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The Lavanyavati Manuscripts of Orissa

An Introduction to the Tale of Lavanyavati

Long before paper made its way to southern India, artists were using engraving techniques to create art on palm leaves. These palm leaf manuscripts of the past tell many local stories in innovative ways. Manuscript making was quite popular in Odisha, which is where the ‘Romance of Chandrabhanu and Lavanyavati’ originates from.

This story, also known as ‘Lavanyavati’, or ‘Labanyabati’, is a romantic text written by Upendra Bhanja. The narrative comprises the love story between Chandrabhanu, the prince of Karnataka, and Lavanyavati, the princess of the fictional kingdom of Sinhala.

Lavanyavati: An Odia Classic

Folio from a Lavanyavati manuscript, 1800–1825. Image credit: University of Wisconsin

The work begins with a sadhu who carries around a portrait of princess Lavanyavati at the insistence of his patron, the king of Sinhala. The sadhu shows the portrait to many princes, including Chandrabhanu. They all fall hopelessly in love with her; so great is her beauty, so irresistible her charm. But Chandrabhanu is the only one with whom Lavanyavati falls in love.

This tale is interlinked with the Ramayana in a rather peculiar way. The heroine likens her hero to Ram and thus relates herself to Sita. Thus, some episodes from the Ramayana serve as a plot device to heighten the heroine’s feelings of love.

Upendra Bhanja was an Odia poet and composer. Born into a royal family, his work gave him great renown. He was also known as ‘Kabi Samrat’ or ‘Emperor of Poets’. He wrote about 52 books, including the Baidehisha Bilasa, Subhadra Parinaya, Premasudhanidhi, Rasika Harabali, and many other poetic and literary works.

The Palm-Leaf Manuscripts of Orissa

Leaf from a Lavanyavati manuscript. Image credit: Odisha State Museum

Tala Pattachitra is the art of writing and drawing on palm leaves. It is a version of Pattachitra painting that preceded the introduction of paper in south India. The artist first uses a sharp stylus to carve out designs on the palm leaves. Then they rub in charcoal, which settles in the engraved areas and creates an impactful monochrome design.

These manuscripts are also called pothi chitra as the individual leaves were bound together in a single folio called a pothi. Due to the extremely fragile nature of Odisha’s palm leaf manuscripts, it is difficult to find old pothis in good condition.

In a previous blog, we delved into Odisha’s palm leaf manuscripts. The Buddhists and Jains popularised writing and illustrating on palm leaves. They were easily available and somewhat resistant to insects. The palmyra palm leaf used in Odisha, however, is not as durable as some other types of palm leaves. They were also not immune to the damage caused by white ants.

  • Did you know? In places where palm leaf manuscripts were used, early Sanskrit illustrations continued to use the horizontal format instead of the vertical one, even after the introduction of paper.

Meet the Illustrators of the Lavanyavati Manuscripts

Leaf from a Lavanyavati manuscript, late 1700s. Image credit: The Cleveland Museum of Art

Was the Lavanyavati a popular theme? All signs point to yes. The length and narratives of this poetic text made it perfect for illustration. As such, many illustrators adopted the theme and provided us with diverse interpretations. Some stuck to the contents of the original text, whereas others chose to expand the narrative and work in other elements.

Unlike most crafts and art forms in India, the making of palm leaf manuscripts was not a hereditary profession. The scribes who wrote the texts were called karanas, which is another way of referring to the kayasth caste. The karanas developed a distinctive cursive font of writing called the karani.

But along with the eminent karna illustrators Sarathi Madala Patnaik and Brajanatha Badajena, also existed individuals like Dhananjaya and Balabhadra Pathy, who were Brahmins. Raghunath Prusti, another illustrator of the Lavanyavati, was from the merchant caste. Thus, it seems like any literate individual could become a palm leaf illustrator if they so wanted. This is atypical of the illustrating traditions of India, which were sometimes restricted to a particular family or community.

The Dispersed Lavanyavati

Page from a Dispersed Romance of Chandrabhanu and Lavanyavati. 16th–17th century. Image credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The first Lavanyavati manuscript we will look at is remarkable due to its elegance, intricacy, and precision. The compositions are uncluttered, the free spaces emanating a sense of opulence and decadence. A simple yet refined linework allows the artist to work in minute details effortlessly. Decorative textiles, diverse architectural elements, and a clear attention to detail led the scholar Joanna Williams to render the  ‘Dispersed’ Lavanyavati ‘a touchstone of quality in Oriya palm-leaf illustration’.

A page from a Lavanyavati, Orissa, 18th century. Image credit: Christie’s

This manuscript features a diverse colour palette of black, white, red, yellow, blue, green and orange. The work is undated, but scholars place it somewhere between the 17th and 19th centuries. It shows most human figures in profile view, and at certain places the artist shades an upper corner to portray the sky.

The Lavanyavati Manuscript by Raghunath Prusti

Leaf from a Lavanyavati manuscript, Raghunath Prusti, circa 1880 (made). Image source: Victoria and Albert Museum

Another Lavanyavati manuscript that we must discuss is Raghunath Prusti’s rendition of the Oriya classic. He was the son of an oil-man, and belonged to the merchant caste. His Lavanyavati manuscript was commissioned by the Subudhi merchant family, who paid him in kind: food in exchange for the few pages he drew per day. Prusti’s characteristic quality is the fine linework he employed, which is devoid of the varied colours we find in some of the other versions.

We can trace this manuscript’s development as local families preserved four of his manuscripts, which were all commissions. Prusti worked in the village of Mundamarai, Orissa, completing his oeuvre in the late 19th century. Today, thirteen of his manuscripts have survived.

Image credit: The Two-Headed Deer

His Lavanyavati manuscript is more extensive and densely illustrated than any of his other works. He also took liberties with the narrative, choosing to omit certain scenes from the original Lavanyavati but including many that were not present in it. Prusti strays away from the traditional Pata tradition of drawing human figures only in profile view, choosing to sometimes show a frontal face view or even a 45-degree angle.

The Round Lavanyavati

Image credit: The Two-Headed Deer

The Round Lavanyavati contains all ten stanzas of the poem and faithfully depicts each and every event. While many Lavanyavati illustrators take certain narrative liberties, the ‘Round’ illustrator sticks to the original far more than any of the other illustrators do. This manuscript features a vibrant use of pure red and yellow colour in certain areas.

The Round Lavanyavati is currently at the National Museum of Delhi. True to its name, it features large circular elements and curved line work. This circular consistency permeates even the shapes of the faces and hairlines of human figures. This manuscript also sticks closely to traditional Pattachitra painting conventions. There are some exceptions, however, such as the occasional front-facing figure and slightly realistic touches. 

The Lavanyavati Manuscript by Balabhadra Pathy

Image credit: The Two-Headed Deer

Pathy’s version is intense and poetic. He carefully sets his scenes amidst beautiful scenery, and the viewer responds emotionally to his impactful illustrations. He used transparent washes of red and blue to create depth, adding black to depict water, hair and other fine details.

Image credit: The Two-Headed Deer

We will be able to better understand the style of the manuscript if we liken it to a dance or drama performance. All the characters assume a highly exaggerated and dramatic pose so that their emotions are clearly conveyed. In certain scenes, a group of people comment on the ongoing situations, perhaps like a chorus of singers—a device used in early Orissa performances of the Ram-Leela.

The Preservation of Palm Leaf Manuscripts Today

Folio from a Lavanyavati-Chandra Banu Manuscript. India, Odisha (Orissa), early 19th century. Image credit: Los Angeles County Museum of Art

After paper became the preferred medium for writing, palm leaf manuscripts became a rare sight. In Odisha, palm leaf manuscripts were still used well into the 19th and 20th centuries. Such manuscripts were placed in the puja room and temples. Writing holy texts on tala pattachitra was also a sign of reverence; they were often marked with sandalwood paste as a sign of respect for the book itself.

The Adhyatma Ramayana, Durga and Hanumana Stuti, Ramlila, and Vaidehisa Vilasa are some other Odia works that inspired many pothis. The Odisha State Museum houses 37,273 manuscripts made of materials such as palm leaf, bamboo leaf, bark, old paper, and even ivory.

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By Melissa D’Mello, Content Writer at Rooftop.

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