Pala Sculpture of Ancient Bengal, Part Three

BY: SUN STAFF


Dec 31, 2014 — CANADA (SUN) — A four-part survey of Ancient Bengal art and sculpture.

The earliest examples of Bengal painting are the twelve extant miniatures delineated on the palm-leaves of a manuscript of the Buddhist text, Astasahasrika-prajnaparamita, dated in the sixth regnal year of the Pala king, Mahipala I (c. 983 A.D.). This rare manuscript is now in the possession of The Asiatic Society, Calcutta.

There are two more painted manuscripts which belong to Mahipala I's reign, but they are later in date. Many more manuscripts with paintings belonging to the following two centuries have come to light. Since they were painted in a period when the kings of the Pala dynasty were ruling the region, they are also known as Pala-miniatures. Technically, these miniatures are so well done that it is impossible to believe that they are the earliest expression of the art in Bengal. They represent a mature style that could only have evolved through generations. But, lamentably, since painting is a very fragile medium, no extant specimen of it ascribable to a date earlier than that of the Palas has so far been discovered in Eastern India.

There is, however, a story in the Vitashokavadana section of the Buddhist text, Divyavadana, indicating that painting was practised in Bengal as early as the third century BC. According to it, the Nirgranthi-upasakas of Pundravardhana, a city in North Bengal, drew a painting showing Buddhadeva as prostrating before the feet of Nirgrantha (Gosala). For the audacious acts of the Ajivikas of the city, they were totally annihilated by Ashoka. Whatever may be the historical value of the narrative, it suggests the prevalence of the art of painting in Bengal even in the pre-Christian period.

The Pala rule in eastern India, which continued for about four hundred years (c. 750-1200 A.D.), saw the first consolidation of Bengal culture. In this period, Bengali genius expressed itself in various creative mediums - architecture, sculpture and painting. Since no painting of any earlier periods has been discovered, and since the practice of miniature painting persisted throughout the Pala period, and continued in a diluted style even after the fall of the dynasty, Pala painting is considered to be virtually synonymous with early Bengal painting.

The Pala kings were Buddhists, and remarkably liberal in their attitude to other faiths. In the days of the Palas, the Mahayana cult of the faith developed its Tantrayana-Vajrayana-Kalachakrayana aspects. The Pala miniatures are in a sense visual expression of these cults.

Surprisingly, even after a thousand years, quite a number of illustrated Pala manuscripts have survived. This fact itself provides an idea about the strength and productivity of the art during the Pala rule, which is well known for bountiful creation of images in stone and metal. For an estimate of the quantum of painting so far found it would suffice to state that the number of miniatures delineated on dated manuscripts alone comes to three hundred and more. If paintings of undated manuscripts are added the number increases further.

The manuscripts were written and painted on palm-leaf pages. Palm-leaf is fragile, and therefore many of them are now in a brittle state. In comparison with later palm-leaf manuscripts those of the Pala period, however, are better preserved. This is because they were made of the best quality of palm-leaves obtained from a variety of palms known as Shritada. The leaves of the Shritada are thin and elastic, and therefore less susceptible to breakage. They grow as long as 90 cm in length and 7BD cm in breadth. They were processed for about a month by being kept under water and then dried up, then made smooth by abrading a conch on them, and cut into size. After holes were perforated for the binding cord, they were written on and painted. The scribe wrote five to seven lines of the text following the length of the leaves on each page, but left out spaces for painting where necessary. In one page usually three paintings of the dimension of 6 cm x 7 cm were drawn, one placed in the centre and two on the flanks. In some manuscripts only two paintings on the sides have been found.

Painting is a very complicated art. But in comparison with murals, the technique of manuscript painting is simple. Usually a background colour was laid before the preliminary drawings, but in some examples the drawings were done directly on the leaf. The figures were then filled up with intended colours. For achieving modelling of forms, shades and highlights were applied. Then, and in accordance with the tradition of Indian painting, an outline was given in a shade close to the colour of the figure with a medium brush. Finally, fine outlines were drawn in black or red following the previous lines for modelling. The colours generally used were yellow, chalk white, indigo blue, black of the lamp-shoot, cinnabar red (sindura) and a green prepared by mixing blue and yellow. Most of the colours were tempered by adding a little white.

In determining the stylistic character of Pala painting, a reference to the account left by the Tibetan historian Taranath is of relevance. According to him, art reached a high watermark during the rule of two early Pala kings, Dharmapala (c. 781-821 A.D.) and Devapala (c. 821-861 A.D.), when two artists of Varendra or North Bengal, Dhimana and his son Vitapala, attained eminence. They were masters in image making in stone and metal as well as in painting. But in style. the son differed from the father. While Dhimana pursued the "eastern style", Vitapala painted in a style termed as "middle-country", which meant Magadha or South Bihar in the Buddhist tradition. Taranath's observation shows that the painting of eastern India of the Pala age had a recognized style with two distinct regional expressions of Varendra and Magadha. But to understand its character it will be necessary to refer to the classical painting of fifth-sixth century India.


Temple Mural
Badami, Karnataka, 6th century


Indian art reached its zenith during the days of the Imperial Guptas (c 320-675 AD) and their immediate followers. The murals of the period, as found at Ajanta, Bagh and Badami caves, are marked out as the best examples of Indian classical painting for their technical mastery and aesthetic superiority. The main stylistic characteristics of the classical paintings are the uninterrupted flow of rhythmic line and the fully developed modelling. The latter was achieved by the application of colours in terms of light and shade and the deft manipulation of line. The sculpture and painting of the classical period pursued the same artistic ideals and both emphasized plasticity and linearism. There is reason to believe that Dhimana and Vitapala revived classical art under the Palas, for Taranath records that Dhiman was a follower of the Naga style. One of the centres of Naga power was Mathura in North India, and the city is well known as the epicentre of Indian classical art.

The figures of the Pala-miniatures show similar emphasis on sculputesque modelling and rhythmic linearism. In fact, if the tiny miniatures are blown up they will show almost the same features of the classical murals with continuous lines and modelled forms; and for that they are clearly distinguished from the European miniatures which exhibit, among others, broken minute lines. The other significant aspect of the Pala miniature is that they follow artistic ideals similar to those contemporary images made in stone and metal.


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