Manuscript Painting of Assam: In Conversation with Dr Naren Kalita

in Interview
Published on: 17 September 2018

Meghna Baruah

Meghna Baruah is a freelance graphic designer and illustrator. She hails from, lives and works in Assam. Her area of special interest has been learning about local cultures, especially traditional forms of visual art and communication.

Transcript of interview conducted on October 26, 2017, at Dr Naren Kalita’s residence in Nagaon town, Assam.


Dr Naren Kalita has put in decades of study and research in the area of manuscript painting of Assam and has written, compiled and edited many books on this subject. He received the 199798 Jagaddhatri-Harmohan Das Literary Award for his book Asamar Puthichitra, a critical study on Assamese illustrated miniature paintings in Assamese, published by Publication Board Assam, Guwahati. Dr Kalita was Head of Department of Assamese at Anandaram Dhekial Phookan College (ADP College), Nagaon, retiring from this post in 2002.


Meghna Baruah: Do you know of artists or khonikor who are still continuing their traditional profession, especially in the area of manuscript painting?


Naren Kalita: There are some khonikors who are still continuing their traditional profession in a small way in a few places in Assam. One such person was Budhindra Nath Borpathak at Auniati Satra (satra meaning a Vaisnavite monastery). He did not illustrate manuscripts but used to decorate them by painting a colourful border around the folios known as lata-kata-puthi. This trend of painting a border around manuscripts was a Mughal characteristic and style which had somehow penetrated in manuscript paintings of Assam.


Many old manuscripts might have been written at an earlier period with an older script but the decorative border was drawn on the same manuscript at a later phase. For example, in Chaliha Bareghor Satra, there is one manuscript on Ajamil-Upakhyan written in the year 1713 or 1715 by Ramdev Ata. Bisnuram Ata from the same satra made illustrations on it. However, Purnokam Ata painted borders around it only in 1767. Purnokam Ata had also created a wooden simhasan (throne) in the same year based on the story of Ajamil-Upakhyan at Chaliha Bareghor Satra. Unfortunately these works have been completely destroyed now. I had seen the simhasan myself many years back and even then they were not maintained properly. When I visited the satra a few years later, it was completely damaged.


We have a village in eastern Assam, known as Khonikor Gaon. There are many artists and craftspeople in this village primarily working and making arrangements for performance of bhaonas or traditional theatre. In this village, there are artists who are also involved in woodwork (mostly making of traditional wooden guru asanas or guru’s seat). Although the woodwork is traditional, application of chemical paints on asanas is more common as use of traditional colours is expensive. There are artists in places like Barpeta too mostly carrying out woodwork, but the quality of work is not high and no one is involved in manuscript painting.


There are still some artists and craftsmen in places like Kamalabari Satra and Auniati Satra of Majuli who make handmade handfans (bisoni), apply traditional colours like hengul (red colour made from mercury sulphide) and haital (colour derived from yellow arsenic) on khol (traditional percussion instrument) and on guru asanas. Such work is, however, not done commercially and, therefore, they do not benefit financially from it. Doing work in the traditional way takes a lot of time and labour. Most people look for easier means of work now. 


There is a satra called Murmala Satra in Mirza. The Principal of Mirza College, Dr Adhikari, and his family is associated with Murmala Satra and had made contributions to the Vaishnavite monastery by making sculptures and paintings for it. These works are not very old and belong to the last century. Artists from this family had also done work for other satras (especially making of guru asanas) of South Kamrup. Even though there is not much to see in Mirza now, one can still visit and witness some of the work.


The situation has changed to a large extent at present. The kind of dedication and patience with which such artists used to work earlier does not exist anymore. Their designs do not have the finesse, intricacy and compactness that we used to find in the older works. There has been an overall change in attitude in our society. At present most of the traditional work is practised just for the sake of completing it.


M.B.: Is it correct to use the term manuscript painting if the folios do not have text and only paintings?


N.K.: Yes, those without text and only paintings can also be termed as manuscript painting. For example, the illustrated manuscript on Gajendra Chintamoni created in the year 1713. It belongs to a family in Titabor (Jorhat) in Assam. Eighteen folios of this manuscript consist of only illustrations on elephants. The style of painting is similar to Mughal miniature paintings, especially its palette. Artists who had come to Assam from Mughal schools must have made them. Paintings and text have been kept separately in that manuscript. Another such manuscript is at Chabua’s Mayamora Satra and is known as Matsya Sarit. The text and paintings are also found in separate folios in that manuscript. Sometimes paintings were made at a later date on blank folios of the manuscript. The paintings of Matsya Sarit do not have much link with the text. However, paintings of manuscripts like Hasti Vidyarnava illustrate what is written in the text.


M.B.: Will it be correct to call illustrations found in manuscripts of Assam miniature paintings?


N.K.: Yes, they can also be called miniature paintings. However, our miniatures are a little different from the Mughal and Rajput miniature paintings. These are mostly drawn on rectangular isolation. We have a horizontal format.


M.B.: Why do you think this art form declined when other forms like Satriya Dance and Bhaona are still alive?


N.K.: Rev. Nathan Brown of the American Baptist Mission had first attempted to collect Assamese manuscripts and published about them in Arunodai, the first Assamese language magazine in Assam. However the Mission did not know that it was important to encourage production of new manuscripts. Moreover, at that point of time, there was also an influence of realism in painting. It is human nature to feel that other things are more beautiful than one's own. Artists slowly moved towards realistic paintings rather than the traditional form.


Later when the technology of printing press came to Assam, people did not think writing manuscripts was important. Even at that point of time, some people still continued making, writing and painting on manuscripts as a form of ritual. Painting in the traditional form is a long drawn process. On the other hand printing on paper is easier and faster.


We are now becoming more conscious of preserving manuscript painting as an art form. However, continuing it is an expensive affair. If we pursue working on traditional form of painting but paint it on a new medium it may be easier for this art form to survive. Our art students have studied in schools that follow the Western model and are highly influenced by it. Our artists now want to bring about new individual styles in their paintings. They do not  stress on continuing the traditional form.


Traditional forms like Madhubani painting have a place in the international market but our art form does not. It will be very beneficial if we can develop our age-old tradition.


M.B.: What do you think about the new set of artists who have started to work on manuscript paintings?


N.K.: The satradhikar (head cleric) at Natun Kamalabari Satra had asked me to give information about artist/s who could create illustrations for a drama originally written by Madhabdeb and Sankaradeva. He wanted to get it published thereafter. He invited artists from Guwahati to work on handmade paper and he invested a lot of money in that venture. However, there were no positive outcome of this endeavour. I then sent Mridu Moucham Bora to carry out the work.


I feel that manuscript painting work that the new set of artists are doing is not that refined. When an artist makes an illustration, s/he needs to comprehend the text properly. For example, if the manuscript is based on tantrism, the figures need to have tantric characteristics. For a manuscript like Gita Govinda one has to include pastoral life in the illustrations. If pastoral life is not represented at the background along with human figures, the illustration will not be complete and its lyrical element will be absent. Some artists have used modern and realistic perspective in new manuscript paintings, which did not exist earlier. Traditionally, characters in such illustrations need to be at one eye level.


M.B.: How are manuscripts used today?


N.K.: Manuscripts today are kept in prayer halls of satras mostly along with a printed copy. They are not used in any other way now. Many Vaishnavite monks cannot read the old script which was used in most of the earlier manuscripts. Our rituals were very different a few centuries back. Manuscripts without nabhi (central hole used for tying up folios which was a traditional system of binding manuscripts) were considered to be impure.


M.B.: Do you know how other kinds of manuscript like Ghora-nidan and manta puthis (manuscripts used for magic and sorcery) are used today?


N.K.: Although manuscripts like Hasti Vidyarnava and Ghora-nidan are great repositories of medicinal knowledge, they are not in much use today, as Ayurveda is not practised to a large extent.


In Assam there are innumerable number of mantra puthis or manuscripts on magic and sorcery. Dhala Satra had many such manuscripts with them but they have given them away now. You may still find some of them with people who practice black magic. Mayong in Assam is well known for black magic, and there are very interesting description on devils and ghosts in manuscripts found there. I have read a lot of mantra puthis in Mayong. A lot of such work also exists among the Muslim community in Assam and those who worship snakes.