Manuscript writing is a very old tradition of Assam. From Bana`s Harshacharita, belonging to the 7th century it is known that the gift from Bhaskarbarma, the king of ancient Assam, to Harsha included, inter alia, “volumes of fine writing with leaves made from aloe bark and of the hue of ripe pink cucumber”.
It is also known from Bana`s account that in Assam there was a tradition of painting miniature pictures. But there is no clear indication about illustrated manuscript in his account. Most of the scholars on Indian art believe that it is only from the 16th century that the Hindus started illustrating their manuscripts, long after the Buddhists and Jains. But it is known from recent investigation that there was a Hindu tradition of manuscript illustration in Nepal as early as 12th century AD. So the existence of such a Hindu tradition in Assam in an earlier date cannot be ruled out.
One of the most significant things about the Assamese manuscript is that the calligraphic elegance was considered as an important part of it. As a result four stylistically distinct types of Assamese scripts have evolved in different Assamese manuscripts. They were a) Gargaiyan, b) Bamunia, c) Lahkari and c) Kaithali. In this context it may be mentioned here that in rest of India it is only from 18th century that too under the direct influence of the Mughal court, the Hindus have taken the calligraphic excellence seriously.
The study of the Assamese painted manuscripts reveals that there existed two distinct schools of the paintings of Assam. Most of the paintings of the 17th century can be grouped together for their common features and they share some of the characteristics with the early western Indian tradition. Regarding the Bhagavata of Bali Satra, a well known Assamese illustrated manuscript which shows similar characteristics with the above group of manuscripts, Moti Chandra (“Reviews” in the Journal of the University of Gauhati, Vol. V, 1954) remarked that the paintings of the Bali Satra Bhagavata are similar to 18th century Nepal scroll and Bengal paintings. The documented paintings of the above group will prove Chandra’s view wrong. A comparison with some of the published 18th century Nepali and Bengali paintings show that the Assamese paintings are more closer to the 15th and 16th century North Indian tradition rather than to the 18th century paintings of Nepal and Bengal.
It may be pointed out here that many scholars believe that the North Indian style of painting have originated from the western Indian tradition. In this regards Karl J. Khandalavala and Moti Chandra had opined that the western Indian or Gujarati school was not a localized mode of expression confined only to Gujarat, Rajasthan, Malwa and Jaunpur, but had become a form of expression common to many parts of India (New Document of Indian Paintings, Prince of Wales Museum). The exact structural similarities of the compositions of some of the Assamese paintings of the above group with that of the Laur-Chanda (1450-1475AD) and Mrigavat (1525-1570AD) of Bharat Kala Bhavan proves beyond doubt that they have originated from the same tradition. But at the same time, some of the most conspicuous peculiarities of the Assamese paintings prove that the Assamese school had originated before the Persian influence became vogue in North India.
It is very significant that Bana in Harshacharita has mentioned that the gifts from Bhaskarvarma, the 7th century king of Kamrupa (present day Assam) to King Harsha has included a pair of wooden panels, to one side of which were attached colour pots of small gourds and brushes. Now there could be only one interpretation for the existences of these were that they were definitely used for painting miniatures. It proves that there was a tradition of small paintings in Assam as early as 7th century AD. It is curious that most of the scholars of Indian paintings have so far evaded such an interpretation. The documented 17th century manuscripts are undoubtedly the remnants of an old tradition. Some of the similarities of the Assamese paintings with those of the Western Indian and the Northern Indian schools may indicate that a more or less common style was popular in many parts of India during 7th century.
It is possible to compare a few more manuscripts of North India with the 17th century paintings of Assam. In Aranyaka Parvan (1516 AD) we find that the compositions are often staked in several panels one on top of the other in the same folio. In some of the Assamese paintings too we find several panels in the same folios, though not in an exact fashion. Besides, the depiction of the four-headed Brahma is similar in both the manuscripts. The Mahapurana from Palam (1540 AD) also share some common features with the Assamese paintings. Beside the similar palette, the almost identical male costume and the conventional ways of depicting the plants and animals are striking.
In an early Ragamala of Bharat Kala Bhavan (1575AD) also we find similar male costume. The turban depicted in this Ragamala is an indication that the so-called Akbari atpati turban, which abounds in Assamese paintings and which most of the scholars wants to associate with the Mughal school has really been in existence in Indian art from prior to the existence of the Mughal school. This view is further substantiated by the presence of an atpati type turban in a Sunga sculpture, the photograph of which was reproduced by Moti Chandra. (Pracin Bharat Ki Vesbhusa, Bharati Bhandar, Prayag,).
Norman Brown also reproduced a photograph of the 11th century sculpture bearing three male figures two of which were shown with turbans exactly similar to the so-called atpati turban (Early Vaisnava Miniature Paintings from Western India, Eastern Art, Vol-11, 1930).
Most of the scholars who have discussed about the Assamese manuscript paintings want to associate the turban of the Assamese paintings with the Mughal paintings. But they fail to see that except the turban no other elements of the Assamese paintings can be even remotely associated with the Mughal School. Conversely, there are many elements in the Assamese paintings, which are not found in the Mughal School or the Late Rajasthani School. Those who are really aware about the workings of the influences in the art forms will agree that it is not just simply picking up an element or two from the foreign source. In this case it is even more absurd to think that the Assamese painters have chosen just the turban, which is quite insignificant visually or from pictorial perspective, and ignored all the rich and fabulous attributes of the Mughal School.
The convention of the Assamese paintings of placing figures under arched canopies is also leading many scholars to wrong conclusions. They want to associate this tradition with the Buddhist paintings of the Pala School. But this convention also exists in the Western Indian tradition. In the manuscript of Sardhashataka (c.1125-1150 AD) and Mahapurana from Palam (1540 AD) similar arched canopies are noticed. It is also noteworthy that we find this similar convention in some rock cut sculptures of Assam belonging to the 10th -11th . On the other hand the canopies are not always arched in the Assamese paintings. In many case they are angular, forming step like pattern. In other cases, the canopies are rudimentary and exist just as a decorative element rather than for providing niches over the figures.
It can be presumed that even though the documented manuscripts have been done in 17th century, they really represent a very older tradition which is more closer to the Western Indian tradition. This can be supported by the existence of a particular manuscript, namely Anadipatan. This manuscript is probably done towards the end of the 17th century or early 18th century. In this manuscript we find quite a good number of abstract paintings. This is quite unique in the sense that nowhere in India similar abstract visualisation is found except in the illustration of the Jain manuscript Trailokya Dipika, with which it share some remote connection. Both these manuscripts deal with the cosmology. But the illustrations of the Trailokya Dipika are mostly like mathematical drawings lacking any organic and visual quality. In contrast, the illustrations of the Anadipatan are quite organic and exceptionally rich in pictorial quality enabling them to stand independently without the aid of their intended signification. But the important point is that both the Jaina and Assamese manuscripts belonging to two areas separated by a vast geographical expanse, deals with the same subject and in both cases the illustrations are abstract in nature. Absence of any such manuscript in the adjacent areas in between them, indirectly points to a very remote common tradition, which has been destroyed in the turbulent North-Central India and survived in two extreme edge of India.
The characteristics of the Assamese paintings of 17th century can be listed as follows:
The general composition consists of a large central area, generally painted red, where the subjects are depicted and a narrow surrounding border in green or blue, broader at the top, forming a series of canopies over the central area. There is no attempt to differentiate the various planes. Though red is used as background colour almost invariably, yet in exceptional cases yellow, pink and blue are also used.
The male and female figures are always conventional and except in the portrayal of Brahma, all figures are depicted in profile.
The male costume consists of a Dhoti and a scarf hanging from the neck with its two ends freely falling over the shoulders on either side. The female costume consists of a mekhala (long skirt) and a riha (scarf) tied round the waist and bosom that runs further behind to cover the hair knot forming a balloon like appearance.
The male headgear consists of three-pointed or four-pointed tiara in some cases and the atpati type turban.
The treatment of the landscape is always conventional. Water is always painted in basket pattern inside squares and rectangles. Trees are generally painted like the sprays. The mountains are depicted as piles of multicoloured convex bodies.
Depiction of animals and birds are both conventional and naturalistic.
The architecture is very simple consisting cross section view of the Assam type house with roofs and supporting pillars. In many cases, instead of drawing the complete house simply the door is depicted. In rare cases even a single pillar is depicted independently.
The umbrella is almost always depicted as hanging from a hook like handle.
The documented manuscripts belonging to the 18th century forms a style in which the 17th century elements as well as the Rajput-Mughal elements have been found to converge in a unique manner. The flavour of the Rajput-Mughal idiom when translated from its vertical format to the horizontal format of the Assamese manuscript and being blended with the local idioms, they naturally resulted in a unique style. In this group of manuscripts, green seems to have replaced red as the background colour. Besides many new shades of colour hitherto unknown to the Assamese painters began to appear in most of the paintings.
The 17th century convention of dividing the composition in to the central area and surrounding border has been almost abandoned in this group of paintings. But here, an attempt to differentiate the various planes of the composition is clear. But in spite of this effort of defining perspective, most of the paintings lack the depth that is found in the Rajput-Mughal idioms. However, the solidity of the body is fairly achieved in the depiction of male and female figures. The male and female faces are depicted in different ways. Some are depicted in profile, some in three-quarter and others in their frontal view. The costume, particularly those of the female became very elaborate and in many cases they became identical with the costume of late Rajasthani paintings. The plants and animals in this group of manuscripts are both conventional and naturalistic. Great varieties of flowering trees are found in some of the manuscripts of this group, which are quite unique and are depicted in ornamented decorative pattern rather than like natural plants. The depiction of the hills and mountains are also different from the 17th century manuscripts.
The architectural depiction is quite complex here borrowing elements from the Rajput- Mughal paintings. There are also instances where a new type of architecture has been found to have evolved from such borrowing. But there are also instances where, instead of the complete building, simply the door is depicted following the 17th century convention.
The chariots are depicted in many ways. In some cases they are like simple platform mounted on four wheels. In some cases they are elaborately decorated and are mounted on two wheels. While in some there are canopies overhead while in others there are no such canopies. The umbrella is differently depicted in this group from that of the 17th century hanging type.
It must be borne in mind that the main purpose of the traditional paintings of Assam were to supplement the text of the manuscripts. In other words they were the illustrations of the texts. As such artists were basically concerned on the content of the texts. So instead of creating new meaning with form and colour they were content with the already existing meanings of the texts. It is now hard to detect how much the artists were inspired even by the text itself. Because in most cases artists’ job was just to copy them from another manuscripts. There was a special class of people in Assam known as khanikar. They were both artist and the craftsman. Besides paintings they also made idols in wood. It may be pointed out here that the word pratima was applied indiscriminately to both sculptures and paintings. Khanikar also made masks to be used for theatrical performance.
The scribe of the manuscript was usually a different person called Lekhak. Generally he did the writing first and left blank spaces to be filled with illustration later, by the Khanikar. Lekhaks were invariably literate persons. But some Khanikars were illiterate as well. But he could all the same copy paintings as well as writings. So it is obvious that some times Khanikars did the works without fully understanding the essence of the text. But as all the themes of the manuscripts were part of the general folklore tradition of Assam the Khanikars were not totally unfamiliar with them. However to some extent such factors were also responsible in determining the nature and characteristics of the traditional Assamese paintings.
It is quite obvious from the above that for the full appreciation of the Assamese manuscript painting it is almost essential to know the accompanying texts of the manuscript. In many cases it is the text, which only gives the signification to the painting. Nevertheless there is always a kind of beauty in the Assamese manuscript paintings. It derives it beauty basically from its uniqueness and the provincial flavour of simplicity. When we contrast the Assamese paintings with those of the schools of late Rajasthani, Kangra, Mughal etc. which are basically the product of urban cultures we may see the uniqueness of the Assamese paintings which are primarily a product of the village culture. Though some kings and queens of the late mediaeval Assam used to commission scribes and painters to prepare manuscripts yet there is no evidence to think that they had their own royal ateliers. Manuscripts were generally prepared by the traditional scribes and painters who lived in the villages. It may be pointed out here that the materials for the Assamese manuscripts were mainly prepared from the bark of the Agar tree, which are found only in the countryside. As the painters and scribes had to prepare the base materials for the manuscripts themselves, which involved a very long process, it was advantageous for them to do the work there itself. Besides painting was never been a viable profession in Assam. The traditional painters known as Khanikar had to depend for his livelihood basically on farming. So it was not possible for him to settle in urban center near his clients to do the paintings exclusively.
The Vaisnava monasteries, other sites for the production of manuscripts, were also situated away from the urban center. The seclusion of the traditional painters away from the urban centers was a determining factor in shaping the style of the Assamese paintings. It also helped to retain the characteristics, perhaps, of a very old tradition which had been abandoned elsewhere in India long before.
Samiran Boruah is an associate of the Assam State Museum, Guwahati, India. The author is working on a digital archive of miniature paintings of Assamese manuscripts with financial support from the India Foundation for the Arts, Bangalore, India. This archive will be available for the public shortly at the Assam State Museum, Guwahati, Assam, India.