A delightful translation of the Gita Govinda was presented to the Western world by Sir Edwin Arnold in 1875. In its voluptuous imagery and passion, the nearest parallel to it could be found only in Solomon’s song of Songs in the Old Testament, and hence he called it the Indian Song of Songs. Earlier, it had been translated into English by Sir William Jones in 1792, but his translation remained buried in the learned Journal of Asiatick Researches of Calcutta. Jones was followed by the German poet Ruckert (1836), whose German translation is as near to the beauty of the original in form and matter as is feasible in any translation. Courtillier (1904) translated in into French. However, the real credit for bringing this Sanskrit poem to the notice of English speaking people goes to Arnold, and his English version of the Gita Govinda in rhyming verse ranks with his other great work, The Light of Asia. Puran Singh (1926) provided another translation of the great poem in blank verse, which was included in his Spirit of Oriental Poetry. Untrammeled by the limitations of metre and rhyming, it is very close to the spirit of the original. I came across this translation in 1952, when I was engaged in the quest for Kangra paintings, and was collecting whatever specimens had remained in the Valley with the Rajas and their relatives. It moved me greatly and I spent many happy hours reading and re-reading it. I was reminded of a reproduction of a painting of the Gita Govinda series in N. C. Mehta’s Studies in Indian Paintings, which I had seen in 1938. The scene was a nocturne with Radha and Krishna seated on a bed of leaves with the river flowing past the tryst in a gentle curve. How soft and tender, and yet warm in atmosphere! The colour was glorious, a wonderful soft blue, and the painting had a mysterious beauty which haunted me (Plate XIV). The painting reminded me of the beautiful countryside of Alampur, Tira- Sujanpur and Lambagraon in the Kangra Valley where the Beas, the river of romance and destiny, gently flows, flanked by low green hills. Here in these villages lived the artists of the great Sansar Chand, in communion with Nature, realizing the sense of mystical affinity between the life of nature and the life of man, and between the beauty of flowers and the beauty of love. They were seekers of sunlight and life, and they gave us an art which is an expression of love, beauty and truth.
Since India became independent, considerable interest has developed with regard to her achievements in the realm of art, in the past as well as in the present. All over the world also, there is a newly stirred curiosity about the art of India. To this situation, the Government of India responded in a generous and imaginative manner. I was asked by the Publications Division of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to present the material which I had collected in a book entitled Kangra Valley Painting which they published. In this book I was able to present forty masterpieces of Kangra painting, which I had discovered in the period 1950-54. This book was received with great joy by the lovers of painting. In fact, it paved the way for further work on this most delightful school of Hindu painting. Maharaja Manvindra Shah of Tehri-Garhwal, who resides in New Delhi, possesses the finest products of the Kangra School, and he was also delighted by the reproductions in Kangra Valley Painting. I met him in 1955 and suggested that the paintings of the Gita Govinda in his family collection, of which N. C. Mehta had published two in his book, should be printed so that they could be seen by the lovers of paintings the world over. He very generously accepted my request and placed the portfolio of his paintings at my disposal. Originally, the project of publishing the Gita Govinda paintings was taken up by the Lalit Kala Akademi in their programme. They agreed to publish an album with twelve reproductions in colour. Due to various reasons, it got delayed. Though this delay appeared very irksome at the moment, ultimately it proved to be a boon.
On a visit to Shantiniketan in September 1957, I got an opportunity of travelling to Kenduli also. The countryside of Birbhum where Kenduli is situated is truly enchanting in the month of September. The paddy fields stretching for miles appear like an ocean of green, studded with islands of mud-huts buried in groves of palmyra palms, bamboos, mangoes and tamarinds. The ponds are covered with dwarf white lilies, blue lilies and pink and red lotuses. In the sky were hovering the golden kites, the sankho chils, symbols of good luck. At the entrance of Kenduli is the temple erected by a Raja of Birbhum in the seventeenth century on the site of the poet’s home. It is an example of the nava-ratna or nine-towered type of temple, in which the central tower is surrounded by two sets of corner towers at two different levels. Three of the four towers at the higher level have disappeared, but otherwise the temple is in good preservation. The temple was declared a protected monument by the Archaeological Survey of India in 1915. Its facade is richly decorated with brick tiles representing the incarnations of Vishnu and scenes from the Ramayana and the Bhagavata. It is a good example of Birbhum terracotta art, with a carpet- like design, which is very pleasing. Inside the temple are two small images of Krishna and Radha on a platform below which is inscribed Jayadeva’s famous verse in Bengali script:
An old Brahmin priest seated in front of the images was reciting verses from the Gita Govinda.
On the last day of the month of Pausha and the first two days of Magha, i.e. about the middle of January, a fair is held in honour of Jayadeva, which is attended by a large number of Vaishnava pilgrims who sing ashtapadis from the Gita Govinda, and pay homage to Jayadeva, and the cowherd god Krishna.
About a furlong away on the bank of the Ajai river is a temple of no architectural merit, in which is preserved a square stone slab on which Jayadeva used to sit facing the river, in prayer and meditation, contemplating the beauty of the river, the monsoon clouds, the sunrise and the sunset. It is wrongly stated in the District Gazetter of Birbhum that “Jayadeva died at Kenduli where he lies buried.” A few hundred yards from Jayadeva’s temple is another temple under a large banyan tree in which there is a tomb of a tantric sadhu, which has possibly been mistaken for the tomb of Jayadeva. According to the inhabitants of Kenduli the tradition is that died at Vrindavana, where he had gone to spend the last days of his earthly journey. While leaving for Vrindavana he also carried with him his favourite images of Radha and Krishna, which he had recovered from the bed of the Ajai river.
This trip to Kenduli was emotionally very satisfying. Now I could feel the atmosphere of the land of birth of Jayadeva. In the following winter I visited Orissa, and saw the temple of Jagannath at Puri, where Padmavati danced. I saw the famous beach at Puri where Jayadeva wandered admiring the moonlight playing on the waves. In the villages of Orissa I also saw the screw-pines filling the air with their cool fragrance, and the beauteous asoka gemmed with bunches of flame-like flowers. The groves of palmyra palms, mangoes, and bamboos further reminded me of Jayadeva’s poem, and the trysts of Radha and Krishna.
In July 1958, I developed a programme of publications on Indian paintings with the Ministry of Scientific Research and Cultural Affairs of the Government of India. I was getting impatient at the delay on the part of the Lalit Kala Akademi in the publication of the album on the Gita Govinda paintings. I also felt, it was no justice to the great poem, as well as to the paintings, if they were published in the form of a small album. At this juncture I happened to meet Mr. Humayun Kabir, Minister for Scientific Research and Cultural Affairs, Government of India, and made a request to him to take over the Kangra Paintings of the Gita Govinda in the publication programme of the National Museum of India. I also suggested that the Gita Govinda in Sanskrit shoul be printed along with the paintings. He readily accepted my request. This happy accident, no doubt, resulted in the presentation of these paintings in a much better form.
My friend, Mr. W. G. Archer, happened to pay a visit to India in April 1960, and his advice further proved valuable in bringing out this book in its present form. We reached Hardwar on April 20, and from there motored to Narendra Nagar, the home of Maharaja Manvindra Shah, overlooking the Hrishikesha Valley with the river Ganga flowing at its feet. In this pleasant mountain retreat of the Maharaja, we saw his entire collection and also discovered the colophon of the painting which bears the name of Manaku, the artist who painted this series of paintings. With his customary generosity, the Maharaja further allowed the reproduction of seven more of his paintings, and for this I am deeply grateful to him.
I express my gratitude to Shri Bhanu Mehta for his kind permission to use photographs of some of the paintings from the collection of his father, the late shri N. C. Mehta. I am also grateful to the Lalit Kala Akademi for the loan of some of their blocks. Again, I am deeply indebted to Rai Krishnadasa for his permission to reproduce one of the finest paintings of the series (Pl. III).
In explaining the paintings and their texts, I have relied mainly on the translation of Sir William Jones, shorn of its archaic words and with many improvements suggested by Dr. Raghu Vira, the well-known Sanskrit scholar. Quotations from the translation of Sir Edwin Arnold, where they are relevant to the paintings, are also given. Texts of paintings, as well as the original Sanskrit poem are also provided. Mr. Archer has been kind enough to write a very valuable Introduction which will clear for good the fog which had gathered around the inscription on the colophon of the Kangra Gita Govinda paintings. I am deeply grateful to him for the immense pains he has taken for this book, and for the guidance and help he has given me in my studies of the Kangra paintings. In fact it is his friendship and appreciation which kept me stimulated all these years, and launched me on this venture of writing monographs on the five great series of Kangra paintings.
The Times of India Press and Fram Poonawala of Commercial Art Engravers (P) Ltd. have spared no pains in providing faithful reproductions of the paintings. the layout of the book has been provided by Jyotish Bhattacharjee. Ajit Mookerjee gave a number of helpful suggestions in the design and layout. N. S. Bisht and O. P. Ghulati designed the jacket. Amrik Singh, Photographer of the National Museum, has provided photographs of some of the paintings which serve as illustrations to the introductory chapters. The manuscript has been typed by Satya Paul, L. Rajagopalan and S. Viswanathan, my Personal Assistants. Mr. G. U. Mehta of Vakil and Sons (P) Ltd., assisted by S. M. Desai, has taken personal interest in the production of this book. Proofs have been seen by Dr. P. Banerjee. I convey my gratitude to all of them for their collaboration. Last but not least I express my grateful thanks to Dr. Grace Morley, Director, National Museum and Mr. T. A. Krishnamurti, Deputy Secretary, Ministry of Scientific Research and Cultural Affairs, Government of India, for the interest they have taken and the support they have given to this programme of at publications.
Here is the finest gift from India, her most delightful poetry, and her most beautiful paintings. I have no doubt that this book will be enjoyed by many people. It will bring home to them the serenity and calm of the Kangra Valley, her gentle hills and valleys, and the sensuous charm of Bengal in the form of her greatest poem.
In the history of Indian painting two patrons impress us by their strangely similar qualities. The Mughal Emperor Akbar was fourteen when in 1556 he succeeded his father, Humayun. Raja Sansar Chand of Kangra was only ten when he followed his father, the somewhat colourless Tegh Chand, in 1775. Each was fashioned by his court yet each proved himself the greatest member of his line. Akbar vastly extended the Mughal empire, absorbing the whole of northern India. Sansar Chand outdid his mighty grandfather, Ghamand Chand, controlling, at the height of his power, the southern half of the Punjab Hills. The Kangra ‘empire’ was no larger than a Mughal province, yet despite this different in scale, it reflected the same masterful qualities. Its ruler possessed astute brilliance, complete understanding of his rivals, a need for private grandeur and a desire to leave some personal impress on the culture of his day. Akbar had these same characteristics to which were joined a love of luxury, delight in women and response to religion. Both were endowed with a sense of poetry but nowhere is their similarity more apparent than in their attitude to painting.
Profiting by his father’s abortive attempts to found an Indian Imperial style, Akbar assembled a group of Indian artists and imbued them with his own zest. He framed a clear programme and by energetic direction brought into being one of the greatest styles of Indian painting. Separate pictures were not excluded but the finest achievements of his rule were great sets –the Hamzanama, the Akbarnama, the Ramayana, the Razmnama – in which one manuscript after another was embellished with vivid illustrations.
The same appreciation of masterly sequences was characteristics of Sansar Chand. Assembling like Akbar a group of artists, he evoked a whole variety of pictures, redolent of poetry, religion and romance. In Akbar’s studios two master-artists –Abdus Samad and Mir Sayyid Ali-played a major part in first establishing the new style. They were succeeded by later masters, such as Manohar and Basawan, whose genius marked the closing years of the reign. In Kangra, a few great masters also dominated the scene, and it was these who evolved, singly or jointly, the great Kangra style. Their manner can be seen in separate pictures, but it was the creation of large sets at Kangra, which brings us to the final similarity between Mughal painting under Akbar and Kangra painting under Sansar Chand.
Like Akbar, Sansar Chand sponsored illustrated copies of certain great texts-the tenth and eleventh books of the Bhagavata Purana, the story of Nala and Damayanti, Jayadeva’s great poem, the Gita Govinda. Bihari’s verses, the Sat Sai, and a full-scale Ragamala. Marvelous as individual pictures may have been, it is the sustained quality of these five great sets, which gives to Kangra painting its stature.
Amongst these sets, the Kangra Gita Govinda is unique. Unlike the Bhagavata Purana –the subject of Dr. Randhawa’s previous study –it does not describe the whole career of Krishna, his childish pranks, encounters with demons and god-like interventions. It fastens rather on his role of supreme romantic lover. Picture after picture follows Jayadeva’s text, where beauties stricken with love delight in Krishna’s presence. The violence of love, its strenuous combats, is avoided. Ladies languish with grief yet even at moments of despair their innate breeding precludes recourse to rough or brusque gestures. Faces are noble and serene, figures tall and graceful, stances exquisite and poised. Radha is the heroine, yet every woman is a princess imbued with idyllic grace. Each receives tender respect, each is delicately appraised. Krishna’s intimate caresses, his quick skill, his gentle insistence blend with the flowering landscape to create an atmosphere of loving adoration. Nowhere else does Kangra painting attempt so vast a survey of romantic encounters or express with quite such tender poetry its passionate adhesion to the cult of love.
But another, quite different circumstance gives this set unusual importance. The Bhagavata Purana is unhappily dispersed. It possesses no colophon and neither its date of composition nor the artists who executed it have been recorded. The same applies to the Nala-Damayanti drawings, Bihari’s Sat Sai and the Kangra Ragamala. The greatest sets of pictures at Kangra, in fact, are anonymous. There is only one exception and that is the Kangra Gita Govinda. The opening picture bears a Sanskrit verse, quoting an artist, a patron and a date. Alone, then, of all the great Kangra series this is a set which seemingly provides us with a vital inscription. Yet, when we scrutinize it, we find that, instead of 1780-the date which, on grounds of style, we might expect it to bear –the date given is 1730. And to add to the problem, the whole verse is the same as one inscribed on a second Gita Govinda series from another Punjab Hills state, Basohli. The date of this Basohli series may well be 1730, and there can be little doubt that it was for this particular series that the verse was originally composed. The Kangra Gita Govinda is unique in Kangra painting from the very fact of possessing such an inscription, but, for some mysterious reason, the inscription which it bears is not a new one but the copy of an old one.
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