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A retelling of the Mahabharata through the paintings of Allah Baksh, who basked in anonymity

Alok Bhalla and Chandra Prakash Deval, through their four­-volume book, try to unravel the mystery behind the man who illustrated the epic with 4,000 paintings, done in the Mewari miniature style, which is now with the Government Museum in Udaipur
Important in History Paper

This editorial is based on the Article A retelling of the Mahabharata through the paintings of Allah Baksh, who basked in anonymity’ which was published in The Hindu on 05/10/2023.

The precipice of history is a delightful space; it’s like being away from the crowd with no fear of self-abnegation or public scrutiny. It is this precipice that Allah Baksh invested with much energy and not a little devotion. Far away from the world of Aurangzeb and his self-deluding battles in 17th century Deccan, Allah Baksh chiselled his art in the relative anonymity of Mewar. Employed by Raja Jai Singh of Udaipur, Baksh would sit with an epic that’s changed a million lives. He would scour the letter and spirit of the Mahabharata; surely there was more, much more to the book than Krishna’s sermon to Arjun.

Inspired by the hues of the sun saying goodbye to the day spent giving life to men and women, beasts and birds, Baksh reproduced each colour on sheets of paper. Then he invested it with a personality, adding to each figure a story. Thus started the retelling of the Mahabharata; each colour, each stroke was invested with a meaning; some registered with the common man, much was reserved for the discerning or the devout.

‘Timeless paintings’

As each painting, done in Mewari miniature style, began to be appreciated, many wondered who was Allah Baksh. To a world which divides deities, the name added to the mystery. Among those enamoured with the paintings, and curious about the painter, were Alok Bhalla and Chandra Prakash Deval. The two studied the timeless paintings, went to Mubarak Hussain, former curator of the Government Museum in Udaipur who agreed to let them look through the museum’s 4,000 paintings about the epic. Yet at the end, they were no wiser about Allah Baksh, a man who spoke through his art but happily hid the artist. It did lead to a wonderfully produced, richly embellished four-volume, The Mahabharata: Mewari Miniature Paintings by Allah Baksh (Niyogi Books).

Bhalla and Deval admit in the first volume, “We know nothing about Allah Baksh except for an inconspicuous signature, in the lower corner of the illustration for section 52 of the Bhishma Parva, which tells us that the chitrakaar is Allah Baksh. The signature, however, deepens the shadow of anonymity which surrounds the name Allah Baksh. We are astonished by the humility of the man and by his confidence. It is not, he seems to suggest, the business of an artist to reveal himself; his only duty is to be ‘the priest of beauty’ who finds joy in the concert of colours he has been privileged to see and record.”

As we turn the pages of the books which are a wonderful visual treat backed by words of substance, and suitable captions in Hindi and English, we find Baksh’s lines sharp, his colours vibrant and “the space of every painting, suffused with light”. This space is filled with birds and animals, rivers and trees, gods and demons. Of course, there are inevitable life lessons too. For instance, in the fourth volume, the writers while talking of Ashwamedha Parva mention a lesson which resonates even today. “The priest continued, ‘A ruler who does not keep his promise because he is afraid or greedy goes to hell.’ In the east, there was a ruler named Harishchandra who sold his wife and son and installed Vishwamitra as the ruler so that he could keep his promise. He even took away the clothes of his son.” Talking of a ruler, back in the 16th century, Abul Fazl had reiterated the Mahabharata’s relevance to a king, stating that the book contained “advice, guidance, stories and descriptions of war and feasting” or more concisely, kingship.

Incidentally, it is here that Bhalla writes with great clarity, stating, “For the paintings of the Ashwamedha Parva, Allah Baksh turns away from the sublimity of Vyasa’s epic and illustrates Jaimini’s more folklore and less heroic text…. Jaimini’s version was popular during the retellings of the Mahabharata at the local and courtly gatherings in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Jaimini’s narrative was also a source for Akbar’s painters when they created the illuminated Razmnamah for the Mughal court.”

Sanskrit to Persian

The talk of Razmnamah, the Persian translation of the Mahabharata, brings us to the constant attention to translation and even visual narration of Hindu epics during the Mughal age. It was the age when the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, the Upanishads were all translated and scholars and artists of repute were hired to bring the sacred books to the language of the day, Persian. As Audrey Truschke writes in Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court, “In the 1580s, Emperor Akbar ordered the translation of the Sanskrit Mahabharata into Persian. The Mughals took up the Mahabharata as part of a larger translation movement. In 1575, three successive translators failed to provide a Persian Atharva Veda. Around the same time, literati authored two Persian retellings of the Simhasana-dvatrimsika, a popular collection of Sanskrit stories.” Then Jahangir commissioned a translation of Yogavasistha. So, the movement went on. And there was Allah Baksh giving a visual dimension to the Mahabharata between 1680 and 1698 which happened to coincide with the reign of Emperor Aurangzeb.

It brings us to a question: What was so special about the Mahabharata that a Muslim king ordered its translation and a Muslim artist painted its lessons? The answer lies in reading the epic, enjoying the visual feast of Bhalla and Deval’s books, and understanding that some books transcend history.

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