Saturday, November 10, 2018

Five Yogis, Shankaracharya, Mughal Painting, 17th Century

One of the earliest instance of western art mixing up with Kashmir.

"Plate 231/ Harvard 1983. 620 recto Hindu Holy Men Artist: attributed to Govardhan Mughal school Circa 1630-1635 24,1 x 15,2 cm Watercolour on paper Private Collection, Courtesy of the Harvard University Art Museums. Govardhan’s miniature brings to life five Hindu holy men meditating beneath a neem tree near an early Kashmiri temple close to Srinagar, seen in the background. Each portrait represents a stage of life. In the foreground, a languid youth with a golden sea of curls reclines opposite the figure, a middle-aged sanyasi whose other-worldly gaze, self-grown shawl of long hair, and claw-like fingernails attest to his shedding of almost every mundane activity. To his left, sits an older devotee, whose expressive, disciplined face implies both intellectual power and spiritual grace. At the left of the miniature, momentarily distracted from his elevated state, a dark-bearded figure with a mala (rosary) and a turban wound from his own hair, looks out beyond the frame. Behind 124 the others reclines a holy man whose tense expression hints of troubled dreams. In the foreground, a fire smoulders, producing both warmth and the ashes worn instead of clothing by these aspiring saints. Nudes are rare in Mughal art, and most of those known to us depict holy men. Although the pose of the naked chela (apprentice) here was inspired by an engraving of Saint Chrysostom, interpreted as an Odalisque by the German printmaker Barthold Beham (1502-1540), Govardhan not only changed her sex but trimmed several years from her age. So convincing is the young sadhu that Govardhan’s adjustments to the western prototype must have been studied from life. Inasmuch as Prince Dārā Shikoh was so concerned with the varieties of religious personality, it is likely that this remarkable picture, one of Mughal art’s most serious investigations of the human spirits, was commissioned by him. Literature: we are grateful to Gauvin Bailey for discovering Barthold Beham’s prototype, for which see: Bartsch 1978, vol. XV [8], No. 43."

~ Indian Paintings in the St. Petersburg Muraqqa by Stewart Cary Welch, 1996

The hill and temple depicted is probably Shankaracharya of Srinagar, the iconic symbol from the city. Although Welch identifies the tree as Neem, however, Neem is not that common in Kashmir and certainly not a common motif for art around Kashmir. It is possible the tree depicted is Brimji (celtis australis/Nettle Tree). Brimji is a common tree near holy sites of Kashmiri Pandits, this shade providing tree is considered holy by Kashmiris.

Asoka and Shankaracharya hill by Abanindranath Tagore, 20th century



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Govardhan was the son of Bhavani Das, a minor painter in the Mughal imperial atelier. Govardhan began his career during the reign of Akbar. Govardhan was a Khanazad (born in family), house born slaves, trained since birth for service to royal family.

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The Penance of Saint John Chrysostom by Barthel Beham, (1502–1540) was a German engraver, miniaturist and painter.

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On Khanazad





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