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Visual Aesthetics of Vaishnava Literary Culture of Assam

An Analysis of the Chitra Bhagavata in Assamese

The present study attempts to focus on the visual aesthetics of the Vaishnava literary–devotional culture of Assam that developed and prospered between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries of the Christian era. The period signified a major exposure of Assam to the pan-Indian Bhakti movement, and two visionary-saints, namely, Sankardeva (AD 1449–1568) and his disciple Madhavdeva (AD 1489–1596) took on the mantle of fashioning a new devotional order in Assam called nava-vaishnavabaad or neo-Vaishnavism. It was a significant social–cultural event in the history of medieval and early modern Assam, and it continues to exert a deep and sustained impact on the expressive cultures of almost all the major and minor communities of Assam. In accordance with the missionary nature of this sectarian devotional order, primarily engaged in proselytisation, a marked inclination towards the visual–performative medium of dissemination was visible right from the onset of the neo-Vaishnavite movement towards the closing decades of the fifteenth century. The development of a new visual poetics, embedded within plural epistemological frameworks, was a significant component of this process, and, based on this understanding, the present study takes for its study an illustrated Assamese manuscript of the Chitra Bhagavata composed sometime in the Saka year 1461 (or AD 1539), most likely, in the Bali Sattra (a Vaishnavite monastery) of Nagaon, Assam. In the process, it shall also touch briefly upon the oral and performative elements, both possibly signifying experiential and embodied forms of knowledge, within the precolonial Vaishnava literary culture of Assam as well as the institutional structure of this sectarian order and its interface with the Ahom royal culture, all of which were interconnected through a network of vigorous cultural exchange and negotiation.

The study of “visual aesthetics” opens manifold possibilities for a collaborative understanding between the study of literature and the visual arts through one or more kinds of “medialities” that we should be able to identify and differentiate, namely, “multimediality”, “transmediality”, and “intermediality”. Quoting from Kattenbelt (2008), Satyanath (2021) defines them in this manner: “‘multimediality’ refers to the occurrence where there are multiple media in one and the same object; ‘transmediality’ refers to the transfer from one medium to another medium (‘media change’); and ‘intermediality’ refers to the co-relation of media in the sense of mutual influences between media” (p. 64). However, we must note that it is difficult to segregate them as distinct types of medialities, and hence they often merge and integrate with one another. All three modes of medialities assume a kind of movement between the associated media or mediums, and, at the same time, visualise them as tied by a symbiotic relationship with each other. They cohabit with and supplement each other. Therefore, for the sake of our understanding here, we shall use “multimediality” as a convenient term representing the three types of “medialities,” while being conscious at the same time of their respective denotations. As far as the study of illustrated manuscripts from a multimedial perspective is concerned, it can be argued that the integration of diverse expressive registers gives rise to a polyvalent situation where images, sounds, and gestures originating from various sources interact with one another.

The Chitra Bhagavata, along with Gita-Govinda and Hastividyarnava (an illustrated treatise on elephant lore), are notable among the illustrated Assamese manuscripts epitomising the joint engagement between literature and visual arts in medieval and early modern Assam. The royal courts (of the Ahoms, the Koches, and the Kacharis), and the sattras (the institutional base of Vaishnavite devotional order) were the two prime sites from which emerged the artistic and literary compositions in Assamese during the stated period. Whereas Chitra Bhagavata was produced and subsequently preserved in the Bali Sattra of Nagaon, Assam, both Gita-Govinda and Hastividyarnava were composed under the Ahom royal patronage. The Chitra Bhagavata and Gita-Govinda represented two marked yet related styles of painting that emerged in Assam between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, namely, the Sattriya and the Garhgaon or Rajaghoria (royal) styles/schools of painting. The Sattriya style had its genesis during the early years of the seventeenth century, and the Chitra Bhagavata is one of the earliest specimens of the school. At one place in the manuscript, the Saka year 1461 (or AD 1539) is mentioned as the date of its composition. However, Kalita (2014) questions the truthfulness of the information and considers the date to be an insertion by someone at a later period (p. 22). He is of the opinion that the text was possibly composed and illustrated sometime after 1662, around the time of Mir Jumla’s invasion of Assam (p. 28).

The immediate source for the illustrations of the Chitra Bhagavata was Sankardeva’s translation of selected portions from dasama skandha (tenth book) of the Sanskrit Bhagavata Purana into old Assamese. He was particularly interested in translating those passages which depicted the childhood leela of Krishna. The aspect of the visual was a crucial component of Sankardeva’s missionary enterprise and contributed immensely towards the realisation of the multimedial experience that he sought to create and disseminate among the people. With reference to the Chitra Bhagavata manuscript recovered from the Bali Sattra, Neog (1986) notes that, “[t]he technique and finish of the work exhibit Rajput–Mughal influences, although here and there local conventions are naturally to be expected inasmuch as practices in Assam amounted to an independent school” (p. 7). At the same time, Neog is careful not to posit the Assam style as an extension of the Mughal school; he however concedes that the influence of the Rajput–Mughal features did exist within the courtly style of paintings, by which he meant the Rajaghoria subset of the Assam school of painting. The Chitra Bhagavata, on the other hand, reflected the efforts of an artist who inherited the vision propagated by Sankardeva himself, thereby emphasising the centrality of Krishna and his divine agency vis-à-vis the artistic endeavour. At times, this is visually represented by magnifying the persona of Krishna over other characters drawn within a single folio of the manuscript. The following image may be taken as a case in point.

(Figure 1: Credit: Chitra Bhagavata, p. 8)

This is the scene where Krishna appears in his magnificent form before Vasudeva and Daivaki in the prison cell and informs them about his impending birth as their son. The corresponding lines in the Assamese Bhagavata Purana 1953, p. 7) are: “kamala lochana chari bhuje chari ashtra/ kanthat koustava shove gawe pita bastra//” (The lotus-eyed [appeared] with his four arms adorned with the four insignias/ The koustava gem is shining on the necklace around his neck, and so is the yellow garment on his body [my translation]).The image of Krishna is drawn frontally as against those of Vasudeva and Daivaki, which are presented in profile. In this regard, Neog (1986) notes that, “The figures [in the Chitra Bhagavata] are mostly in profile. Sometimes the face part is profiled and silhouetted against the deep background while the body stands frontally” (p. 7). Following this argument, it may be deduced that while the front-on vision of the characters enables the artists to capture the body in motion (whether in conversation, in combat, or in dance/performance), the face-in-profile helps in navigating the gaze of the onlooker across the length and breadth of the visual panel inscribed within the folio. It must also be remembered here that, upon the horizontal oblong folios, the artist draws a sequence of succeeding events from left to right thereby presenting a linear visual text for the onlookers. At times, the succeeding images on the horizontal panel also signify movement of characters indicated by changes in postures or hand/leg positions.

As a representative text of the Vaishnava order, the Chitra Bhagavata is also inscribed within the multimedial universe perpetuated by the crusaders of the mission, spearheaded by Sankardeva. The image below depicting a gandharva dance (in the Sattriya style) will provide a perspective in this direction:

(Figure 2: Credit: Chitra Bhagavata, p. 68)

Against the monochrome red background in the image above, the figures are drawn upon the alekhya-sthana in shades of various colours which capture them in a state of performance using musical instruments, namely, the khol and the cymbals, thereby expressing a shared semiotic field of dance, music, and colour. The singularity of the human figures is emphasised by the arch patterns which seem to enclose them as if to fix our gaze upon their individual identities. The limited facial expressions of the figures are counterbalanced by highly meaningful use of mudras and bhangimas. As Neog (1986) notes, “[t]here is a rhythm in the scenes of musical and dance performances of Gandharvas, Vidyadharas and Apsaras. Attempts at symmetry are evident. Movements of groups are dynamically depicted” (p. 8). These illustrations provide illuminating insights into the practice of representing the leela or the divine sport of Krishna—more specifically, his childhood acts in the case of the Chitra Bhagavata—through performance. The Sattriya dance form provided the most effective platform for the articulation of this divine–performative discourse, and, as one could see in the modern context, it has broadened the scope and outreach of the said discourse from its original location within the sattra to the secular public sphere. Here, as Satyanath (2021) notes, “the text moves in to open space and anyone could be its audience, thereby further diversifying the public sphere” (p. 70). This expansion into the public sphere is also characterised by the representation within the “text” of body-centric dimensions of the Vaishnava culture, as evident from the pictorial representation of the gandharva dance.

Complementary to the illustrations as seen in the manuscripts is the presence of paintings, motifs, and reliefs depicting anecdotes and incidents from the Bhagavata Purana as well as from the massive vernacular corpus of Sankardeva and Madhavdeva inscribed upon the walls of the sattras and namghars, both being dynamic sites of religious and social-cultural interaction and activities among the Vaishnavite communities of Assam. Referring to the Chitra Bhagavata manuscript, Basil Gray (1953) attempts to contextualise the art-form vis-à-vis the earlier and contemporary schools of painting prevalent in eastern India. He observes that, “[t]he heirs of the medieval Pala tradition were in Nepal and Assam, as is indicated anew by the recently published series of miniatures to an Assam MS. of Bhagavata Purana, dated 1539 A.D. These show the figures in silhouette, the faces always in profile, against a strong red ground, and beneath carved arches. They clearly look back to the Buddhist MSS. of the Pala period, which are organised in the same way with figures in architectural niches” (p. 20). This visual presentation of the narrative in a style and matter resembling the architectural patterns provides a seamless transition of the viewer’s perspective from the “text” embedded within the manuscript to the one “seen” as depicted on the walls of a Buddhist or a Vaishnavite monastery. Here, what happens is that, as Satyanath (2021) notes, “in the absence of a verbal text, it is the viewer’s mental text(s), through a dense intertextuality, facilitates its mental reading, which is closer to Indian aesthetic experience, the rasanubhava” (p. 71). At the same time, these sites also become emblematic of the pluralistic social epistemologies at place since concerns of caste, gender, and even heredity and social status have also factored prominently in the continuation and sustenance of the sectarian ideology of Vaishnavism in Assam for the last five centuries or so. It may be noted in this regard that a great number of manuscripts continued to be preserved in the sattras or in personal collection of the devotees. These manuscripts were zealously guarded by the custodians in both individual and collective capacities, and it required a lot of efforts on the parts of early twentieth-century Assamese intellectuals engaged in the process of collecting and cataloguing old manuscripts to convince the owner(s) to part with their collections.

The pluralistic epistemology of manuscript-painting in Assam should also be studied within a broader sphere of influence and reception, particularly in its relation with the Mughal and Rajput styles of painting. In this regard, it will be appropriate to consider another illustration from the Chitra Bhagavata manuscript.

(Figure 3: Credit: Chitra Bhagavata, p. 119)

The figures in the image above are cloud-gods who are instructed by Indra to let loose a torrential deluge upon the inhabitants of Brindavan. However, one’s attention is immediately drawn towards the turban worn by and the facial features of the characters which portray a visible Rajput–Mughal influence. It may be noted in this regard that even though present-day Assam (particularly the Ahom kingdom) as a geopolitical unit was never part of the pan-Indian Mughal Empire, yet a series of Ahom–Mughal conflicts over a period of eighty years throughout the seventeenth century (1603–1682) provided an opportunity for artists, poets, and musicians, mostly belonging to the various Sufi orders, as well as merchants and traders, from the Mughal heartland to migrate into the Ahom and the adjoining kingdoms. Kalita notes that the head-dress depicted above was referred to as the mughlai-pag or even aurangzeb-topi based on the historical fact that Aurangzeb had presented a churpao-pag[1] to the Ahom monarch Chakradhwaj Singha (1663–1670) (25–26). He further observes that the headdress worn by performers during an ankiya bhaona is a simplified form of the mughlai-pag (26), thereby hinting towards the popularity of the Mughal-style head-dress as a cultural symbol in seventeenth-century Assam. Interestingly, at another place in the manuscript, the cloud-gods are also shown wearing a jama with a mughlai-pag, thus emphasising further upon the growing influence of the “Persian cosmopolis” (a term popularised by Richard Eaton) upon the artistic and cultural worldviews of the artists engaged in manuscript-illustration within the cloistered confines of the Vaishnavite sattras.

The Chitra Bhagavata thus signifies an important milestone in the history of illustrated manuscripts in early modern Assam. In the absence of any early history of painting within the Assam school during the period anterior to the sixteenth century, the Chitra Bhagavata provides a veritable window to the tradition of manuscript-painting as it could possibly have existed in the preceding centuries. At the same time, it also captures a moment of flux within the devotional–cultural history of seventeenth-century Assam that witnessed a significant turn towards accommodating a more secular sensibility in the areas of art and literature. This transition was further boosted by the gradual adoption of Hinduism by the Ahom kings in the seventeenth century. With Jayadhvaj Singha (AD 1648–1665) becoming the first Ahom king to formally adopt Hinduism, the “hinduisation” of the Ahoms became a significant factor in the increasingly mediatory role played by the kings in the monastic–missionary enterprise of neo-Vaishnavism. As noted by Kalita (2014), the reign of Rudra Singha (AD 1696–1714) was marked by a cordial relationship between the Vaishnavite sattras and the royal house (p. 33). In addition to embracing pan-Indian influences, as already noted, the king was also attentive towards expanding the horizons of Vaishnava art and literature in the post-Sankardeva period.

A study on the aspects of multimediality conceptualised and practiced within the Vaishnava literary culture of early modern Assam brings forth revealing insights on the symbiotic interplay between the oral, textual, performative, and visual dimensions—all integrated to present a cohesive aesthetic–religious experience to the bhaktas and the rasikas alike. The present study has endeavoured to locate and map a transitional process whereby the artistic and literary experience traditionally embedded within the Vaishnava culture gradually moved out of the monastic confines, encompassing a wider vision of creating art and literature under the patronage of a royal authority. The Chitra Bhagavata stands on the threshold of this transition, to be followed by the Gita-Govinda where one can locate a happy blending of the monastic and royal styles. A multimedial approach towards the study of Chitra Bhagavata thus opens exciting possibilities in the study of “comparative arts” with a more sustained focus on the twin aspects of influence and reception as regulating the interaction between the visual and verbal domains of expression. Furthermore, one also needs to pay attention to the aspect of social epistemology and its close interface with the areas of traditional knowledge systems involving multidisciplinary discourses relevant to the culture and society in question.


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Duttaboruah, Harinarayan (Ed.). (1953).Bhagavata Purana (Dasama Skandha [Adya]). In Harinarayan Duttaboruah (Ed.), Shri Sankara Vakyamrita. Duttaboruah Brothers & Co.

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Neog, Maheswar. (1986). Introduction A. In Kapila Vatsyayan & Maheswar Neog (Eds.),Gita-Govinda in the Assam school of painting (pp. 1–14). Publication Board Assam.

Satyanath, T.S. (2021).Towards comparing Indian writing culture. In Dilip Borah (Ed.),From ‘Vishwa’ to ‘Bharatiya’: New essays on comparative Indian literature (pp. 62–82). DVS Publishers.

Vatsyayan, Kapila &Neog, Maheswar (Eds.). (1986). Gita-Govinda in the Assam school of painting. Publication Board Assam.

[1]Churpao-pag is the corrupted form of the word sarpech-pag originally used to refer to the turban with a jewel or an ornament fixed at the front, which was popular within the Mughal court.

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