The Assam School of Painting
Primarily due to the emergence of Sankaradeva's religion which made the use of manuscripts universal in Assam, a vibrant cottage industry came into being and there were distinct communities - the khanikars, the Likhaks and the Patuās - whose subsidiary means of livelihood was the transcription and illustration of manuscripts.
In fact, seen in this light, the Neo Vaisnavite Movement of Sankaradeva and Madhavadeva initiated an economic resurgence, the likes of which is unique in Assam. Working under the guidance of the Vaisnava preachers, these artists inaugurated the Assam School of Painting.
A Great Impetus
“The impulse to create the art of painting can be explained by the evolution of the worship of religious scripture. The cult of worship of scripture in the altar of each Satra enjoyed unprecedented impetus. The practice was also followed in the domestic chapel of each and every household in Assam. The reason behind the phenomenal growth of (painted) religious transcripts in innumerable number can alone be attributed to this practice.”
The Satras used to patronize and support their own persons called khanikars to work with their penmanship. Many bibliophiles also came forward to support the khanikars for their penmanship. The local kings also did not lag behind in this respect.
The skilled and artistic penmanship of the scribes was so much on demand that one scribe usually specialized in the copying of one particular book instead of becoming a free-lancer in his profession. The skill of a painter was generally requisitioned to decorate the labors of penmanship. The scribe was sometimes a painter himself and, if not, a regular painter supplemented the work of the transcriber by sketches on spaces left vacant for that purpose.
The Subjects of the Paintings
The stories of the Bhagavata, the Puranas, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the epics were generally illustrated. When pictures could not be inserted, illuminated margins occasionally made up the deficiency. Manuscripts with illustrated borders were known as latā-katā puthi or manuscripts with scrolls and running motifs along the borders. Many manuscripts contain pictures of the deadly sins, of the glory of Visnu, and of His incarnations according to Hindu conception.
Pictures of Sankaradeva sitting in a siksha-mudra posture and surrounded by his apostles are met with occasionally in his biographies eg, in the Vanamālidevar Carita and on the obverse of the first folio of the Guru Carit Kathā, collected by the famous scholar Bani Kanta Kakati and deposited in the manuscript section of the Gauhati University. Rajatananda Dasgupta of the Benares Hindu University gives an appraisal of this picture as a “great leap forward in portrait painting.”
The Guru showeth the way..
From the caritas, it is found that Sankaradeva was also a master painter possessing extensive knowledge about the nuances and aesthetics of the art of book illustration and painting. After he had finished writing his celebrated Gunamala, the Guru painted on tulāpāt, with vermillion and yellow arsenic, the picture of an elephant, and pasted it on the wooden book case in which the manuscript was placed. This he did apparently to depict with the paint-brush the metaphor of 'elephant in a pot'.
On another occasion, he is said to have painted the sapta Vaikuntha (the seven Vaikunthas) on tulāpāt.
Thus, it was the benign touch of the Guru which showed the way to the future artists of the Assam School of Painting.
The Materials Used in Painting
All combinations of colors were used. The prominent ones were yellow and green.
The materials used in painting are :
- yellow ochre (geru māti)
- hengul (vermillion) one of the chief components used
- hāitāl (yellow arsenic) also one of the chief components, and
These materials could easily give the basic colors and even a few composite ones. The use of a crude variety of chalk (dhal) sometimes in the preparation of the painting surface in many cases accounts for the decay of the color of, and sometimes the paintings themselves
At least one hundred manuscripts belonging to the Assam School, which are “painting in its real sense”, have been discovered so far, each manuscript containing, on an average, forty such polychrome paintings. The art of painting in Assam flourished from the Sankari period (15 th - 16 th century AD) until the last part of the 19 th century.