar court artists did produce an ambitious series of the Ramayana paintings. In Malwa style too the Ramayana and Krishnalila were favourite themes for illustrations, but not the Mahabharata. Perhapsthere was a tradition in the Hindu families that one’s association with the Mahabharata, would bring a family dispute. In mewar style, the local court school of painting took a mass-scale painting movement in the late seventeench and early eighteenth centuries. This coincided with the Hindu revival in the Rajput courts when they looked back to their past glory….

Centres in the Himachal Pradesh were actively producing paintings in their distinct sub-schoo;s. Among these the famous Nala Damayanti series donated by Maharaj Karn Singh Ji iis of great value, where the kangra art is at its highest, and we have a number if extremely sensitive depictionss. In the later period the Abhimanyu story gained popularity with the late Kangra school paintings when they produced sets after sets of paintings on the Abhimanyu episodes. They are mostly concerned with the battle scenes, while the paintings are in large-sized format. The colours are weak and the paintings hardly show any vitality.

This coincided with the emergence of Kashmir as a major centre of manuscript painting especially when pocket – book size copies after copies of the Pancha-ratna manuscripts were produced. These included Bhagvat-Gita and Bhishmastava-raja,m sections of the MAhabharata. Yet the scnes are standardized and therefore, lack in variety, possible the painters were just following the set examples….

This practically brings us to the end of the survey of Mahabharata scnes have been reported from stray examples in terracotta art of Bengal temples of the XVIII-IXX centuries. Modern painters of the Bengal school have also used the Mahabharata themes , yet that would require an independent study, since the Mahabharata story is permanently ingrained in Indian sensibilities.