A treasure trove from Assam

Print edition : July 29, 2005

A study and documentation of 34 manuscripts containing more than 3,000 paintings brings to light interesting facts about the rich tradition of Assamese manuscript painting.

Mount Meru shown as part of the "creation of the universe" in the famous manuscript Anadi Patan-PHOTOGRAPHS: RITU RAJ KONWAR

WHEN Alexander invaded Punjab, the Greeks discovered the Indian tradition of using the inner bark of trees and well-beaten cotton cloth as writing materials. It is believed that the Greeks were also aware of Assam's rich tradition of making sanchipat (manuscripts) from the inner bark of the sanchi (aloe) tree. It is believed that the manuscripts were produced in Assam long before the 7th century A.D., through a complex, long and intricate method of preparation. This tradition is not known to have existed in any place apart from Assam.

From Bana's Harshacharita, written in the 7th century A.D., it is known that Bhaskarvarma, the king of Kamrupa, or ancient Assam, gifted to Harshavardhana, king of northern India, "volumes of fine writing with leaves made from aloe bark and the hue of ripe cucumber." Bana has mentioned that the gifts from Bhaskarvarma also included a pair of wooden panels, to one side of which were attached coloured pots of small gourds and brushes.

Samiran Boruah, curator of the Assam State Museum, who did the extensive study and documentation.-

The aloe tree is still found in plenty in several parts of Assam, and the oil extracted from its wood (agaru in Assamese) is exported to West Asia. But the rich tradition of using the inner bark of this valuable tree as writing material no longer exists. The historian Sir Edward Gait describes the craft of preparing manuscripts in Assam in A History of Assam: "A tree is selected of about 15 or 16 years' growth and 30 to 50 inches in girth measured about 4 feet from the ground. From this the bark is removed in strips from 6 to 18 feet long, and from 3 to 27 inches in breadth. The strips are rolled up separately with the inner or white part inside, and are dried in the sun for several days. They are then rubbed by hand on a board, on some other hard substance, so as to facilitate the removal of the outer or scaly portion of the bark. After this, they are exposed to the dew for one night. Next morning the outer layer of the bark (nikari) is carefully removed, and the bark proper is cut into pieces of a convenient size 9 to 27 inches long and 3 to 18 inches broad. These are put into cold water for about an hour and the alkali is extracted, after which the surface is scraped smooth with a knife. They are often dried in the sun for half an hour and when perfectly dry are rubbed with a piece of burnt brick. A paste prepared from matimah (Phaseous raditus) is next rubbed in and the bark is dried yellow by means of yellow arsenic. This is followed again by sun drying, after which the strips are rubbed as smooth as marble. The process is now complete and the strips are ready for use."

A mythical mountain in Anadi Patan.-PHOTOGRAPHS: RITU RAJ KONWAR

INTERESTING facts about the tradition have come to light following an in-depth study and documentation of 34 manuscripts containing more than 3,000 paintings, by Samiran Boruah, a painter and the curator of the Assam State Museum in Guwahati. The documentation and the study were facilitated by a grant from the India Foundation for the Arts, Bangalore. A digital catalogue of the documented manuscripts will soon be available for the public at the museum.

Preparing hengul-haital, the only colour that is traditionally used in the manuscripts.-

Even though the documented manuscripts were done in the 17th and 18th centuries, they represent an older tradition, which is close to the western Indian tradition. Most scholars thought until recently that the Assamese school was a derivative of the Pala school. The Art historian and scholar Moti Chandra, while commenting upon the paintings of the 10th Book of Bhagavata of Bali Satra (Satras are the Vaishnavaite monasteries of Assam which still preserve a large number of Assamese manuscripts), once opined that they were similar to the 18th century Nepali and Bengali paintings. Samiran Boruah, however, by citing the paintings of the same manuscript, established that the composition of those paintings were structurally closer to those of the 15th century manuscript of Laur Chandra and the 16th century manuscript of Mrigavat in Bharat Kala Bhawan in Varanasi, both of which belong to the western Indian tradition. Boruah also established, by citing some peculiarities of the Assamese school, that it had originated before the Persian influence was in vogue in North India. According to him, pictorial abstraction is one of the significant features of the Assamese school. He cites an example from the manuscript Anadi Patan, which abounds with abstract pictures: "This is quite unique in the sense that nowhere in India similar abstract visualisation is found except in the illustration of the Jain manuscript Trailokya Dipika, with which it shares some remote connection. Both these manuscripts deal with cosmology. But the illustrations of Trailokya Dipika are mostly mathematical drawings lacking any organic and visual quality. In contrast, the illustrations of Anadi Patan are quite organic and exceptionally rich in pictorial quality enabling them to stand independently without the aid of their intended signification." Both the Jain and Assamese manuscripts, belonging to two areas separated by a vast geographical expanse, deal with the same subject and in both cases the illustrations are abstract in nature. The absence of any such manuscripts in areas between them indirectly points to a very remote common tradition that has been destroyed in the turbulent north-central India but survived in two extreme edges of the country.

Examining the Hathi Puthi manuscript at the Auniati Satra Museum at Majuli, the world's largest riverine island situated in the middle of the Brahmaputra in Upper Assam.-

Before arriving at these conclusions, Boruah studied the collection of early Indian miniatures at the Bharat Kala Bhawan and took a number of photographs for a comparative study with the Assamese paintings. An interesting Ragamala manuscript belonging to the early 16th century has been identified as a very important piece of evidence regarding the date of the Assamese manuscript paintings. This manuscript provides the unmistakable evidence that the so-called Mughal turban, which is common in many Assamese paintings, is a pre-Mughal phenomenon. Besides, a study was made of Mitharam Bhagavata (c.1575), Lalurchand (1597) and Mrigavat (1525-40), preserved at the Bharat Kala Bhawan. It helped Boruah list the characteristics of Assamese paintings of the 17th century as follows:

Krishna confronts Naraka, from the manuscript Parijatharan.-

The general composition consists of a large central area generally painted red where the subjects are depicted, and a narrow surrounding border in green or blue, a border at the top, forming a series of canopies over the central area. There is no attempt to differentiate the various planes. Though red is invariably used as background colour, in exceptional cases yellow, pink and blue are also used. The male and female figures are always conventional and except in the portrayal of Brahma, all figures are depicted in profile. The male costume consists of a dhoti and a scarf hanging from the neck with its two ends falling freely over the shoulders on either side. The female costume consists of a mekhala (long skirt) and a riha (scarf) tied around the waist and bosom, which runs further behind to cover the hair knot, forming a balloon-like appearance. The male headgear consists of a three-pointed or four-pointed tiara in some cases and the atpati-type turban. The treatment of landscape is always conventional. Water is always painted in a basket pattern inside squares and rectangles. Trees are generally painted like sprays. Mountains are depicted as piles of multi-coloured convex bodies. The depiction of animals and birds are both conventional and naturalistic. The architecture is very simple, consisting of a cross-section view of the Assam type house with roofs and supporting pillars. In many cases, instead of drawing the complete house, the door alone is decorated. In rare cases even a single pillar is depicted independently. The umbrella is depicted as hanging from a hook-like handle.

A page from the Hathi Puthi manuscript.-

Another characteristic feature of the Assamese school is the representation of the landscape independently. Such pure landscape is a rare phenomenon in other schools. "Documented manuscripts belonging to the 18th century form a style in which the 17th century elements as well as the Rajput-Mughal elements have been found to converge in a unique manner. The flavour of the Rajput-Mughal idiom when translated from its vertical format to the horizontal format of the Assamese manuscript and being blended with the local idioms, naturally resulted in a unique style. In this group of manuscripts, green seems to have replaced red as the background colour. Besides, many shades of colour hitherto unknown to the Assamese painters began to appear in most of the paintings," said Boruah. The best example in this group is the manuscript of Brihad Usha Harana at the Budhbari Satra. In this manuscript, the pakari flavour is very clear. The manuscript contains some pictures in which Chitralekha is shown engaged in painting portraits. Such paintings inside paintings are a rare phenomenon. The 17th century convention of dividing the composition into the central area and the surrounding border has almost been abandoned in this group of paintings. But here, an attempt to differentiate the various planes of the composition is clear. But in spite of this effort of defining the perspective, most of the paintings lack the depth that is found in the Rajput-Mughal idioms.

Miniature paintings of the Assamese school have invariably remained in horizontal format while in other parts of India they changed to the vertical format. Another important feature of the Assamese manuscript is its calligraphic elegance, which led to the evolution of four stylistically distinct types of Assamese scripts - Gargaiyan, Bamunia, Lahkari and Kaitheli.

Students learn manuscript painting at a workshop organised by the Sankardev Kalakshetra in Guwahati.-

According to Boruah, Hindus took to calligraphy seriously in the rest of India only from the 18th century and under the influence of the Mughal court. Three important research institutions of Assam - the Assam State Musuem, the Kamrupa Anusandhana Samiti and the Department of Historical and Antiquarian Studies in Assam - have good collections of Assamese manuscripts. Besides, the British Library in London has a collection of 13 Assamese manuscripts, of which three are illustrated. Numerous manuscripts are still in private hands and in the Satras in Assam and have been on the brink of getting lost as they have been exposed to the vagaries of nature. Unless these are collected, documented and preserved for a detail study, a treasure trove of Assamese culture will be lost forever.

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