Manuscript Painting of Assam: In Conversation with Rupeswar Nath

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 18, 2017 at Rupeswar Nath’s residence at Koliabor, Assam.


Rupeswar Nath’s home is in Koliabor in Nagaon District of Assam. Being the Chairman of a religious congregation or unit of sixteen villages in Koliabor, he holds an important religious position. He is also a ‘Pathak’ where he recites holy scriptures during religious functions and ceremonies. He has recently started practicing manuscript writing in the traditional method.


Meghna Baruah: How did you come to know about the traditional process of making manuscripts and writing on them?


Rupeswar Nath: I came in contact with Mridu Moucham Bora through a newspaper advertisement (inviting artists and enthusiasts to join a workshop on manuscript writing and painting) and I attended their workshop. I learnt the process during these classes and have been experimenting on my own since then. One of the major problems in this area of work is acquiring sachi pat. I initially used bark from sachi trees in my backyard as well as those that were available near my house. I now plan to visit factories that make agar perfume at Naharoni. I am hoping I will get sachi pat there.


M.B.: Did you always aspire to learn the traditional form of manuscript writing?


R.N.: Yes, I always used to wish that someday I would be able to learn our traditional method of writing but I did not know where I could learn it. I also read a book written by Syed Abdul Malik – Dhanya Nara Tanu Bhaal that was based on the life and times of saint Sankaradeva. The book not only described how manuscripts could be prepared but also what struggles Sankaradeva went through while doing his work. I thought when Syed Abdul Malik, even after being a Muslim, could write so well about Sankaradeva, why can’t Hindus and Vaishnavites carry forward his work. When I saw the advertisement about the workshop I decided to go ahead and learn the process practically.


M.B,: What was your childhood experience like and were you influenced in any way to write or read manuscripts then?


R.N.: As a child I was involved more in singing songs and participating during bhaonas. My father used to read and recite religious hymns. Since childhood I had a wish to read from puthis too. I gradually started learning from him and I was also taught to read at our Namghar (prayer house). Namghars used to teach children different kinds of activities like music, dance and drama for bhaonas and recitation of religious slokas. I gradually became a pathak and people would invite me to read religious scriptures.


I did not know the old script earlier but I learned about it from a book that my daughter had. She was pursuing her Major in Assamese and I discovered the old script in one of her books. I started comparing the old and the current script and am slowly learning it now.


My father used to read from both printed puthis and sachi pat puthis. However, I did not read from old manuscripts then. I used to be scared because many of these manuscripts were on magic and sorcery. People used to tell me to be away from them. When he died these were given away to people who practice magic. We also had a manuscript at home that was made from monitor lizard. I have heard that there are manuscripts that were also made from deerskin. 


M.B.: What are you currently trying to work on?


R.N.: I am trying to prepare traditional ink by mixing ingredients like xilikha (Terminalia chebula), aamlokhi (amla) – these ingredients will be mixed with cow’s urine and kept for around three days. Ou Tenga (elephant apple) seed will be added later to make the ink greasy. I am also gradually preparing more sachi pat as it takes me one day to process one folio.


I have written a few copies of Chatu Sloki Bhagawat on sachi pat. Chatu Sloki Bhagawat is a narration of the Bhagawat by Narayan in front of Brahma in four slokas. One copy has been presented to Tezpur University and another to Bordowa Than. I was invited to Tezpur University so that I could explain the traditional process of preparing paper and ink to students. Another such session was held at a school - Paschim Kaliabor Ussa Madhyomik Bidyalaya.


I have now started writing Gunamala (The Gunamala written by Sankaradeva is a composition capturing the essence of the Bhagavata Purana. It is a sacred text for Assamese Vaishnavas). Someone has asked me to make it in a small sized manuscript. He is a Vaishnav and he told me that when Sankaradeva wrote the first Gunamala, it was written on a small manuscript.


After I manage to acquire enough sachi pat, I plan to write a Ram Kirtan and a Kirtan if I am still alive. 


M.B.: Why is Tezpur University taking interest in traditional manuscript writing and processes?


R.N.: The Chemistry Department of Tezpur University is trying to understand the chemical properties of traditional colours and ink used in our manuscripts. The ink that is prepared in the traditional method has a very dark colour and it does not run easily. But this ink cannot be used in pens available in the market; it can be used only with traditional pens made from bamboo or feather. Since the ink is not refined it does not pass through the nib of modern pens. The University might try to refine it. Modern ink has acid and that is why it does not last long.


When scientists and professors at the University studied hengul (red colour made from mercury sulphide) and haital (colour derived from yellow arsenic) they found out that these colours are actually a form of slow poison and asked me to be careful while using it.


M.B.: Are you linked to any Satra?


R.N.: Yes, I am linked to Majuli’s Kamalabari Satra. I can read and recite manuscripts and therefore I provide my services at the Satra sometimes.


At Kaliabor we have a congregation of sixteen villages known as ‘hazaar sabha’. We have a temple under that sabha that was established in 1946. I am the Chairperson of that congregation. All the sixteen villages are unified and we are proud of that fact. I remain busy in the sabha’s activities.


M.B.: Does anyone know about manuscript painting and writing in all these Naamghars and Satras?


R.N.: No, no one knows how traditional manuscripts can be prepared. Not in the entire region. Not even in Majuli. In fact, I have been asked at Kamalabari Satra to conduct training so that monks can learn the traditional process. I haven’t had the time to carry out this work and moreover there is always scarcity of sachi pat. I have also been asked to visit and train people at Narayanpur that is the birthplace of another Vaishnava saint Madhabdev. Some of the schools and Koliabor College has shown interest and they want me to talk to their students about this practice.


M.B.: Why do think manuscript painting declined?


R.N.: I feel science and technology has destroyed it. Preparing manuscripts takes a lot of time and people always tend to go towards what is more convenient and easy. Moreover, with the introduction of modern education, people could not read or understand our traditional Bamunia and Gorgoiya scripts anymore. Even inside satras, namghars or prayer halls, pathaks place a traditional manuscript in front of them and use a printed copy of the same text from where they read out. This fact is a bitter truth.


Right now there is a renewed interest that has been created and promoted regarding manuscripts because of the publicity that Mridu has initiated. When he conducted a few workshops people have come to know about it and feel that it should be preserved – especially people who understand its value. This work will now hopefully reach young people and children.


M.B.: Do you plan to work together with other artists in future?


R.N.: I plan to work with Mridu only since I have learned from him. He has asked me to work under his banner. With these activities this aspect of our culture will hopefully remain alive. If children treat this as a subject in school they might take it seriously. They will at least be aware about the kind of creative work their forefathers did.