Nala and Damayanti - The Naisadhacharita and the Kangra paintings

The Naisadhacharita and the Kangra paintings

The Naisadhacharita and the Kangra paintings

a) The Naishadhacharita

It is perhaps proper to add here a few words about one of the most famous poems on Nala's story after the Nalopakhyana of Mahabharata, upon the early part of which it is clearly based: the great kavya of the XIIth century, the Naishadhacharita by Sriharsa.

Sriharsa was a poet at the court of the King of Kanyakubja. Innumerable stories and legends testify to his great panditya, or scholarship. His father is said to have been defeated in a scholarly duel, shastrartha, by another poet, following which he charged his son with the task of avenging him. Sriharsa then went on acquiring knowledge ceaselessly and learning from every possible pandit till he felt confident to return to the court of his father's patron where he was recognized as the greatest of poets. Sriharsa is said to have produced a great many works but his most famous kavya is the Naishadhacharita. The story goes that the King wanted the poet to go to Kashmir to have his work approved by Sarasvati, the goddess of learning, who presided there in person. Sriharsa proceeded to Kashmir and there received Saraswati's blessings, but not before having a learned argument even with her.

Sriharsha's language is considered to be extremely sophisticated.

The Naisadhacharita and the Kangra paintings

The Naisadhacharita and the Kangra paintings

The entire Naishadhacharita with its 22 cantos containing more than 20000 verses is an occasion for a dazzling exercise in the display of virtuosity. He employs chandas of the most complex variety. Of his encyclopaedic knowledge there is plenty of evidence throughout. One example will be sufficient for the reader to measure the dexterity of the writer: during Damayanti's Swayamvar, the goddess Sarasvati describes the four gods seated next to Nala. But since she does not wish to disclose their identity, she provides a description of each person in words which can have at least two meanings. When she describes Indra, for example, read in one way the verse is applicable to Indra, but read in another, it is equally descriptive of Nala.

However the most important point to note here is that the Naishadhacharita carries the story only through the honey moon at Nishadha. It starts and ends as a love story. Nala's loss of his throne, his vicissitudes and separation from Damayanti upto his final reunion with her and his reinstatement are absent. The fault of Nala, which gives the opportunity for Kali to enter him and wreck his life and happiness, never occurs. The poem has only kept the "fairy tale" aspect and the sringar rasa is the dominating flavour all throughout. The poet describes at great length the happiness of the young married couple and the text closes on a beautiful, scene of Nala and Damayanti looking at the moon frpm the veranda of their palace.

The reason we have chosen to refer to this poem in particular is because it has inspired a series of miniatures said to be amongst the most refined and delicate of all Indian paintings.

Of course the illustration of the Nala and Damayanti story did not start with the poem of Sriharsa. A Gujarati manuscript of the XVth century was based on a poem called Nalacampu of Trivikrama Bhatta. A Mahabharata manuscript of the the 16th century contains illustrations of the Nalopakhyana. But by far, the most well known series of paintings closely follows the Naishadhacharita text: this is a series of 48 drawings, 29 of which are in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and form part of the great collection of Rajput pictures gathered by Dr. Ananda Coomaraswamy. A second series based upon the same text has surfaced later and is presently in the Jammu Museum.

The Naisadhacharita and the Kangra paintings

The Naisadhacharita and the Kangra paintings


b) The Coomaraswamy drawings

This series of drawings dates from the latter part of the 18th century and is attributed to painters of the Kangra state under the enlightened patronage of Raja Sansar Chand (1775 1823), a king who had many artists in his employ. Except for one or two, these pictures represent unfinished Kangra paintings similar to many others of their kind (perhaps master sketches kept in the family of the Pahari artists and which served as models, namoonas, for subsequent pictures). The series in fact consists largely of drawings exe9uted in bistre with a fine brush, and although colour is indicated in many of them they illustrate the art of pure drawing. Their style is known as "Kangra kalam"* (brush, style), and was at its height during the reign of this King.


 *According to Dr Ananda Coomaraswamy, the famous art historian, Rajput painting in general is the painting of Rajputana and part of Central India and Pahari, that is, the regions of the Punjab Himalayas and Garhwal, including the Kangra valley. Since Dr Coomaraswamy's work, much research has gone into identifying the diverse styles grouped under the general name of Rajput painting.

The Naisadhacharita and the Kangra paintings

The Naisadhacharita and the Kangra paintings

Here is how Dr. Coomarawamy, who in 1910 was the first to draw attention to these master pieces, speaks of them: "Many things are noteworthy in these drawings. The human figure is drawn with astonishing facility in every possible seated or standing pose, indi  cating immense practice and well stored memory on the part of the artists. The figures are alert and eager; whole groups are animated by a single sentiment. ... The quality of the brush outline is most alluring. It is swift and effortless. In many places it attains a singular simplicity; there is a fondness of forms bounded by almost geometrical curves, which again pass into nearly straight lines. ... It is indeed remarkable how apparently a simple outline, carried round a whole figure, without raising the brush, avails to suggest the living form beneath the drapery." Coomarawamy was reminded of the Buddhist frescoes, "The outline is continuous and made with long strokes of the brush, as at Ajanta." He was fascinated in particular by the drawing of the feminine figures: "... The great work of the school was to create a feminine type peculiar to itself, and of infinite charm; not robust, like the Rajasthani types, but slender, and mov  ing with an irresistible grace, intentionally accentuated by the long flowing lines of the drapery. Nothing, indeed, is more characteristic of the style than its use of flowing, unbroken lines, not ingeniously calligraphic like later Persian, nor boldly allusive like those of the early Rajasthani school, but creating a pure melody."* This supple grace of figures, Coomarswamy defines thus: "... every action is spontaneous and impulsive, and the whole energy of being enters into every movement. And thus the human figures of the Pahari painters are veritably god like, in the sense of Bharata, who says that the actions of the gods spring from the natural disposition of the mind, while those of men depend upon the conscious working of the will."


*For Coomaraswamy, Rajput paintings (which he divided into two broad  groups, the work produced in Rajasthan — Rajasthani, and the other pro  duced in the Himalayan hill states — Pahari) was a separate development from the Mughal school and relatively free from its influences, emphasiz  ing as it did the abstract and the ideal rather than the naturalistic and academic. In the course of his studies, he demonstrated the fact that all these paintings were a natural product of the so called Western Indian style, which in turn was clearly derived from classical Indian painting of the fifth century, thus establishing the essential continuity of Indian painting.

The Naisadhacharita and the Kangra paintings

The Naisadhacharita and the Kangra paintings

Let us reflect one moment on this remark: the actions of the human beings in these paintings spring from the natural disposition of the mind  What does it mean except that the body painted there is nothing but the  direct representation of an inner state? Here we are touching  upon the unique character of Indian painting and the peculiar appeal of this art, which springs from the remarkably  inward, spiritual and psychic turn which was and psychic turn which was given to it by the pervading genius of Indian culture. As Sri Aurobindo says, "In the treatment of the human figure all corporeal filling in of the out  line by insistence on the flesh, the muscle, the anatomical detail is minimised or disregarded: the strong subtle lines and pure shapes which make the humanity of the human form are alone brought into relief; the whole essential human being is there, the divinity that has taken this garb of the spirit to the eye, but not the superfluous physicality which he carries with him as his burden. It is the ideal psychical figure and body of man and woman that is before us in its charm and beauty. The filling in of the line is done m another way; it is effected by a disposition of pure masses, a design and coloured wave flow of the body, bhanga, a simplicity of content that enables the artist to flood the whole with the significance of the one spiritual emotion, feeling, suggestion which he intends to convey, his intuition of the moment of the soul, its living self experience." The "wave flow" of the body is best illustrated in the drawings mentioned above, as the reader can see in the few illustrations presented here.

c) The Jammu Museum paintings

The most important of the painted material and which has come to light relatively recently (in the mid fifties) is a set of forty seven

The Naisadhacharita and the Kangra paintings

The Naisadhacharita and the Kangra paintings

The Naisadhacharita and the Kangra paintings

The Naisadhacharita and the Kangra paintings

paintings in the Karan Singh collection and exhibited at the Amar Mahal Museum of Jammu. Dr. Karan Singh recalls how an old painter Pandit Kunjial Vaid, living in Basohli, gave him the priceless series: "Although his health was advanced — he [Pandit Kunjial Vaid] must have been over 80 at the time — his eyes were keen and his speech clear. He met me with great affection and, to my surprise, placed before me a parcel wrapped in a large square handker  chief. He undid the cloth and, one by one, showed me the exquisite paintings with loving care. He said that many foreigners had come to him wanting to buy the collection but he had not agreed to part with it. Now that he was old and had no children, he would like to present the paintings to me." Dr Karan Singh accepted the gift which is now displayed in the first hall of the Amar Mahal Museum in Jammu.

The achievement of the artist who created these marvels is beautifully described by Dr B.N. Goswamy's opening words in his book Pahari Paintings of the Nala Damayanti Theme: "Somewhere, among the many concerns of the Indian artist, there is also a concern with reaching the ultimate in the expression of delicacy of feeling. There are periods in which there is even a conscious search for the extreme: the idea becomes something of a gentle passion. One sees it in that inaudibly soft but clearly articulated note of music that trembles in the air for but a brief moment before it gets merged in the body of a raga. One sees it as Krishna massages the feet of Radha with the tenderest rose flower and as Radha puts out her hand to stop him, for its touch she says is too coarse for the soles of her feet. One sees it again in the poet bending down to hear the cataka, that delicate whisper of sound that the bud makes as it spreads out its petals in the fugitive moment of blossoming. One sees it also in the wispy softness of line in paintings like those in this book in which the brush seems barely to touch the surface, and forms look as if they have been 'breathed' upon paper."

Human forms that have been "breathed" on paper: what a striking expression to describe the art of the Indian painter. As Sri Aurobindo says, "In reality the shapes he paints are the form of things as he has seen them in the psychical plane of experience: these are the soul figures of which physical things are a gross representation and their purity and subtlety reveals at once what the physical masks by the thickness of its caring."

The Naisadhacharita and the Kangra paintings

The Naisadhacharita and the Kangra paintings

E. Arnold's Translation

Edwin Arnold (1832 1904) was among the most highly regarded English poets of his day. After serving as principal of the government Sanskrit College in Pune, India, he joined the staff of the London Daily Telegraph as a journalist. He is best known for his book The Light of Asia, a blank verse epic about the life and teaching of Buddha. In his later years, he lived in Japan.

Edwin Arnold had great admiration for the epics of India. He writes, "There exist two colossal, unparalleled, epic poems in the sacred language of India, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana... These remarkable poems contain almost all the history of ancient India, so far as it can be recovered, together with such inexhaustible details of its political, social and religious life, that the antique Hindu world really stands epitomized in them." Arnold translated portions of the Mahabharata, and in particular the story of Nala and

The Naisadhacharita and the Kangra paintings

The Naisadhacharita and the Kangra paintings

Damayanti, attempting, as he says "to reproduce the swift march of narrative and old world charm of the Indian tale". The reader will judge if this attempt was a successful one. We reproduce here a pas e from Arnold's translation. This extract recounts the return of Nala to the kingdom of Vidarbha. The news of Damayanti's second Swayarnvara has just reached Ayodhya, where Nala lives under the name of Vahuka and serves the king Rituparna as a charioteer.

Now when the Raja Ritupama heard
Sudeva's words, quoth he to Vahuka
Full pleasantly: "Much mind I have to go
Where Damayanti holds Swayamvara,
If to Vidarbha, in a single day,
Thou deemest we might drive, my charioteer! "

Of Nala, by his Raja thus addressed,
Tom was the heart with anguish; for he thought:
!'Can Damayanti purpose this? Could grief
So change her? Is it not some fine device
For my sake schemed? Or doth my Princess seek,
All holy as she was, this guilty joy,
Being so wronged of me, her rash weak lord?
Frail is a woman's heart, and my fault great!
Thus might she do it, being far from home,
Bereft of friends, desolate with long woes
Of love for me, - my slender-waisted one
Yet no, no, no! she would not, - she that is
My children's mother! Be it false or true,
Best shall I know in going; therefore now
The will of Rituparna must I serve."

Thus pondering in his mind, the troubled Prince
With joined palms meekly to his master said,
"I shall thy hest accomplish! I can drive
In one day, Raja, to Vidarbha's gates."
Then in the royal stables - steed by steed,
Stallions and mares, Vahuka scanned them all,
By Rituparna prayed quickly to choose.
Slowly he picked four coursers, under-fleshed,

The Naisadhacharita and the Kangra paintings

The Naisadhacharita and the Kangra paintings

But big of bone and sinew; fetlocked well
For journeying; high bred, heavy framed; of blood
To match the best, yet gentle; blemish free;
Broad in the jaw, with scarlet nostrils spread;
Bearing the Avarthas*, the ten true marks, —
Reared on the banks of Indus, swift as wind.
Which, when the Raja looked upon, he cried,
Half wrathful: "What thing thinkest thou to do?
Wilt thou betray me?
How should sorry beasts,
Lean ribbed and ragged, take us all that way,
The long road we must swiftly travel hence?"
Vahuka answered: "See on all these four
The ten sure marks: one curl upon each crest,
Two on the cheeks, two upon either flank,
Two on the breast, and on each crupper one.
These to Vidarbha — doubt it not — will go
Yet, Raja, if thou wilt have others, speak;
And I shall yoke them."

Rituparna said:
"I know thou hast deep skill in stable craft;
Yoke therefore such four coursers as thou wilt,
But quickly!"
Thus those horses, two by two,
High mettled, spare, and strong, Prince Nala put
Under the bars; and when the car was hitched,
And eagerly the Raja made to mount,
At sign the coursers bent their knees, and lay
Along the earth. Then Nala, (O my King!)
With kindly voice cheering the gaunt bright steeds,
Loosed them, and grasped the reins, and bade ascend
Varshneya: so he started, headlong, forth.

At cry of Vahuka the four steeds sprung
Into the air, as they would fly with him;
And when the Raja felt them, fleet as wind,


*These are spots where the hair curls round, as upon the crown of the human head.

The Naisadhacharita and the Kangra paintings

The Naisadhacharita and the Kangra paintings

Whirling along, mute sat he and amazed;
And much Varshneya mused to hear and see
The thundering of those wheels; the fiery four
So lightly held; Vahuka's matchless art.
"Is Matali, who driveth Indra's car,
Our charioteer? for all the marks of him
Are here! or Salihotra can this be,
The god of horses, knowing all their ways,
Who here in mortal form his greatness hides?
Or is it — can it be — Nala the Prince,
Nala the steed tamer?" Thus pondered he:
"Whatever Nala knew this one doth know.
Alike the mastery seems of both; alike
I judge their years. If this man be not he,
Two Nalas are there in the world for skill.
They say there wander mighty powers on earth
In strange disguises, who, divinely sprung,
Veil themselves from us under human mould;
Bewilderment it brings me, this his shape
Misshapen, — from conclusion that alone
Withholds me; yet I wist not what to think,
In age and manner like, — and so unlike
In form! Else Vahuka I must have deemed
Nala, with Nala's gifts."

So in his heart
Varshneya, watching, wondered, — being himself
The second charioteer. But Rituparna
Sat joyous with the speed, delightedly
Marking the driving of the Prince: the eyes
Attent; the hand so firm upon the reins
The skill so quiet, wise, and masterful
Great joy the Maharaja had to see.

By stream and mountain, woodland path and pool,
Swiftly, like birds that skim in air, they sped;
Till, as the chariot plunged, the Raja saw
His shoulder mantle falling to the ground;
And — loath to lose the robe — albeit so pressed,
To Nala cried he, "Let me take it up;

The Naisadhacharita and the Kangra paintings

The Naisadhacharita and the Kangra paintings

 Check the swift horses, wondrous charioteer;
And bid Varshneya light, and fetch my cloth."
But Nala answered: "Far it lies behind;
A yojana already we have passed;
We cannot turn again to pick it up."

 A little onward Rituparna saw
Within the wood a tall Myrobolan
Heavy with fruit; hereat, eager he cried,
"Now, Vahuka, my skill thou mayst behold
In the Arithmic. All arts no man knows;
Each hath his wisdom, but in one man's wit
Is perfect gift of one thing, and not more.
From yonder tree how many leaves and fruits,

Think'st thou, lie fall'n there upon the earth?
Just one above a thousand of the leaves,
And one above a hundred of the fruits;
And on those two limbs hang, of dancing leaves,
Five crores exact; and shouldst thou pluck yon bough,
Together with their shoots, on those twain boughs
Swing twice a thousand nuts and ninety five!"

Vahuka checked the chariot wonderingly,
And answered: "Imperceptible to me
Is what thou boastest, slayer of thy foes
But I to proof will put it, hewing down
The tree, and, having counted, I shall know.
Before thine eyes the branches twain I'll lop:
How prove thee, Maharaja, otherwise,
Whether this be or be not? I will count
One by one — fruits and leaves — before thee. King;
Varshneya, for a space, can rein the steeds." ,

To him replied the Raja: "Time is none
Now to delay."
Vahuka answered quick

The Naisadhacharita and the Kangra paintings

The Naisadhacharita and the Kangra paintings

(His own set purpose serving): "Stay this space,
Or by thyself drive on! The road is good,
The son of Vrishni will be charioteer!" On that the Raja answered soothingly:
"There is not in the earth another man
That hath thy skill; and by thy skill I look
To reach Vidarbha, 0 thou steed tamer!
Thou art my trust; make thou not hindrance now
Yet would I suffer, too, what thou dost ask,
If thou couldst surely reach Vidarbha's gate
Before yon sun hath sunk."

Nala replied:
"When I have counted those vibhitak boughs,
Vidarbha I will reach; now keep thy word."
Ill pleased, the Raja said: "Halt then, and count!
Take one bough from the branch which I shall show,
And tell its fruits, and satisfy thy soul."
So leaping from the car — eager he shore
The boughs, and counted; and all wonder struck
To Rituparna spake: "Lo, as thou saidst
So many fruits there be upon this bough!
Exceeding marvellous is this thy gift,
I burn to know such learning, how it comes."

Answered the Raja, for his journey fain:
"My mind is quick with numbers, skilled to count;
I have the science."
"Give it me, dear Lord!"
Vahuka cried: "Teach me, I pray, this lore,
And take from me my skill in horse taming."
Quoth Rituparn — impatient to proceed
Yet of such skill desirous: "Be it so!
As thou hast prayed, receive my secret art,
Exchanging with me here thy mastery
Of horses."
Thereupon did he impart
His rules of numbers, taking Nala's too.
But wonderful! So soon as Nala knew
That hidden gift, the accursed Kali leapt

The Naisadhacharita and the Kangra paintings

The Naisadhacharita and the Kangra paintings

 Forth from his breast, the evil spirit's mouth
Spewing the poison of Karkotaka
Even as he issued. From the afflicted Prince
That bitter plague of Kali passed away;
And for a space Prince Nala lost himself,
Rent by the agony. But when he saw
The evil one take visible shape again, —
Free from the serpent's poison, — Nishadh's Lord
Had thought to curse him then; but Kali stood
With clasped palms, trembling, and besought the Prince.
Saying: "Thy wrath restrain, Sovereign of men
I will repay thee well. Thy virtuous wife,
Indrasen's angered mother, laid her ban
Upon me when thou didst forsake her; since
Within thee have I dwelled in anguish sore,
Tortured and tossed and burning, night and day,
With venom from the great snake's fang, which passed
Into me by thy blood. Be pitiful!
I take my refuge in thy mercy! Hear
My promise, Prince! Wherever men henceforth
Shall name thee before people, praising thee,
This shall protect them from the dread of me;
NALA shall guard from KALI, if so now
Thou spare to curse me, seeking grace of thee."
Thus supplicated, Nala stayed his wrath,
Acceding; and the direful Kali fled
Into the Wounded tree, possessing it.
But of no eyes, save Nala's, was he seen,
Nor heard of any other; and the Prince,
His sorrows shaking off, when Kali passed,
After that numbering of the leaves, in joy
Unspeakable, and glowing with new hope,
Mounted the car again, and urged his steeds.
But from that hour the tall Myrobolan,
Possessed by Kali, stood there, sear and dead.

Then onward, onward, speeding like the birds,
Those coursers flew; and fast and faster still
The glad Prince cheered them forward, all elate:
And proudly rode the Raja toward the walls

The Naisadhacharita and the Kangra paintings

The Naisadhacharita and the Kangra paintings

 Of high Vidarbha. Thus did journey down
Exultant Nala, free of trouble now,
Quit of the evil spell, but bearing still
His form misshapen, and the shrunken limb.

At sunset in Vidarbha (O great King!)
The watchers on the walls proclaimed, "There comes
The Raja Rituparna!" Bhima bade
Open the gates; and thus they entered in,
Making all quarters of the city shake
With rattling of the chariot wheels. But when
The horses of Prince Nala heard that sound,
For joy they neighed, as when of old their lord
Drew nigh. And Damayanti, in her bower,
Far off that rattling of the chariot heard,
As when at time of rains is heard the voice
Of clouds low thundering; and her bosom thrilled
At echo of that ringing sound. It came
Loud and more loud, like Nala's, when of old,
Gripping the reins, he cheered his mares along.
It seemed like Nala to the Princess then, —
That clatter of the trampling of the hoofs;
It seemed like Nala to the stabled steeds
Upon the palace roof the peacocks heard
And screamed; the elephants within their stalls
Heard it and trumpeted; the coursers, tied,
Snorted for joy to hear that leaping car;
Peacocks and elephants and cattle stalled
All called and clamored with uplifted heads,
As wild things do at noise of coming rain....

The Naisadhacharita and the Kangra paintings

The Naisadhacharita and the Kangra paintings


 — Arnold, Edwin. Indian Idylls of the Mahabharata. Boston: 1907.

— Sri Aurobindo. The Problem of the Mahabharata, in Centenary Edition, Vol. III. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1972.

— Sri Aurobindo. The Foundations of Indian Culture, Centenary Edition, Vol. XIV. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1972.

— Goswamy, B.N. Pahari Paintings of the Nala Damayanti theme. New Delhi: Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Gol, 1995.

—Eastman, A.C. The Nala Damayanti drawings. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1959.

—Goswamy, B.N & Fischer, Eberhard. Pahari Masters. Zurich: Artibus Asiae Publishers, 1992.

—Mahabharata, original Sanskrit with Hindi translation (6 volumes), (the reader will find the Nalopakhyanam in the second volume, pp 1091 to 1164 Gorakhpur: Gita Press.

—Mackenzie, Donald A. Indian Myth and Legend. New Delhi: Smriti Books, 2000.

—Sister Nivedita, Cradle Tales of Hinduism. Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1998

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The Naisadhacharita and the Kangra paintings

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