India Through the Eyes of Europe, Part 2


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Mar 28, 2012 — CANADA (SUN) — A series on Western art expressions of traditional Vedic spiritual content.

Many of the images explored in this series were first rendered in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Some of the finest were first drawn and engraved by Bernard Picart, in his book entitled The ceremonies and religious customs of the various nations of the known world (London, 1733 - 1739).

The Picart engravings were exceptionally fine technical pieces, and became a standard for many of the European renderings to follow. For many years following Picart's "Ceremonies" publication, highly talented engravers copied his work for other books. In some instances artists reproduced the works in perfect replication, while other creatively altered them to add embodiments from other depictions of India's culture, Deities and environment.

Picart's work grew out of a literary movement among the Europeans known as the "travelogue" genre, which was a category of books and drawings that illustrated the travels of various European explorers who visited the Indian subcontinent. In the exhibition catalog from the University of Chicago show, we read the following:

"The servants of the Dutch East India Company who followed the English into north India entrusted the compilation of their earliest reports to Joannes de Laet (1593 - 1649), a Flemish geographer and naturalist. His De imperio magni mogolis, published at Leyden in 1631, details the geography and administration of the Mughul empire and includes more information than the English authors on Bengal and other eastern parts of the empire, on the imperial revenues and treasury, and on Mughul history. Later English and Dutch writers concentrated on the religions, cities, and trade of the province of Gujarat, the part of India they knew best. Of particular importance was Henry Lord's A display of two forraigne sects in the East Indies, the first European effort to study systematically the beliefs and practices of the Hindus and Parsis. Johan van Twist (d. 1643), chief of the Dutch factories in Gujarat, provided a detailed report on Gujarat and Bijapur during the 1630's that was first published at Amsterdam in 1646 in Isaac Commelin's collection known as the Begin ende voortgangh. The first substantial account of Orissa and Bengal was by William Bruton and it was published at London as Newes from the East Indies; or A voyage to Bengalla . . . (1638). It was shortly amplified in the work of the Augustinian friar Sebastião Manrique (d. 1669) called Itinerario (1649).

Once the outline of the Mughul empire had been delineated, the European authors of the latter half of the century concentrated on trading conditions in India and on the activities of the emperors Shah Jahan (r. 1628- 1657) and Aurangzib (r. 1658 - 1707). The best informed on trade was Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (1605 - 1689), a diamond merchant, who published his reminiscences in Les six voyages (Paris, 1676 - 1677). His fellow Frenchman François Bernier (1620 - 1688), who worked as a physician for eight years at the imperial court, published at Paris his Histoire de la dernière révolution des Etats du Grand Mogul (1670 - 1671). This work deals with the succession wars of 1655 to 1661 through which Aurangzib came to power as well as the emperor's conquests and other activities during the early years of his reign.

In the eighteenth century the mapping of India, its early history and antiquities, and the study of its religions, philosophy, and arts became of central concern to European authors. While travelogues continued to appear, they were supplemented by serious study of the genealogies of the Hindu gods and by translations of Sanskrit and Persian texts. Great attention was directed to India's monuments and cave temples; an article on the caves of "Elephanta" in Bombay harbor appeared in Diderot's Encyclopédie (1765). Studies were numerous comparing the gods and beliefs as well as the arts of India to those of the Egyptians, Greeks, and Jews. Particularly popular were the profusely illustrated volumes of Bernard Picart on The ceremonies and religious customs of the various nations of the known world (London, 1733 - 1739). From these comparative studies the conviction grew constantly stronger in Europe that India possessed one of the world's most ancient, enduring, and sophisticated civilizations."

One of the engravers who created exceptional copies of the original Picart pieces was sculptor Inigo Barlow, a London artist from the 1700's, who engraved illustrations for the Rees' Encyclopedia, published in 1791.

Barlow's work followed Picart's very closely, with a few most interesting departures. Barlow's departure in artistic style might be said to mirror the difference between an English artist (Barlow), and a Frenchman (Picart).

Lord Matsya

Today's example is a wonderful engraving of Matsya, Lord Visnu's fish Avatar. In the universally accepted Indian style, Lord Matsya is seen emerging from the mouth of a great fish, who has risen out of the waters of the cosmic ocean. As with Lord Varaha, the scene is set against a background of fields and hills that indicate the water is river rather than ocean. Instead of a celestial backdrop, we again have a very pastoral scene with shrubs, flowers and trees on a grassy slope. We can assume the artist suffered from an absence of knowledge about the cosmic creation, and simply followed other images depicting the scene.

The four-armed Lord Matsya holds typical paraphernalia of conch, chakra, sword (mace), and the Vedas. Lying on the surface of the water is the demon Hayagriva, whose disembodied head lies next to his conch-like body. While the demon's head is typical of traditional renditions, the conch body has a strong European style. This time, we see the conch's opening, which is subtle against the bold striations. Water pours out of the conch, draining out the demon's life force.

Four devas stand nearby, offering obeisances to Lord Matsya. Their descending size may have been influenced by images the Europeans had seen of the Four Kumaras. Above them, a four-headed version of the Trimurti is suspended, holding much of the same paraphernalia as Matsya Avatara.

The Picart engraving of Lord Matsya, and the subsequent Barlow renderings, were very likely inspired by an Indian Miniature painting of the scene. While a departure from the universally accepted, bona fide depictions of Lord Matsya's pastimes, this European pictorial is in relative range and is certainly a beautifully rendered piece that establishes the Lord's primeval potency in the lila.


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