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The Laur-Chanda Paintings: A Tale of Sufi Romance

The Laur-Chanda Paintings: A Timeless Theme Through Diverse Styles

Certain romances are timeless: they transcend the boundaries of time, fate, and circumstance. In this blog, we explore yet another tale of forbidden love. As Laur and Chanda get entangled in a web of societal norms and personal desires, will they be able to persevere and triumph against all odds? Read on to discover the story of these star-crossed lovers and explore the Laur-Chanda paintings in detail.

The Story Portrayed through the Laur-Chanda Paintings

 Laur-Chanda Paintings
The tale of Laur and Chanda is the oldest surviving Sufi love story. It was penned by the creative genius Maulana Daud, a Sufi poet from Dalmau (modern-day Uttar Pradesh). 

This poem dates back to around 1377-78 A.D. Daud wrote the poem in the Avadhi language but also used Persian masnavi conventions, creating an Indo-Islamic masterpiece that resonates with audiences even today. But what makes this narrative stand out?

At its core, the story revolves around the mutual love of Laur and Chanda. Some say that Maulana Daud was inspired by a similar North Indian story, but who knows? Since he was from Dalmau, it could have been a local Dalmau folk tale. Performances of this story are still popular today.

A Fateful Encounter

 Laur-Chanda Paintings
Laur and Chanda in the Forest, ca. 1525–50. Image credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Chanda was a beautiful woman and the daughter of King Sahadev of Govar. She was very young when she was married to a blind prince. Once, a beggar named Bajir happened to see her. Bajir was so enraptured by the then-twelve year old Chanda that he would sing her praises everywhere he went.

His songs soon reached King Rupchand and convinced him that life would not be the same without Chanda in it. Rupchand does not care about the consequences of this desire and chooses to invade Chanda’s father’s kingdom.

Backed into a corner, King Sahadeva sought the help of Laurak Veer, who ruled over a neighbouring kingdom. Laurak, or Laur, helps defeat King Rupchand but also falls in love with Chanda along the way. His love is unrequited, for Chanda falls for him too. With the help of her Brihaspat, they meet in secret and eventually elope.

Love, Struggle and Hardship in the Laur-Chanda Miniatures

The young couple faced another obstacle: turns out Laur isn’t single either! Maina, his wife, frowned upon his eagerness to mingle and entrusted Sirjan, a caravan leader, with the task of discovering his whereabouts. Snakebites, gambling kings, and thieves were some of the challenges the couple encountered in their quest to find happiness. Maina also tried relentlessly to win her husband back. 

Five manuscripts of this story survive today. Despite this, not a single ending has survived; thus, nobody knows how the story ends. Do the two get a happily-ever-after? Or do Maina and Chanda’s husband come back to reclaim what they believe is rightfully theirs? 

Actually, some manuscripts show that Laur and Chanda return to his kingdom eventually. Chanda becomes his second wife, and Maina accepts this decision. Perhaps that is truly where their story ends.

The Manuscripts and Laur-Chanda Paintings

Very few Laur-Chanda manuscripts exist today; five, to be exact. All of them have certain sections missing and distinct visual styles. A major part of each of the five manuscripts is part of the collection of:

1. Bharat Kala Bhavan, Benaras

2. Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), Mumbai

3. Orientabteilung Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin-Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin (Berlin State Library)

4. John Rylands Research Institute and Library, University of Manchester

5. Parts of the fifth manuscript are split between the Government Museum and Art Gallery, Chandigarh and the Lahore Museum and Karachi Museum, Pakistan.

The manuscripts are thus generally known by the name of the museum they belong to, or the name of the city the museum is in. Individual folios from these are also found in other private and museum collections.

Exploring the Laur-Chanda Manuscripts in Detail

Despite the fragmented nature of the surviving manuscripts, Laur-Chanda continues to inspire artists and scholars alike. Maulana’s original poem was, in fact, the first Hindi manasvi ever, which in turn inspired other poets as well.

All of the Laur-Chanda paintings were created between the mid-15th and first half of the 16th century. Unlike the common horizontal format of Sanskrit manuscripts, the Laur-Chanda manuscripts are in the vertical codex format, a characteristic associated with Persian and Arabic painting traditions.

Let’s take a look at them in detail.

The Berlin Laur-Chanda Paintings

The Berlin manuscript is the oldest of the five manuscripts, dating back to 1450–70. It shows a strong influence of Jain Manuscript painting. Some historians believe that it is associated with Malwa. It actually seems to be a blend of visual elements from different regions, which may allude to the painters having travelled to other parts of the country and absorbed their stylistic choices.

The Benares Laur-Chanda Paintings

The Benares Laur-Chanda Paintings date back to the second half of the 15th century. These narrative illustrations feature a bold colour palette. They stylistically resemble the Laur-Chanda Paintings of the Berlin manuscript.

The Lahore-Chandigarh Laur-Chanda Paintings

This manuscript is grouped with the paintings in the Chaurapanchasika group.

Males wear a transparent jama with four pointed tails and a patka (belt) with it. They are dressed as nobles and rich elites. In the upper registers, a Muslim cleric is dressed in white and holding a book. He is present in every single illustration and represents Maulana Daud himself.

Human figures have beak-like sharp projecting noses and narrow pointed chins with a roll visible below. This face type is exactly the same as the Gujarati manuscript illustrations, in profile, except the further eye is not present.

Women have elongated, narrow eyes with a lot of white visible and wear a semi circular hara with a small point in the centre that sometimes overlaps with the choli. Sometimes they wear a long, horizontal ivory bar through their earlobes. They have narrow waists and wear long skirts (ghagras) with chequered patterns.Their hair is plaited, long, and adorned with white flowers. Men have the same eye and nose shape, with curved moustaches or side whiskers.

The Mumbai Laur-Chanda Paintings

 Laur-Chanda Paintings
Three Ladies in a Palace Interior, 1520–30. Image credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art from the CSMVS collection

The above painting is from the CSMVS manuscript. It is one of the three that seamlessly combines Persian and Indian motifs. In this painting, Chanda and her attendant wear long pleated ghagras with fine transparent odhnis.

The Mumbai Laur-Chanda paintings also share similarities with the Nimatnama-i-Nasiruddin-Shahi from Mandu, Madhya Pradesh, c. 1500. Some of the fabric designs are quite similar, as are the postures and compositions. Detailed motifs adorn the tile and textile patterns of this manuscript. This manuscript also has an interesting colour palette consisting of pink and pastel shades.

The Manchester Laur-Chanda Paintings

Another series of Laur-Chanda comprises an impressive 286 miniatures. It is the most extensive manuscript of the Laur-Chanda theme, despite missing many of its pages. Its characteristic distinguishing features are a pastel palette, intricately detailed fabrics, and the use of gold leaf and silver paint.

The Manchester Laur-Chanda paintings contain stylistic elements similar to those of the Nimatnama, as well as Deccan Miniature painting. It also includes notable Persian elements like Persian architecture, domes, and a high horizon line highlighted in gold. It also shows an Indian treatment of flora and fauna. Since the Deccan region was a melting pot of cultural beliefs, it seems very likely that the Manchester manuscript originated in the region.

Concluding Thoughts on the Laur-Chanda Paintings

 Laur-Chanda Paintings
Laur and Chanda are attacked by a trickster. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Laur-Chanda paintings explore the Sufi understanding of devotion. The lovers overcoming obstacles to be with each other is a metaphor for the quest to be united with God. Laur, the valiant hero, is torn between duty and desire. Chanda, the epitome of beauty, is also a symbol of daring resilience. Their love, separation, and eventual reconciliation display clearly the eternal struggle between love and societal norms.

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By Melissa D’Mello

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