Manuscript Painting of Assam: In Conversation with Mridu Moucham Bora

Manuscript Painting of Assam: In Conversation with Mridu Moucham Bora

in Video
Published on: 04 July 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.

This interview was conducted in November 2017 at artist Mridu Moucham Bora's residence at Dhing in Assam


Mridu Moucham Bora is an artist who hails from a place called Dhing in Assam. He has been working in the area of manuscript painting in Assam for more than a decade and has a great deal of practical knowledge in this field of work. In this interview, he speaks about his journey so far as a manuscript painting artist and measures he has taken to preserve and promote this art form. He also talks about characteristics of manuscript painting of Assam and features that make it unique from other forms of miniature painting.


Meghna Baruah: How did you learn manuscript painting? What were your earlier influences like?


Mridu Moucham Bora: When I was nice years old, I had taken admission in a newly established art school named Jyoti Sikha Chitrangon Bidyalaya in my hometown Dhing. At that point of time we did not know that art could be learned in a school set-up. I continued learning art in the same school for the next four to five years. Later, I shifted to another art school in Nagaon town that is around thirty kilometers from my hometown. I used to attend classes in the new school every Sunday.


My training in Nagaon went on for five years and there I came in contact with my art teacher Pranab Baruah. Even though Pranab Baruah sir mostly created contemporary paintings, there was a reflection of traditional art forms in his work. During classes he used to mention to us about Assamese traditional paintings. This is how I gradually felt eager to learn about manuscript painting of Assam. Later I also came to know about Kolong Kala Kendra and met Chittaranjan Bora who is the main person associated with the organisation. I started learning arts and crafts like mask making, woodwork, manuscript preservation and process of manuscript preparation after I got in touch with Kolong Kala Kendra. I also met scholar Dr Naren Kalita who is a seasoned scholar working in the area of manuscript painting and from then on to this day I have had the opportunity to learn about manuscript painting from him.


My home is quite close to Bordowa (birth place of Vaishnava saint Sankaradeva). In our younger days we used to visit Bordowa where we remember seeing replicas of manuscript painting at the Kirtan Ghar (prayer hall). These were my first lessons on manuscript painting. Our parents used to show these replicas to us and they would narrate stories from them to us. We had an impression about manuscript painting first through such experiences and stories.


I had seen only photographs of paintings earlier but had the opportunity to see actual paintings for the first time at Kolong Kala Kendra. A workshop on manuscript painting was held at the Kendra and I had taken part in the workshop for a day. Later, when I came in contact with Dr Naren Kalita, he suggested that I visit different places like Majuli, Joraht, Sibsagarh, Upper Assam and Lower Assam to gain further knowledge. I saw a number of manuscript paintings in these places and studied the art form from them.


Since this form of painting had almost vanished around a hundred years back, there were very few traditional artists who knew about it. I had met a person named Budhindra Nath Borpathak at Auniati Satra (Vaishnavite monastery) in Majuli. He passed away a few years back. He was one of the few artists who knew the process of making manuscripts from sanchi bark. I was lucky to learn some lessons from him. In Titabor (Jorhat) I also got a chance to learn from an artist named Jadab Mahanta and from another person named Bishnuram Handique. Each of them had different methods of preparing traditional colours, ink and sanchi manuscript. I compiled all their methods and adopted a process that was easy to implement.


I had also met Sri Sri Narayan Chandra Goswami Prabhu through Dr Naren Kalita sir. Sri Narayan Chandra is the Satradhikar (chief pontiff of Vaishnavite monastery) of Natun Kamalabari Satra at Majuli. He had been thinking of carrying out a project for a long time. He wanted all the dramas composed by Mahapurush Sankaradeva and Sri Madhavadeva to be documented in the traditional style. He bestowed this responsibility upon me in 2009.


I did the first project of writing and painting Arjuna-Bhanjana in the traditional style in 2010. Mahapurush Madhavadeva had originally composed Arjuna-Bhanjana. I did another project where I documented the drama Chordhara in sanchi bark. These two dramas were printed and published with financial assistance from the Governor of Assam. In 2010, Rashtriya Natya Vidyalaya (National School of Drama) conducted a workshop in Tinsukia on the drama Parijat-Haran. In that drama, I wrote the performing text and painted it too. I also created a miniature version of one part of Naam Ghosa and at present this manuscript is the smallest in Assam. I had also documented the drama Chinnayatra in the traditional form, which was commissioned to me by Lohit Chandra Goswami Dev. I am at present documenting the drama Keli Gopal in the traditional form under Sri Narayan Chandra Goswami. 


MB: What are the different schools under which manuscript painting of Assam can be categorised?


MMB: Manuscript painting of Assam has been divided into four schools – Sattriya School, Garhgaon School or Rajaghoria School, Darrang School and the Tai-Ahom School. Mahapurush Sankaradeva had initiated Neo-Vaishnavism in Assam and it was under the influence of this movement that a strong tradition of writing manuscripts had begun. In order to spread the ideas of the movement among people, such manuscripts were also decorated with paintings along with the text. The style of painting that had begun within the ambit of Satras in order to support Sattriya text and literature is known as the Sattriya School.


Later under the Ahom rule, two artists, namely Dilbar and Dosai, were commissioned to create paintings for the manuscript Hastividyarnava. Sukumar Barkath had composed the text of Hastividyarnava. This manuscript consisted of paintings, which had elements from both Sattriya School and Mughal miniature paintings and this style is known as Rajaghoria School.


In Assam, folk painting style was incorporated in manuscript paintings and this is how Darrang School had developed.


Tai had entered Assam at different points of time. Tai Khamti, Tai Ahom, Tai Khamyang. They had their own tradition of painting and such paintings are also found in manuscripts of Assam. 


MB: Do you stick to a certain style or school of manuscript painting?


MMB: I primarily follow the style of Sattriya School and as far as possible I use traditional materials to do my work. I stick to Sattriya School because this art form is disappearing and if we do not try to revive it now, it will be difficult keep this tradition alive. I therefore like to work with traditional materials. However, we also have to see that at present, it is a little difficult to work only with traditional materials, as its preparation is a tedious process. Therefore, we also have to try to work with materials available at present.


Even if I like to work on sanchi bark, I also work on other bases like hand made paper, canvas, board, muga silk fabric and areca nut leaves. I like to work on all materials. In the same way in terms of colours, one should use traditional colours like hengul and haital, which is best while drawing on sanchi bark. However, it is easy to work with acrylic paints while working on canvas and handmade paper. Similarly I make the traditional ink but processing it is a long process. Therefore, if we work on materials other than sanchi pat then we need not use the traditional ink.


Many scholars have stated that manuscript painting of Assam has developed from painting styles of other regions. However, many scholars have also denied this opinion and have provided sufficient argument against it. They have mentioned that manuscript painting of Assam has its own style, direction and rules or grammar that it follows.


If you see Sattriya paintings, the figures are drawn in a horizontal manner. All characters are kept at the same level and one cannot differentiate what is far and what is near. The background is monochrome and mostly red in colour to give the sense of an abstract background. Faces of characters are mostly in side profile except for one or two cases where the face is in front view. There is also a rhythm in these paintings. If you notice clearly, the artist attempts to portray each character in a dance position. Even if you cannot hear any music you will feel that there is music being played at the background.


You can say that there is influence of Sattriya dance in manuscript paintings of Assam. When you learn Sattriya dance you have to learn a position, which is known as Ura. It is a position where one has to bend ones knees sideways while standing. In manuscript paintings, most of the characters do not stand straight but in the Ura position. Even the hand positions are similar to hand gestures of Sattriya dance. 


MB: How are you promoting manuscript painting among people who are interested to learn this art form?


MMB: I have been associated with an organisation called Society for Srimanta Sankaradeva. In the last five years this organisation has conducted four state level workshops on the process of sanchi manuscript preparation, writing and painting in Sattriya style. Each workshop has been conducted for five days. The first two workshops were conducted in Dhing Mahavidyalaya and post that it was conducted in Bordowa in collaboration with Bordowa Than Porisalona Committee. Trainees in these workshops hailed from various regions like Sibsagarh, Jorhat, Dibrugarh, Tinsukia, Nagaon, Morigaon, Barpeta and Kamrup. They stayed with us for five days and learned the processes.


Moreover, the society has also established a heritage centre in Dhing and an artist from Guwahati has stayed and learned manuscript painting at the centre for eight months. Many researchers at different points of time pursuing MA, MCom, MPhil, and PhD have visited us and participated in discussions in this area of study. We have been able to train around 120 trainees as of now. Some of them re-visit to join workshops for the second time and through them new trainees also participate. Many trainees are now working in their own capacity in their respective areas. 


MB: Are you involved in preservation of old manuscripts?


MMB: We have not kept old manuscripts in our resource centre. We only have paintings made by our trainees. There are however, some old manuscripts with us, which are chemically treated for preservation and then returned to the respective manuscript owners. 


MB: What are your impressions and expectations regarding future of manuscript painting of Assam?


MMB: I am very hopeful about the future possibilities of manuscript painting of Assam. We have a lot of work to do and many things can happen. Traditional forms of art and painting of Rajasthan, Bihar, and West Bengal have been successful in gaining respect from artists who are passionate about painting and who hail from different parts of the world. That is because such art forms have remained as live traditions and artists are still working on such art forms for generations. In Assam our traditional form of art has almost disappeared. Our earlier artists are not there anymore. We have lost them due to various reasons.


On the other hand, in India out of all the regional languages, we find the highest number of painted manuscripts in Assam. Even after having such a huge collection of manuscripts that consist of paintings, we have not been able to keep this tradition alive and it got lost over a period of time. I think we still have a lot of resources with us and we can move forward with the help of these benefits.


Many years back I had met a Khonikor named Budhindra Nath Borpathak Dev from Sri Sri Auniati Satra. I met him then and a number of times later. I met him even in his last days of his life when he was at the hospital. His financial condition was very poor. We had collected money to meet his medical expenses. Even on his deathbed he was still very hopeful and said that when his health improves he would teach manuscript painting to more people.


Similarly, another person named Bishnuram Handique from Jorhat still mentions that people do not go to him to learn the traditional art form. I think that people who are associated with manuscript painting are willing to teach and promote this form of art in society. We will be able to keep this tradition alive if our artists are willing to do so. Budhindra Nath Borpathak from Auniati Satra was associated with the institution of Satras and he promoted manuscript painting within the ambit of Satras. However, Bishnuram Handique is not associated with any Satra at all. He is a very simple villager. He always wanted to do unusual things. He was once involved in catching tigers and was known as the ‘tiger catcher’. He was involved with learning the process of manuscript preparation only because he was enthusiastic to learn something new.


Manuscript painting of Assam has unique characteristics, especially those done on sanchi bark. Sanchi bark is a unique writing material. Use of sanchi bark for painting is not practiced in any other part of the world but only in greater Assam. If we can carry forward this tradition then I feel this art form will be appreciated and loved by many people and artists who are passionate about art.


In order to write text on manuscripts a certain kind of traditional ink was used and we call this ink mahi. This ink has a unique property – it cannot be removed with water and hence is permanent in nature. Moreover, Assam has very adverse climatic conditions. In spite of the presence of a hostile environment, manuscripts have existed for hundreds of years. In order to find out the reasons for such long lasting properties of mahi and Assamese manuscripts Dr Robin Kumar Dutta from Tezpur University has initiated a research project and a team has been working under his supervision. This research work has been internationally accepted and has found mention in a number of scientific journals. I was associated with the team that was carrying out the work. I had provided them ink with different ingredients in twenty-four different ways. The team had analyzed the different properties and tried to find out reasons and ways due to which the ink becomes permanent in nature. Similarly, the team is also currently trying to find out why and how folios made from sanchi bark last so long. 


MB: What do you think is the significance of manuscript painting?


MMB: Many people may have this question in their mind in terms of the importance of learning the traditional art form of manuscript painting and writing. If we learn this form of art firstly a traditional form of art will remain preserved. Apart from this there are four ways in which we may personally gain by learning manuscript painting and writing. First reason is pothon, meaning learning to read the script. At present there are very few people who can read scripts written on old sanchi manuscripts.


A few years back there was an advertisement given by the Ayurvedic Department. They were looking for people who could read manuscripts found in Assam especially those that dealt with Ayurvedic Shastra or treatise on Ayurveda. They would have gained by extracting information from such manuscripts. However, the posts that the department had created were not filled because they could not find suitable people who could read such manuscripts. Therefore, if people can read such scriptures it might be beneficial for them.


Second reason is knowledge of writing on manuscripts. We have different ways of preserving information some of them being books, computers, hard disks, CDs and pen drives. However, information in means provided by modern science can be preserved only for around two hundred years. On the other hand if it is preserved in traditional manuscripts then there is a possibility of it being preserved for around five hundred years. We can store important documents in this form. For example, if we document singer Bhupen Hazarika’s songs in manuscripts they can remain preserved for around five hundred years. These songs are very intimately connected to Assamese people’s emotions and psyche.


Thirdly, as I have mentioned earlier, in different parts of India, manuscript painting as a tradition is still continuing and is a profitable business. If artists in Assam can train themselves in this art form then there is a huge market for such paintings and artists can financially gain from it.


Fourthly, according to Rastriya Pandulipi Mission or National Mission for Manuscripts, in Assam there are around 45,500 manuscripts and through personal survey I can safely say that there are around 70,000 manuscripts. These manuscripts are gradually getting destroyed with time. Therefore if some people can study and learn about manuscript preservation, this can be a good source of livelihood for them.


MB: What are the different kinds of topics or areas that earlier manuscripts used to document or cover?


MMB: In Assam one can find different kinds of manuscripts. Firstly, there are spiritual or religious manuscripts like Kirtan and Naam Ghosa. Then there are Nidan Shastras or treatises and those that deal with knowledge on medicinal treatments. There are manuscripts that document information on astrology and in Assam there are quite a lot of manuscripts that deal with magic and sorcery. Texts on magic have occupied a prominent place in Assamese literature. A place called Mayong in Morigaon District is well known for magic. Even now in Mayong one can find good number of manuscripts that deal with magic. Then there are manuscripts that used to deal with affairs of the state/king and those on buronjis or chronicles. There are a large number of historical manuscripts among the Tai Ahoms. Apart from these we also find many manuscripts in Assam, which are biographies or Charitra Puthis.


MB: What are the different languages and scripts in which manuscripts in Assam have been composed in the past?


MMB: Manuscripts in Assam can be found in many languages. Old Assamese, Brajawali, Sanskrit, Tai. Even in terms of script in Assamese there are primarily three types – Kaithali, Gargayan and Bamunia