Manuscript Painting of Assam: In Conversation with Hari Narayan Konwar

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 an interview conducted on October 17, 2017, at Hari Narayan Konwar’s residence at Bordowa, Assam.


Hari Nayaran Konwar is a calligrapher and a manuscript painting artist. Although he started working on traditional manuscripts only a few years back, he has always been interested in calligraphy. He currently engages in manuscript writing and painting, and traditional mask making.


Meghna Baruah: When did you start painting and writing in the traditional Assamese manuscript method?


Hari Narayan Konwar: In 2014, I came to know about a workshop that was to be conducted in a place called Dhing that is close to my town. It was led by a person named Mridu Moucham Bora. I learned about the workshop two to three days post its inaugural day. I wasn’t sure whether I would be able to join the class because I had already retired from my job and felt that an aged person may not be allowed to be a part of it. Despite these factors I went and took part in that workshop as a student. The workshop team welcomed me and really encouraged me. I completed all the activities at the workshop. I learned the steps that were undertaken to prepare the paper in the traditional method. I even tried painting at the workshop and painted on one manuscript. However, nowadays I tend to engage more in writing in the traditional method than in painting. One advantage is that my son can paint. Now if we want to create a manuscript, I can write and he can paint. You can see some of the paintings in this room that he has made.


My main reason for being involved in that workshop and in creative work is because I love calligraphy. It has been three years since I have retired from my employed life but even today I write ten to twelve lines every morning. No matter what the content is, I write so that my handwriting remains clear and there is a certain speed while writing. I try to keep my handwriting alive. 


M.B.: Do you write in the traditional script/s or in the contemporary Assamese script?


H.N.K.: Our old script that was used earlier cannot be read and understood by many people now. You can see a printed version of the Ekadox Skondho Bhagowot (Eleventh Canto of Bhagavata Purana) that I have with me here. This book explains the old script and has translated it in the contemporary Assamese script. We also have a research centre here in Bordowa: Srimanta Sankaradeva Gobexona Protistha (Srimanta Sankaradeva Research Centre). I visit the centre and try to understand the old script from the different books that are available there. I have been able to understand some parts of the old script but not all of it. However, I can write both in the traditional script Kaithali and in the modern Assamese script.


M.B.: Being a manuscript artist, you are at the right place, since there is opportunity for you to learn from institutions that have books on manuscript painting and writing.


H.N.K.: Yes, very true. I have come to Bordowa out of all places to earn a living. Guwahati, which is a bigger town, is closer to my birthplace Nalbari. If I had settled in Guwahati maybe things would have taken a different turn. But I believe this was my fate. Others did other things but I was drawn towards puthis (manuscripts). I came to learn about old manuscripts in Bordowa. In 1977 I met a person who also hailed from my hometown Nalbari. He was working in Bordowa at Srimanta Sankaradeva Research Centre. Back then I used to see him laminate old manuscripts for preservation. That is how I came to learn about traditional manuscripts. He was trained in Delhi in manuscript preservation.


M.B.: What are you currently working on?


H.N.K.: Currently, I am involved in processing some sachi pat or bark of the agar tree by smoothening the surface with sandpaper. To smoothen one sheet of manuscript it takes me a day. This process is tiring, as I have to be involved in it the whole day. A lot of pressure has to be applied while rubbing it. When I want to take a break from preparing the paper, I switch to mask making. I do all my work in small bits.


This kind work is very tedious and time-consuming. Only when there is a good team of dedicated artists, the work can be done more efficiently and within a shorter span of time.   


There are a lot of sachi trees from where agar perfume cannot be produced. These trees are very useful for us since we can use its bark for manuscript production. However, people find it difficult to sell or give the bark/tree to us due to lack of knowledge. They think that they can earn a lot of money by selling them to factories that produce agar perfume. We lose out in the process. Trees which grow very big and where a certain variety of insect does not infest do not create the perfume.


In spite of these difficulties, when I show my work to people, sometimes they agree to provide the material and help out.


M.B.: What subjects do you mostly work on?


H.N.K.: I mostly write Gunamala (The Gunamala, or the ‘Garland of Praises for Lord Krishna’ composed by Vaishnava saint Sankaradeva is a composition capturing in rhyming verses the essence of the Bhagavata Purana; it is a sacred text for Assamese Vaishnavas) in the traditional method. Many people ask me to write it for them. They keep the manuscript in their prayer hall/house. I mostly write in the contemporary Assamese language. However, I can also write in the traditional script Kaithali.


The quality of some of the old manuscripts was really beautiful. I hope that we will also be able to reach that level of perfection and beauty. I keep experimenting and take advice from people who know about the traditional method. I plan to write mostly on sachi pat, as there is not much maintenance that is required in it after processing is done. Only preparing it takes time.


M.B.: What future plans do you have? How do you plan to promote the art form among people?


H.N.K.: I plan to write and create more manuscripts and I want to give it to different people. I want to write the Kirtan Ghoxa (a collection of poetical works composed by Srimanta Sankaradeva meant for community singing) for some people and for my native village namghar (prayer house) where I was born. I will write it in the contemporary Assamese script so that people can read and understand it. I also want to make Chitra Bhagavata paintings on a big canvas and present it to the namghar of my village.


I am not a part of any organisation. However, Mridu has asked me to take part in the workshops that he conducts in the future. Such classes are useful to introduce people to traditional art forms. People like me would not have known that manuscript painting could be learned if I had not met Mridu. However, I feel that in workshops people do not really learn a lot. This process and teaching needs to go on for a longer duration and larger quantities of traditional materials like colour and paper should be available for trainees.


Moreover, one has to be dedicated to learn such an art form. It takes a lot of time and patience to work on manuscripts. People nowadays ask me what advantages will a traditional method like this have? There is no immediate economic benefit. However, this will help to keep our tradition alive and make us feel proud of our cultural heritage. When we see some of the old manuscripts today we get drawn towards them. Is this not value? How long will ATM cards or computerised things exist? When something is manually created it will last for another 300400 years. People in the later generations will learn from manuscripts that will be created now like we are now learning from older manuscripts.


In order to attract people and make manuscript painting and writing more meaningful in the present context, we need to make some innovations. We can make certificates and abhinandan patras in the traditional manuscripts style and present it to people. If a minister visits, we can present him/her a traditional manuscript written in Assamese, Hindi and English. Such a transformation will have an economic value and artists who will be engaged in creating them will be able to earn something from it. There are so many festivals that are celebrated nowadays. Traditional manuscripts can be used in such festivals. Community life and culture will be reflected when every house has one such manuscript in their possession.


MB: Why do you think this art form has declined?


HNK: Most people nowadays do not want to work hard. They are also more concerned about the monetary and immediate visible advantages that something can bring. This kind of an endeavour requires a lot of time and patience. Spirituality also plays a role although many people may not agree with me. When I work I think I am doing something for God. If one wants to work hard and if s/he understands the value of such an art form, manuscript painting and writing can be preserved.


Moreover, after a point of time artists did not get a lot of support and patronage like they earlier used to. Last manuscripts were probably created around a hundred years back. After that no one was involved in writing or painting on manuscripts. Before the advent of print media, people had no other option but to create manuscripts in the traditional method.


MB: How were manuscripts used earlier?


H.N.K.: Earlier, as narrated by the cleric in our village prayer house, during his grandfather’s days they used to send young monks for training in different satras across Assam. These monks would bring sachi barks from different places and process it for them. There used to be a readily available stock of materials for production of manuscripts. This trend has diminished now.


Manuscripts were used in satras. Monks used to read out religious hymns and literature from them. Apart from that there were manuscripts that had recorded Ayurvedic and medicinal knowledge. There were many montro puthis or manuscripts used for magic. Such manuscripts were used to bring about both good and bad effects directed at someone. When a person used them he/she would keep them with him/her. After the person died, these puthis were either given away to someone or thrown into a river or other waterbody.


M.B.: What do you think in terms of quality of the work that is being produced nowadays?


H.N.K.: We have to keep working and improving. My work is not perfect but I am trying. If people keep working consistently, manuscripts at present can be as beautiful as the old ones and will have an international value in the market. It is a slow process and it has to be done in small bits.