Vedic Art: Indian Miniature Painting, Part 3


Bodhisattva Maitreya
Ashtasahashirika Prajnaparamita (Perfection of Wisdom)
West Bengal, Pala period, early 12th c.

Dec 05, 2016 — CANADA (SUN) — A serial presentation of India's artistic legacy in paintings, sculpture and temple architecture.

11th to 12th Centuries (Continued)

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. To achieve 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. Since the subjects treated were mainly gods and goddesses, the painter had to follow the iconographical injunctions of the Sadhanamala and other texts. However, they left glimpses of their own aesthetic preferences in spaces where trees, architectural and other forms were painted around the deities as background. Most of the Buddhist deities were done in yellow or deep red colours, the backgrounds mostly in yellow or red.

The Sadhanamala ('A Garland of Means for Attainment') is an 11th Century Sanskrit compendium of iconographic descriptions. In Buddhism, it serves as the preeminent text for artists painting mandalas on thangkas or in sand. It sets forth details about how the deities are to be represented in form, paraphernalia, pastimes, etc. Sadhanamala specifies four stages by which a deity comes into being through the creative process: the artist/initiate's experience of emptiness (sunyata); his experience of the deity as subtle sound (mantra); inward vision of the deity; and its external representation as a work of art.

In a future segment, we will endeavour to summarize aspects of the iconography found in later Vaisnava paintings and sculpture from Bengal that have an identifiable correlation to the standards set down in Sadhanamala, as depicted in Bengal's Buddhist artworks of this period.

Even after thousands of years, a surprising number of illustrated Pala manuscripts have survived. This fact alone provides an idea about the strength and productivity of the art during the Pala rule, an era in which a bountiful creation of images in stone and metal were produced. The number of miniatures delineated on dated manuscripts that have been found thus far comes to more than three hundred. If paintings of undated manuscripts are added, the number increases further.

These manuscripts were written and painted on palm leaf pages. Palm leaf is a fragile material, and therefore many of the manuscript pages are now in a brittle state. In comparison with later palm leaf manuscripts, however, those of the Pala period are better preserved. This is because they were made of the best quality 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.

The leaves were processed for use over the period of a month or so, being kept under water, and then dried. The leaves were then smoothed by abrading a conch on them, then they were cut into pieces of a desirable uniform size. The leaves were perforated with holes for the binding cord, then written and painted upon.

The scribe would write five to seven lines of text, following along the length of the leaves on each page. Spaces were left for painted illustrations, where needed. On one leaf-page, three paintings were often drawn, about 6 cm x 7 cm each, one placed in the centre and two on the flanks. Some manuscripts have only two paintings on the sides.


Sources: Excerpted and paraphrased from:
Ministry of Culture, Government of India
Sarasikumar Saraswati, Palyuger Chitrakala, Calcutta, 1978
Jeremiah P Losty, The Art of the Book in India, London, 1982
Asok Bhattacharya, Banglar Chitrakala (Bengali), Calcutta, 1994
Claudine Bautze-Picron, 'Buddhist Painting During the Reign of Harivarmadeva in Southeast Bangladesh', Journal of Bengal Art, 1999


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