Chaitanya’s new volume, edged in a glossy royal blue, is the fourth in a series of five which venture to span Indian painting—beginning from pre-historic rock paintings to the ‘modern temper’ of the Tagores, of Shergil and Jamini Roy. The author’s credentials need no elaboration and his erudition rides high despite the modesty of the blurb on the dust jacket—perhaps to popularize the sale of a scholar’s work:
(this series) has been speci¬ally designed as a project with maximum clarity and reach of communication, so that the layman may fully benefit from a legacy which has for too long been monopolized by the formid¬ably erudite.
Pahari Traditions covers the area once known as Trigarta and ruled by thirty-eight mountain principalities within the valleys of the Rabi, the Beas and Sutlej rivers. A map of this region would have been very useful to understand the inter-relations between the kingdoms. The reader has to travel with Chaitanya, imagin¬ing his own directions: ‘From Madhopur, a difficult road winds up rugged terrain to Basohli…’ or ‘… the Nurpur Fort, impressive in spite of its ruin, resting on a massive boulder overlooking the Jab-bar Khan, a tributary of the Chakki, which debouches from the hills of Dalhousie and Chamba.’ Nevertheless, once at the destinations, travels prove rewarding. The author wears his scholarship lightly — often with a lively humour that for¬ever takes us away from pro¬venance and dates, reminding us’that the idea is to enjoy the essence of the paintings and not be lost in the quagmires of debates that surround them: ‘…The controversy about the names of patron and artist is not of any crucial importance.’
An exception to this approach is Chaitanya’s attitude to Karl Khandalavala. Nothing that the latter has written escapes the author’s scrutiny. Khandalavala’s contention that the Pahari school is influenced by the Moghul style and not by the Rajasthani meets with much opposition. After enumerating the incongruencies in Khandalavala’s theories, Chaitanya admits his almost vicarious pleasure in running him down:
The conflict of dogma and realism makes the whole analysis extremely am sing reading if you are an irreve¬rent type like me, and revealing reading if you are an intellectual and have read Freud on traditionalism.
There are recurring digs like:
As all this was before Khandalavala’s time and there was also no one to give them a stern warning, on pain of death, to continue their contacts to Moghul artists and not go fraterniz¬ing with Rajasthani pain¬ters….
It would look as if one can bet on Khandalavala vio¬lently rejecting what is essentially his own view, if unfortunately someone else also happens to express it.
But since we are not work¬ing on a case history of obsession, let us not worry any more about these amus-ing self contradictions.
Readers must wonder why they have been chosen to wit¬ness what seems a long-stand¬ing intellectual rivalry(?). It would be interesting to read what Khandalavala has to say in defence—or in counter attack!
But Chaitanya’s capacity to laugh is not restricted to the others alone. After taking us through much controversy and debate, he writes:
But the present writer, no doubt under the pressure of some repressed inferiority feeling, due to his keen awareness of the fact that he is utterly incapable of understanding why dispro¬portionate time and energy should be spent on such issues, must have unconsci¬ously felt the urgent need for raising the general level of scholarship of this chro¬nicle by referring to an argument of five decades’ standing.
Chaitanya’s hypothesis would have us believe that the Pahari school originated in Basohli through a synthesis of three styles: the Kashmir branch of the mural tradition; early Rajasthani painting; and the dis¬tinctive facial type modelled after Sangram Pal of Basohli.
In his account of the Nurpur school, the author narrates a touching story of the brave Ram Singh Pathania who was exiled by the British to Singapore and whose house—which had a fine collection of paintings—was badly burnt. Ram Singh had staunchly con¬fronted the collapse of his political ambitions but he broke down and wept bitterly when he learned of the damage to his paintings. The book is full of relevant anecdotes which carry us through the history of the entire region with a marvellous flourish that combines scholarship and travelogue, story telling and education on the subtleties that distinguish one Pahari school from another Kangra, Chamba, Garhwal, Kulu, Bilaspur enchant the reader—and a host of lesser known centres are included to interest the initiated. Chaitanya sums up in the introduction the dis¬tinction between the fresh palette of the hill school and the Moghul and Rajasthani styles:
The freshness of the ambi¬ence, the clean and unspoilt nature, the stronger persis¬tence of the simpler pattern of life, the essentially pasto¬ral tenor of traditional living, seem to have been the deep, secret founts from which Pahari painting deriv¬ed its clarity of form and luminosity of colour.
However, the author conceals his trump card till the conclud¬ing chapter entitled ‘Major Themes of Pahari Painting’. Beginning in agreement with a quote from Coomaraswamy (and as usual in discord with Khandalavala), he argues that while Moghul art was at home only in the portfolios of prince¬ly connoisseurs, Rajput paint¬ing fused the folk art of India with hieratic and classic literary traditions and emerged as the culture of the whole race, equally shared by kings and peasants. It is here that Chaitanya’s multi-disciplinary mastery over poetry, music and painting is shown at its best. His comparisons between our classical tradition and that of the West will be of interest to both cultures. ‘The range and depth of the Krishna myth’ which epitomizes both mater¬nal and carnal love, at another level becomes a sensuous alle¬gory of the soul’s yearning for God—and is compared to the western tradition:
In the religious art of Europe, the shadow of the Cross falls on the cradle and the Pieta is a more central motif than the Madonna and child. Innumerable scenes of the Nativity have been painted and many of them are supreme examples of the artists’ capacity for evoking tenderness and reverence. But they are, almost invari¬ably, restrained by a latent melancholy, a sensing of the awful end.
The author’s appraisal of ero¬tic symbolism adopted for spiritual yearning is amusing. He comments:
It may be unconscious sexual repression rather than genuine spiritual longing that led to the choice of the metaphor which then anchors the imagination and prevents it from soaring.
Often Chaitanya refers to his previous writings in the three preceding volumes of the same series. Since each of them are spaced some three years apart, it is expecting too much of the reader to recall them imme¬diately and to fit them in con¬text. This gives the reader the complex of a school boy who has forgotten his lessons. Wherever a short precise of the previous writing is provided, it makes more convenient reading. In an interesting ob¬servation, the author is sur¬prised to find that the varie¬gated Indian painting tradition missed out articulating our musical legacy in a ‘rhythmic dance of abstract shapes’. He concludes:
Remembering the failure to explore the possibilities, of emotive expression through abstract colour and pattern, we have to admit that the Ragamala painting may not be the most perfect visualiza¬tion of music.
The brilliance of the text is matched by the selection of the plates—many of which are fresh—but unfortunately, the printing lets them down badly. When will our books do qualitative justice to our tradi¬tion? At Rs. 400, the readers would be justified in expecting full colour plates, true to their original pigments. How else can our senses be excited by an art which is essentially visual? In the captions to the plates the use of initial capitals for some words and lower case for others is disturbing. Also, the sizes of the paintings, wherever available, would have been a useful aid.
Once the book is shut, the garish blue edge recalls cheap oleographs. The designer could have taken a cue from Coomaraswamy’s description of the Basohli school where it all started:
Aman Nath is Designer and co-author of Rajasthan: The Painted Walls of Shekhavati.