Assamese Scroll Painting: A Window to Assam's Artistic Heritage

Assam's artistic heritage is interwoven with a myriad of expressions, each capturing the essence of its history, culture, and spirituality. One of the most captivating facets of this artistic legacy is the Assamese scroll painting, a treasure trove of visual narratives is a unique form of art, often referred to as "Pattua painting" or "scroll painting,” or even "pattachitra," and this form of art encapsulates myths, legends, historical events, and spiritual tales in intricate and vibrant compositions. Originating from the heart of the seven sister states in North-East India, Assamese scroll painting is a testament to the profound influence of Vaishnavism, the spiritual renaissance led by luminaries like Sankardev, and the creative genius of artisans who brought these tales to life. This art form not only showcases the artistic prowess of the creators but also embodies the cultural richness, spiritual fervour, and historical significance that have shaped the identity of Assam over centuries.

Origins and Influence of Vaishnavism:

The artistic legacy of Assam finds a captivating expression in the realm of manuscript painting, a tradition that blossomed in resonance with the wave of Vaishnavism. The emergence of the manuscript painting tradition in Assam can be attributed to the direct influence of Neo-Vaishnavism, which was introduced by the esteemed leader, social reformer, and Vaishnava saint Sankardev (1449-1568 A.D.). The majority of these manuscripts were meticulously crafted using locally sourced and processed materials. Spanning from the 16th to the 19th centuries, this period witnessed a prolific production and replication of manuscript paintings, bearing the indelible mark of Assam's cultural continuum.

  

Portrait by Bishnu Prasad Rabha

 

Delving into antiquity, Assam's artistic journey unfurls through time, from prehistoric origins to the culmination of the Ahom dynasty's rule in 1826 A.D. Tracing back to its earliest mentions, a compelling anecdote emerges from the references in the Harivamsa and Dwarika-Lila, both ultimately derived from the Mahabharata. One notable mention is that of Chitralekha of Sonitpura, recognized as a prominent painter who created a sketch of Aniruddha, the grandson of Sri Krishna. Another significant reference appears in Banabhatta's Harsacharita, composed in the 7th century A.D., where it is documented that King Bhaskara of Kamarupa, a friend of King Harsa of Kanauj, presented the latter with "Elaborately carved boxes containing panels for painting along with brushes and gourds."

The stories of gods and goddesses, the epic tales of the Ramayana and Mahabharata, and the divine Leelas of Krishna provided a rich tapestry of narratives that could be translated onto canvas. The artists' ability to infuse these stories with deep emotion and spiritual fervour gave rise to a unique form of art that not only captured the teachings of Vaishnavism but also made them accessible to the masses.

Assamese painting exhibits a range of distinct styles that characterize its artistic landscape. These styles include the Tai-Ahom School, Sattriya School, Darrang School, and the Garhgaon School (court style). However, within scholarly circles, there exists a debate regarding the classification of these styles. Some scholars, notably Neog, Kalita, and Saikia, put forth alternative viewpoints, offering a classification of three to four styles, with considerations either inclusive or exclusive of the Tai-Ahom style.

According to this alternative perspective, the predominant styles can be grouped into three primary categories: the Sattriya style, the Court style encompassing Garhgaon, Provincial Mughal, and styles similar to Garhgaon, and the Darrang style when Tai-Ahom is not taken into account. These scholars further enrich the discourse by introducing a tripartite division of Assam's painting styles: the Sattriya style, the Rajghariya Style, and the Decoration-only style. In this context, the Decoration-only style pertains to manuscripts adorned with border embellishments rather than intricate illustrations.

Interestingly, another perspective of scholars is to simplify the categorization to two distinct styles of Assamese manuscript painting. These two styles encompass the Sattriya style rooted in Sattras or Vaisnavite monasteries, and the Ahom Rajsabha style associated with the artistic expressions of the Ahom court. This divergence in perspectives among scholars adds layers of complexity to our understanding of Assamese painting and the varied interpretations of its rich artistic heritage.

Let's explore some of these styles:

 

Tai-Ahom Style

The Tai-Ahom style of Assamese scroll painting draws its origins from the migration of the Ahoms from Upper Burma to Upper Assam, bringing with them their cultural heritage and artistic skills. Notable examples of this style include the Phung Chin manuscript illustrated in Ahom language, dated to 1473 A.D., and the Suktanta Kympong, an illustrated manuscript in Ahom script from around 1523 A.D. These manuscripts, such as the Phung Chin, which is among the earliest extant illustrated manuscripts of Assam, are preserved at DHAS (Department of Historical and Antiquarian Studies, Guwahati). While these manuscripts may feature figurative line drawings and sketches, they might not strictly fall under the category of painting. The Tai-Ahom style also encompasses other manuscripts like Phe-Ban (Omen & Divination), Kukura-Theng (Chicken bone Divination), and Phura-long (Jataka Story), reflecting a unique cultural heritage and artistic expression.


Sattriya Style

The Sattriya style of Assamese scroll painting finds its origins within the Vaishnavite monasteries of Assam. This distinctive style was developed and nurtured in these monasteries, strongly influenced by the Bhakti movement initiated by Sankardev from the 16th century onwards. These monastic institutions, known as Satras, played a pivotal role in shaping the societal, religious, and cultural landscape of medieval Assam.

The paintings within the Sattriya style were meticulously crafted by Vaishnava monks residing in these Satras. While the introduction of painting in the context of drama can be attributed to Sankardev's scroll painting for "Chinayatra," this style gradually evolved into the distinct Sattriya style. Characterized by the use of colors known as "Hengul" and "Haital," it incorporates local architectural designs and clothing that are emblematic of the Satra culture.

Illustrated manuscripts like "Chitra Bhagwata" or "The Bhagawata Purana, Book X" from Bali Satra of Nogoan serve as prime examples of the Sattriya style. This artistic tradition further shines through manuscripts such as "Bhakti Ratnavali," "Bhagavata Purana," "Bar Kirtan," and more, each eloquently capturing the essence of devotion and spirituality.

 

A scene from Chitra Bhagavata, Narowa Bali Satra.

 

Court Style 

The Court style, also referred to as Rajghariya or Garhgaon style, emerged under the patronage of the Ahom Kingdom's court artists. The Ahom rulers, beginning with Rudra Singha (A.D. 1696–1714), initiated this style, leading to the development of intricate and vibrant paintings. This style flourished under the reign of rulers like Siva Singha, Pramathesvari Devi, and Ambika Devi. It was further enriched by professional artisans from Sattras and even professional Mughal artists who were invited to the court. Notable works within this style include illustrations of "Gita Govinda," "Hastividyarnava," "Sankhachuda-vadha," and "Lavakusar Yuddha." The Court style's fusion of indigenous and Mughal influences resulted in captivating paintings that depicted both royal and secular subjects.

 

Sankachura vadh illustration.

 

Darrang Style

The Darrang style, emerging from the Darrang region, draws inspiration from the Sattriya pictorial idiom. Although not as refined as its counterparts in Majuli, the Darrang style manuscripts contribute to the Assamese painting tradition. While not as prevalent as other styles, the Darrang style offers a unique perspective and reflects the artistic diversity within Assamese scroll painting.

  

Materials Used

Assamese scroll paintings are crafted using a range of locally available materials that harmonise with the region's natural resources. The canvas, often made from Sanchi bark or tulapat (cotton paper), provides a stable base for the intricate designs. The rich, earthy colors of the paintings are derived from natural pigments sourced from minerals, plants, and insects, giving them their distinct hues. The ink, known as "mahi," is carefully prepared from ingredients like bull's urine, Elandhu soot, and barks of specific trees, contributing to the paintings' clarity and durability. Brushes made from bamboo and animal hair are used for precision, while binders, adhesives, and organic varnishes from plant-based materials help preserve and protect the artwork. This intricate interplay of local materials and artistic craftsmanship underscores the deep connection between nature and Assamese scroll paintings, enriching their cultural and aesthetic significance.


Preserving the Legacy

The legacy of Assamese scroll painting, despite its historical significance and artistic beauty, faced a decline over the centuries. The upheavals caused by the Moamoria rebellion and Burmese invasions, coupled with the collapse of the Ahom rule, cast a shadow on this cherished tradition. However, efforts to revive and preserve this heritage have been ongoing, with institutions, scholars, and artists working together to ensure that the embers of this art form continue to burn bright. Over time, there has been a gradual waning of interest in this historically significant art form. The presence of American Baptist missionaries in North-eastern India contributed to its decline. However, in the post-independence era, a renewed vigour for revival and preservation has emerged among scholars, contemporary historians, and artists. Their collaborative endeavours have played a pivotal role in safeguarding numerous precious manuscripts. Presently, only a handful of artists in Assam engage in practising this ancient painting style, and the majority of them are self-taught.

Contemporary artisans are primarily centred on the aesthetic and cultural significance of this ancient artistic tradition. Due to the limited availability of traditional materials like Sanchipat and Tulapat, these artists have transitioned to using modern mediums such as canvas and cloth. Beyond exclusively depicting religious scriptures, many artists have expanded their scope to include welcome notes, invitation cards, and even contemporary figures on Sanchi barks, employing the original natural hues that have garnered the admiration of both art enthusiasts and the general public alike. Furthermore, there are a few families who continue to favour manuscripts over bound books for their religious practices, engaging these artists as their patrons. However, the majority of these artists and their activities are primarily centred within the Satra Institutions of Assam. They hold aspirations of achieving a broader platform to disseminate their ancient artform across the nation.

In nurturing this unique artistic heritage, we not only honour the past but also ensure that its luminescence guides us into a future enriched by the beauty and wisdom of centuries gone by. 


Sources: 

  1. Boruah, P. (2009). The Illustrated Manuscripts of Assam: A Brief Study. 5, 2885.
  2. Arts of India.  Assamese Miniature Painting. Retrieved from https://www.artsofindia.in/arts-of-india-blog/post/indian-arts-and-crafts/assamese-miniature-painting.html
  3. Gupta, R. D. (1972). Eastern Indian Manuscript Painting. D. B. Taraporevala Sons.
  4. Kalita, A. (2017). Education through Museum: A Historical Study of the Assam State Museum, Guwahati. International Journal of Humanities & Social Science Studies (IJHSSS), 3(5), 347-353. ISSN: 2349-6959 (Online), ISSN: 2349-6711 (Print). Published by Scholar Publications, Karimganj, Assam, India, 788711. Website: http://www.ijhsss.com.
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