Renovated interiors of Shri Shambhavnath Bhagwan Temple, Jiaganj (Courtesy: Mrinalini Sil)

In conversation with Dr Kavita Singh: The Nearly Forgotten Jain Visual Culture of Bengal

in Interview
Published on: 30 December 2019

Mrinalini Sil

Mrinalini Sil is a PhD research scholar of visual arts, School of Arts and Aesthetics (SAA), JNU. She has completed BA and MA degrees in history from Jadavpur University and MPhil from SAA, JNU. Sil received the UK Travel Award and the Small Study and Research Grants (UK) from the Nehru Trust for the Indian Collections at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2017.

Dr Kavita Singh is a professor of art history and the current Dean of the School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU.

An acclaimed art historian, Dr Kavita Singh's research interests cover the history of Indian paintings, particularly the Mughal and Rajput schools, and the history and politics of museums. She is the recipient of the 2018 Infosys prize in Humanities for her outstanding contribution in the field of art history and visual culture.

Following is an edited transcript of the interview conducted over email on September 27, 2018.

Mrinalini Sil: For the Jains, ritual and art cannot be separated as both are profoundly connected with the quest for the ultimate expression of one’s humanity in spiritual liberation. Can we discuss briefly this intertwined nature of Jain religion and the art and visual culture associated with it?

Kavita Singh: The opening statement could of course be applied to practically every faith and belief system. Faith, ritual and art are deeply intertwined not just for the Jains but for all religions. Anthropologists define ritual as a form of intentional symbolic action. Actions performed in rituals are not mundane acts even if they appear to be so, because their import is something beyond the literal. If I offer food to an icon, I am not literally offering nourishment to a thing of metal or stone. I am making a gesture to a presence beyond the icon. But there is a level of symbolic action beyond that as well. I don’t expect the food to reach a numinous presence, but I offer the food anyway because through the offering I am making a gesture: I am telling God that I am caring for you in the way I know, and I expect you in turn to care for me in the way you are able. It is a symbolic gesture aimed at binding the deity and devotee in a reciprocal relationship. 

What is quite special in Jain religious visual culture is the complex layering of symbolism. On the one hand, it is not proper to even call Jainism a religion as it is a philosophical system and its core beliefs are atheist—there is no supreme being as such, who created the world or who grants enlightenment; consciousness is a property of all living beings and all are capable of achieving moksha, which is the state in which those we call gods dwell. All of us, are capable of becoming gods if we find our way to moksha. Thus, Jainism should have no use for temples, temple rituals and icon worship. On the other hand, we know that Jain communities have patronised wonderful temples and there are a profusion of icons and there are rituals around them that look very much like worship. This must arise from the context, and from closeness and competition among the communities. But within Jainism the acts that look like puja are described as symbolic acts that do not enter into the transactional mode of Hindu ritual. A believer enters a temple and offers service to the idol of the tirthankar not expecting any return, but only for the personal satisfaction of expressing respect. So, the temple ritual in Jainism becomes the symbol of a symbol.

Because Jainism has an intricate philosophical system that ponders on many ontological issues, Jain visual culture has a tremendously original and very powerful system of visualising abstract ideas through diagrams. This is one of the most fascinating and complex aspects of Jain visual culture and it is remarkable how abstract diagrams have also been endowed with such graphic presence and aesthetic beauty.

MS: Jain art and visual culture have received adequate academic attention from both Indian and Western scholars. However, there has been an emphasis on the Jain arts of western and northern India whereas the Jain visual culture of eastern India has received scant attention and has nearly been forgotten. What can be the possible reasons for this inadequate exploration of Jain visual culture of eastern India?

KS: I do not agree that Jain art and visual culture have received adequate attention. The complexity, variety and originality of Jain visual culture deserves to be foregrounded much more and should take a more central position within our telling of the history of Indian art. In most surveys of Indian art, we mention Jain visual culture only in the fourteenth century while discussing the history of manuscript paintings. Occasionally, we may hear about Jainism while discussing Mathura sculptures from the second century because there were Jain sculptures found there. But the richness of Jain art, the innovations in temple architecture, the profound forms of abstraction that Jain art devised are hardly the subject of much study or dissemination. 

Within the limited amount of attention that Jain art has received, it is true that western Indian manifestations have dominated. Not just eastern but even southern traditions are ignored. For instance, it is hardly recognised that there is a tremendous range of Jain temples in Karnataka. 

Today, the most prosperous Jain communities live in western India, mostly in Rajasthan and Gujarat. The care they have taken of their local heritage, the renovation and maintenance of temples, encouragement of study, pilgrimage and tourism to these places has meant that these loom larger in our minds than the Jain visual culture from other regions.

MS: The Jain migration to and settlement in the Azimganj-Jiaganj and Murshidabad areas, close to the Jain pilgrimage site of Pareshnath, served the twofold purpose of their spiritual as well as their social advancement. The Jagat Seths and the Sheherwali Jains ended up in banking and financial services of the nawabs and the Company Raj. In this context, I would like to know if Jain art and visual culture have functioned in this interface which saw the seamless interaction of religious deliverance and ritual function coupled with political and social mobility of the community in western and northern India. 

KS: As merchants and bankers the Jain community had to be pragmatic. They have learned to survive and thrive under all circumstances. Due to the banking services they provided, the Jains were respected by the political powers of the day.

While Jain visual culture preserves some elements that remain unchanged through the ages, other aspects readily absorb features seen in the visual culture of the politically powerful elite of the time. If you visit seventeenth-century Jain temples in Old Delhi, you would find traditional Jain icons but with extensive influence of Shahjahani architecture. This might have been motivated by a desire to ‘blend in’ and not draw too much attention to themselves, a defensive attitude adopted by many minority communities. It could also be a way of expressing affiliation to the rulers.

MS: The religious practices of Jainism are marked by a rich material culture of images, diverse ritual implements, meditational aids, books, monastic robes, illustrated manuscripts, etc. Do museum collections and international exhibitions of Jain art (like ‘The Peaceful Liberators: Jain Art from India’) represent and exhibit Jain arts from early modern Bengal (seventeenth to nineteenth century CE)?

KS: ‘The Peaceful Liberators: Jain Art from India’ was one of the few comprehensive exhibitions that presented the artworks emerging from Jainism. Showcasing Jain art of the highest artistic and aesthetic quality from major collections of the West as well as India, this phenomenal undertaking exhibited approximately 150 works spanning nearly two millennia and displaying a wide range of materials. Of these, there are about five objects from eastern India; however, most of them are from Bihar and Orissa and from the fifth, seventh and eleventh centuries. Jain visual culture of early modern Bengal and the rest of eastern India remains unrepresented in this major exhibition of Jain art that eventually travelled from Los Angeles County Museum to some of the museums in the US and England. 

MS: Most of what we know about Western Indian paintings associated with Jain visual culture comes from the study of the numerous illustrated manuscripts in the traditional Jain temple libraries (jnan bhandars). Even though the Jain settlers of Bengal—the Jagat Seths and the Sheherwali Jains—undertook extensive temple building projects, we do not know of any particular Jain temple library like that of Patan or Jaisalmer situated in Bengal. How does the absence of Jain jnan bhandars, which worked as very important archives, create a hindrance in the reconstruction of the Jain visual culture of early modern Bengal?

KS: It is possible that there was a jnan bhandar in the important temples in Bengal too. Sponsoring libraries, encouraging the pursuit of knowledge and study by monks, was and is very important for Jain donors who give generously for the maintenance of Jain traditions. If there was a significant and wealthy Jain community in Murshidabad, and if they sponsored temple construction, it is likely that they would have donated manuscripts as well. This is suggested by the discovery of the important Murshidabad manuscript of the Laghu-Kṣetrasamasa in the British Library. There is no reason to believe this was the only manuscript to be produced for the Jain community in Murshidabad.

It would be worth investigating whether these bhandars were eventually consolidated with others and their collections moved to a central location that may be under the control of religious or secular authorities. This is not unusual and could have taken place even after Independence. A number of learned Jain monks have been very important in the post-Independence history of formation of museums and archives in India. The Rajasthan Oriental Research Institute, which has over 2 lakh rare manuscripts, was put together for the government by a Jain monk, Muni Jinavijayaji. On the other hand, in the 1970s, a learned monk from Gujarat, Kailashsagarsuri, felt the need to preserve important manuscripts that were lying untended in small jnan bhandars all over Gujarat, and he gathered them into a state-of-the-art facility in Koba near Ahmedabad, where a Jain temple keeps them safe. Perhaps some such thing has happened to other Jain manuscripts produced in eastern India and we will slowly discover these.

MS: As we know at least one of the illustrated Jain manuscripts whose provenance has been attributed to eighteenth-century Bengal (specifically Murshidabad) is currently in the collection of the British Library in London. In this illustrated cosmological manuscript of Laghu-Ksetrasamasa. The illustrations use the standardised visual vocabularies associated with Jain cosmological paintings of western and northern India. However, the style in which they have been rendered can be associated with the painting activities concurrent in eighteenth-century Murshidabad. Does this indicate a circulation and mobility of these illustrated manuscripts, or is it a case of mobility of the artists? 

KS: From the ancient times a dense corpus of textual and illustrated manuscripts has dealt with the subject matter of the Jain universe and the Jain cosmos which is at the centre of Jain canonical treatises. Samgrahani texts, as they are generically titled, deal with the Jain cosmic model. There are some traditional summary tables, charts, illustrated and line drawings depicting elements like Mount Sumeru, the Adhaidvipa or the two and a half continents, and Jambudvipa, which have found standardised visual representation with minor variations in almost all Samgrahani texts. It is well known that in Jainism the act of copying manuscripts was directly proportional to the ritual and authoritative role of a text in dissemination of the faith. Hence multiple versions and copies of the same canonical treatises were made which often became part of a larger circulation network when it was donated to different traditional temple libraries, or were transferred from one library to another in the face of a threat of destruction of the materials. It is not at all unlikely that the artists involved in the illustration of the manuscript may have had a model of the same for copying and imitation. 

Having said that, it is also interesting to note that the eighteenth century in India witnessed mobility and migration of different skilled service communities around the country. Scholars, painters, scribes and revenue managers moved from one part of the country to another in pursuit of service and patronage. For the Murshidabad manuscript, it was probably a local group of artists adopting themselves to the Jain aesthetic requirements, but a larger phenomena of mobility and migration of artists did exist. 

MS: Can we observe an element of experimentation in the Jain manuscript from Murshidabad due to the appointment of non-Jain artists from Bengal who had a limited cultural vocabulary to represent Jain themes? If so, can it be considered a distinctive regional style of Jain painting?

KS: The artists working in the said illustrated manuscript from eighteenth-century Murshidabad reinterpreted some of the hieratic Jain visual conventions from western India in their own style and visual language. This is evident in the application of certain colours like vibrant yellows and greens, and the rendition of some of the visual elements, especially that of the human figures in the prevalent artistic style of Murshidabad. The influence of the provincial Mughal idiom of the Murshidabad court style makes this manuscript an interesting subject of inspection, but based on a single manuscript it is difficult to categorise it as a unique and distinctive regional style of Jain painting. 

MS: The Jagat Seths were a branch of the Oswal Jains who had migrated to Patna and eventually Bengal from Nagaur in Marwar. The Sheherwali Jains also trace their origin to Kshatriya Rajput families of Rajputana. Can we credit these Jain settlers of early modern Bengal as the transmitter of a ‘religio-aesthetic’ tradition that we observe more strongly in Rajput Jain art?

KS: The experience of Jain migration in Bengal definitely ushered in a new era of a ‘religio-aesthetic’ development in the region that reflected in the numerous temple-building projects, the architectural development of the Jain residential zamindari houses and kothis, and the illustrated manuscripts whose provenance has been attributed to Murshidabad. However, it is difficult to label this visual culture which shaped around the Jain settlers of Bengal as essentially being influenced by Rajput Jain art. There are various strands of interaction of local and non-Jain elements that form the visual culture that we associate with the Jains of early modern Bengal. 

MS: What can we say was the nature of Jain art patronage in early modern Bengal and how did it differ from the western or northern Indian models?

KS: The most traditional pattern of Jain art patronage that we observe in western or northern India records is a preponderance of patronage of the arts from the mercantile and trading classes. The Jains in Bengal, both the Jagat Seths and the Sheherwalis, enjoyed a prominent mercantile position during the Nizamat as well as the British rule. This strong tradition of mercantile piety, similar to the community-based pattern of art patronage of western and northern India, can be observed in the Jain patronage of the arts and architecture of Bengal too. This patronage pattern was obviously deeply embedded in the social authority, political prominence and the economic prosperity that the Jains were enjoying in eighteenth-century Bengal. The patronage of art and architecture, seen as a display of wealth, further helped the Jains reach positions of political and social prominence.

MS: Of course much remains to be explored and documented about Jain presence in the visual landscape of early modern Bengal. What, according to you, can be the most interesting areas of inquiry that will help us add another layer in the visual culture of Bengal while opening new vistas of understanding the Jain arts of India? 

KS: While exploration of the Jain visual culture of early modern Bengal holds great possibilities of art historical scholarship, I hope that more illustrated Jain manuscripts turn up in different collections. It will also be exciting if the existence of a traditional jnan bhandar can be traced back to eighteenth-century Murshidabad.