Evolving from the 16th Century, the Manuscript Paintings of Assam have a long history.
These Manuscripts are polychrome paintings which are done on materials like ‘Sanchipat’, which is the bark of the Agar Tree or ‘Tulapat’ which is a wooden plate made of handmade paper pulp. Along with the paintings, the manuscripts contain written descriptions as well- depicting various narratives. The craftsmen who work on these paintings are called ‘Khanikars’ and the scribes are known as ‘Lekhaks’. The dyes and ink used in the process are taken from natural sources like Indigo,Haital (Arsenic Sulphide) and Hengul (Mercury Sulphide). The ink taken from materials like Silikha (Yellow Myrobalan) and bull’s urine is known to be very durable and strong- as even after all these years the manuscripts are found to be readable with a good clarity.
An demo of Assamese Manuscript painting by artist Mridu Moucham Bora
THEMES SURROUNDING THE PAINTINGS
The paintings depicted illustrations of stories from various religious sources like the Bhagvata, the Puranas, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. A lot of these manuscripts hold their own individual characteristics, and apart from depicting religious scriptures, have also become home to many narratives about various kingdoms and its activities- kings, queens, soldiers in battlefields and people from daily walks of life- thus becoming a reliable and inclusive medium for storytelling.
Historical Roots of the Artform- How did it develop?
Manuscript Paintings of Assam developed under Vaishnavite monasteries known as Satra, which is a socio-religious and cultural institution. Inspired by the Bhakti Movement set forth by Saint Sankaradeva, this institution was established in the 16th century to bring to the people Bhakti Ideals in a manner that is accessible to all.
Along with aiming for spiritual growth, the institution also formed a societal revolt; wanting to bring social change and development in the state.
The institution stood for equality in rights; with no strict boundaries for its devotees. It is said that the Satras preaches Vaishnavism, one of the Bhakti cults of India that shared values of fraternity, equity, humanism and democracy thus creating an egalitarian civil society.
The belief of finding liberation in the ‘non dual’ sense- of becoming one with Vishnu was made accessible to all no matter the sex, caste or creed
. Art was encouraged-poetry, drama, music and painting were used as ways of depicting visual narratives and so a culture of art and its appreciation was formed within the institution.
Thus, like all other forms of art, these manuscript paintings emerged out of such dense societal and cultural realities.
Present Scenario- Preservation of an age old Practice
With a decline in the practice of Manuscript Painting due to political conflicts and of course, the introduction of technology in Assam, we have only a handful of artists still practising the artform. Some of these are associated with Satra while some of them have individually acquired the skills required to practise the artform. A better understanding of the artform and its promotion would help a long way into allowing the artform to flourish further and not lose its essence. Various scholars and institutions have shown a deep interest in interpreting the old manuscripts that are still preserved in Assam and are studied as a means of developing a connection with our past.However, the past and the present don’t exist without one another- and as we take the help of ancient artforms to trace the course of history, it becomes important for us to take steps to preserve these artforms in the present as well. A good starting point would be, perhaps, for us to familiarise ourselves with them. Join us at MeMeraki as we introduce to you many more artforms like Manuscript Paintings of Assam.
Written by -Saras Jaiswal