An illustrated manuscript of Books I and II of the Bhagavata Purana
Amber, circa 1750 Opaque watercolor and gold on paper, with cloth binding, 124 full-page illustrations. Images: 9 1/4 x 14 in. (23.4 x 35 cm) approx.; Folios: 12 x 16 1/2 in. (30.4 x 41.9 cm) approx.
Very few illustrated Hindu manuscripts of this size and quality have remained intact. As well as for its complete state, this monumental copy of 2 books from the Bhagavata Purana is remarkable for the condition and quality of its 124 paintings in the Jaipur/Amber style.
Many of the illustrations are straightforwardly didactic, providing a sort of visual reference book of Hindu mythology, with an emphasis on the defining characteristics of the various avatars of Vishnu and numerous other gods and heroes. The variety of formats, painting styles and clear enjoyment of the dramatic possibilities of the narrative ensure that the pictorial cycle is never routine. A depiction of King Manu, who plays a similar role to Noah in Hindu belief, aboard his ship with the various animals and plants with which he intends to repopulate the earth, and a marvellously atmospheric storm scene display the artists' full exploitation of the large surfaces available to them in dramatizing the narrative.
The paintings are also iconographically rare, depicting scenes from the seldom illustrated Books 1 and 2 of the Bhagavata Purana. Their richness in imagery derives from their importance as the opening chapters of the work, and particularly from their function to introduce the various avatars as well as many of the devotional principles underpinning the whole work.
The text in the manuscript is reduced to a narrow strip of Sanskrit followed by a short paraphrase in Hindi at the top of each painting. The emphasis on image over text, effectively turning illustrated works like the Bhagavata Purana and the Mahabharata into vast picture books, was pioneered in the court at Udaipur in the early 18th century. The spread of this format reflected a return to some of the forms of pre-Mughal manuscript production and a reassertion of confidence in Hindu manuscript production. These books would have originally been the opening chapters of an expansive and costly twelve-volume series. The vast artistic resources needed for a project of this scale is an eloquent testament to the power and aspirations of Hindu patrons in this period.
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