The Palas of Bengal first introduced the Indian miniatures which are small-scale, highly detailed paintings. They are a living tradition with many contemporary artists still pursuing the art form.
Assam, the heart of the seven sister states of the Northeast, has a rich history of painting and craftsmanship. Bana, the court poet of King Harshavardhana made the presence of miniature paintings on manuscripts first come to light. He had clearly described the gifts sent to King Harshavardhana from King Bhaskaravarma, the ruler of Kamrup, that included items like a pair of wooden panels which had colour pots with small gourds and brushes on one side on Agaru bark. This clearly indicates that they were used for painting small designs or miniatures.
Themes Of Manuscripts In Assam
Manuscripts in Assam illustrate stories from the Bhagavata, the Puranas, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. However, manuscripts are not just about religious content. Charitra puthis are independent volumes were written showing the lives and achievements of prominent religious reformers and saints, both male and female. One of the earliest scholars and officials to have touched upon the area of Assamese miniature paintings. Hem Chandra Goswami, was informed about a manuscript on botany.
The Uniqueness Of Assamese Miniature Painting
Manuscripts were drawn on manuscript leaves which comprise two materials, Sanchipat, made from the bark of the Aloe tree and Tulapat, made from pressed cotton. Preparing leaves involve various steps like curing, seasoning and polishing the raw slices. Also converting them into folios so that they can retain the ink. The ink, also known as Mahi, was prepared from silikha, bull’s urine, amlaka extracts, elandhu soot, and barks of certain trees. The quality of this ink results in the distinctness and legibility of the paintings.
Khanikars are the artists of the manuscripts. They are generally traditional wood carvers who also worked as make-up men during Bhaonas, a traditional Assamese drama form. The pictorial representation of the manuscripts is all about horizontal progression different to rectangular progression in Mughal paintings. Importance is given to the contours, symmetry, and movements of the figures rather than the physiology or individuality of the characters. Paintings are done on arched panels and the background is generally monochromatic red/blue/grey or brown.
The eye-catching feature of certain manuscripts is the size of all the illustrations on them. They are very small, or miniatures. Painting miniatures on manuscripts allows for completing the whole storytelling in a single manuscript only.
Assamese Miniature Painting At Present
With the passage of time, there has been a gradual decrease in interest in this painting of historical importance with the arrival of the American Baptist missionaries as one of the main reasons. But in this post-independence era, academicians, modern historians, and artists have shown a keen interest in its revival and conservation and concern to take it to a new height. Their collective efforts have helped in preserving many valuable manuscripts. At present, very few artists in Assam are practising this ancient style of painting and most of them are self-taught. The 21st-century artists mainly focus on the aesthetic and cultural value of this age-old art form without losing its original essence. Given the lack of availability of Sanchipat and Tulapat, artists are using modern base mediums like canvas and cloth that indeed are becoming sensations.
Assamese miniature painting is part of a rich cultural heritage of Assam and India presenting it worldwide. It grew during the medieval period the most. Many painting forms influenced it and were used to preserve and spread knowledge in the wider society overseas. They have also tried to incorporate the idioms of changing times. As well as they are hopeful that dedicated artists will maintain and carry forward the art form for future use and expression.