The well-known legend of Krishna’s Tulabharam is a story of devotion. Narada comes to Krishna’s wife, Satyabhama, and says he will take Krishna a slave unless she can trade him with an equal weight in gold. Krishna is made to sit on the scale, while jewellery is being heaped on the side. But nothing can equalise his weight, until his other wife, Rukmini, arrives with a sprig of tulsi. The scene of this courtroom, with its intricate drawing and gold detailing is a painting that’s part of “Amruta Kalasha” an exhibition at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, Delhi, curated by Roobina Karode.
The 200 works on display include Thanjavur and other south Indian paintings. It is a unique collection of 83-year-old architect Kuldip Singh. The paintings date as early as 19th century and depict rare subjects and stories that span the gamut of Hindu mythology. “I didn’t take a liking to them at first,” says Singh. Delhi-based Singh is known for his sculptural buildings, from the concrete arms that rise up like a namaste in the Palika Kendra to the ziggurat-like affirmation of the National Cooperative Development Corporation office. His work as a town planner took him to Chennai in the mid ’70s, where he relocated wholesale markets from George Town to the then outskirts of Koyambedu. He also worked on Kochi’s Marine Drive.
During his travels, he came across architectural antiques of carved Chettinad doors, wooden columns and rafters that were sold for a song. During one such trip, a friend requested for Thanjavur paintings, for his hotel project. Singh returned to Delhi with two works — depicting Kamadhenu and Krishna with his two wives. Since his friend did not like them for their gaudy colours and ostentatious detailing, Singh kept them in his office, in the hope he would return them to the dealer. They were never returned, and it led Singh to grow into the obsession for Thanjavur painting, its iconographies, myths and memories, widening the girth of his collection to over 350 paintings from across south India, arguably the largest in India. At the gallery, Singh’s collection of carved furniture and columns become part of the props in setting the scene.
Thanjavur was the centre of learning and culture in the 1800s. Maratha king Serfoji II has been credited for popularising this style of painting, yet Singh says his research led him to patronage of a different kind. “These paintings were common in ram mandirams or the bhajan muts, smaller temples, in the intricate networked localities. These should be seen as religious paintings and not as art because they were meant to be iconic, to be worshipped, to be in puja rooms,” says Singh. This idea reaffirms Anand Coomaraswamy’s premise that art is an integral part of Indian life. There was no art for art’s sake, as in the west, he said.
We see it explicitly in the Thanjavur painting of a kul devta, done on cloth, in the exhibition. Sri Parthsarthi Temple with Portraits of Devotees shows Vishnu with his consorts Sridevi and Bhudevi. There is a formal puja depicted at the bottom of the painting, while on either side in the corners are the devotees, husband and wife. Singh procured this from near the Chennai’s famous Kalpaleeswarar Temple in Mylapore.
The exhibition shows art both in narrative and iconic formats. “These paintings are made by ex-miniaturists. Many of them migrated from the Deccan, when they had no work, towards Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. And if you notice closely, the two styles of paintings — Mysore and Thanjavur — are product of the same clan. This trend continues to this day,” says Singh.
Singh, who spent over four decades collecting these paintings, has set up a laboratory in his office where conservationists clean the paintings. He takes pride in being able to date many of them. One such is Yamalarjuna Krishna, an Andhra painting on display, which shows an infant Krishna. “Through infrared reading we could identify the name of the paper company on which the painting was made. We sent the data to the paper manufacturers association in London since we estimated the painting to be dated from 1828, from Rajahmundry. They affirmed our findings saying that the Dutch East India Company used to dock here, and paper was imported into India at the time,” says Singh.
The imported paper used in these paintings was often made from waste material, including rags and some even had animal origin. “So the material was unsacred in a way. Also, these paintings were meant to self-destruct. They used gold leaf and foil, glue, natural dyes and sometimes the paper was stuck on wood, pieced together, for stability. The whole thing reacts differently to temperature and humidity,” says Singh.
While lithography arrived and changed the vocabulary of painting in early 20th century, it made it easy for even the poor to afford a deity. One such example is the painting of Vishnu, with the 1,000 names of the god written by the devotee on the entire paper. The drawing too is detailed in colour and writing, which turns the painting into a shrine. The exhibition is thus an ode to that devotion.
The exhibition is on at KNMA, Saket, till December 15