Thursday, August 21, 2008

INTERPRETING 'NINE BEAUTIES AND LOVE' : 'NABA-NAREE-KUNJAR' , the terra cotta panels of Bishnupur Temples.

'We do not get a full view of the Moon on the 2nd night
That happens only later during the night of Full Moon.
We make all these sweet efforts in touch (and embrace)
Later we feel so much pleasure.
O Hari,O (Lord) Hari, how can I tell You
Thou art an excited elephant ,(I) a lotus-like woman .
------- JnanaDas,a famous Vaishnav poet.

A pillar of Madan-Mohan Temple, Bishnupur.

What was the significance of NINE in context of the artists of terra cotta Temples of Bishnupur?

This question came to my mind when I saw this panel portraying 'Naba-Naree-Kunjar' in MadanMohan and Jor-Bangla Temples. Literary speaking,'Naba-Naree-Kunjar' means an elephant comprising of nine women. What we see in this panel that nine fiends of Radha in various postures have created the shape of an elephant and Krsna-Radha are sitting on the back of this 'elephant' in an amorous posture.

Nine is a number that has captured the imagination of the people around the world through the ages. There are numbers of articles in Internet on NINE !

Let us explore a few of them before I come to my interpretation of this imagery.
Hindu mythology refer to Naba-Graha - NINE celestial bodies.Among them , we find the Sun , Moon,the Venus ,the Saturn and several imaginary bodies too.
Hindu scripture says a human body has Naba-Dwar - NINE 'doors', : the eyes , the ears, the nostrils, the rectum and the urethra.
'Naba-Ratna' - NINE jewels - is the name of nine creative persons and intellectuals of An Indian king's court .This word was first coined at the time of Emperor Chandragupta's rule.
The Legend of the NINE Unknown Men dates back to the rule of Emperor Ashoka the Great. Wikipedia states : 'According to occult lore, the Nine Unknown Men are a two millennia-old secret society founded by the Indian Emperor Asoka c. 270 BCE. According to the legend, upon his conversion to Buddhism after a massacre during one of his wars, the Emperor founded the society of the Nine to preserve and develop knowledge that would be dangerous to humanity if it fell into the wrong hands. Some versions of the story include an additional motivation for the Emperor to conceal scientific knowledge: remnants of the Rama Empire, an Indian version of Atlantis, which according to Hindu scripture was destroyed by advanced weaponry 15,000 years ago.' One can read more about this in

The question remained in my mind : What was the significance of NINE in context of the artists of terra cotta Temples of Bishnupur?
But , I could not find any reference to NINE friends of Radha. She had eight close friends - referred as 'Asta-Sakhi'. Is this panel an allegory of 'Naba-Rasa' - NINE sentiments or emotions which define expressions of Indian visual art forms - be that painting, sculpture, drama and dance ?
These NINE emotions are :
  • Shringar - Erotic ,love.
  • Hasya - Laughter,comic.
  • Karun - Pathos,sad.
  • Veer - Valour,heroism.
  • Bhayanak - Terrible.
  • Veebhatsa - Detestable,horrid.
  • Adbhoot - Queer.
  • Shaanto - Calm,Tranquil .
We can compare 'Naba-Rasa' with the concept of NINE Muses. According to Greek Mythology, these Muses represent the NINE moods of creation process too.The Muses are :

( Source :

We can compare Erato with Indian 'Shringar', Thalia with 'Hasya' and Melpomene with 'Karun'. Muses have inspired numerous artwork : poems and sculptures and paintings. We see here a painting made by Baldassore Peruzzi, an Architect and painter (1481 - 1537 AD) from Siena,Italy:

'Kunjar' - elephant - is a favourite motif of Indian imagery. - specially in scenes of processions and battle-scenes . In the Tales of 'Jataka', there is story of a white elephant who is a noble soul. Here in Vaishnav 'padabali' ,i.e., verses,'Kunjar'/elephant has been used as a erotic symbol again and again, specially in context with limbs and gait of Radha. The verse of JnanaDas quoted above has compared acts of virile Krsna with that of an excited elephant.'Naree'- women- enhances the erotic motif of the imagery of this panel. Amorous and playful Krsna and Radha ride this 'elephant'.

This panel shows that the love between Krsna and Radha ( termed as 'Ujjwal Rasa by poets and Religious leaders....a divine manifestation of 'Shringer Rasa') is above all other emotions or 'Rasas' !

Viewer : Please click on this photo to see my 'guess' about which "Sakhi' represents which 'rasa'

I have assigned the nine 'rasa's to the nine 'sakhi's of this image.It was not easy, the faces of the women are nearly gone !I can explain a few of my choices ...may be some of my friends and readers will settle for a different allocation.For their benefit, I have uploaded a fresh image in Please view it @

At the end, I shall make one submission to those readers who have gone through this writing till this last paragraph.Krsna-Radha are worshiped among a very large cross-section of Hindus. Their story,over the Centuries, created best of the verses and songs of devotion in this sub-continent. Devotees believe Radha's love for Krsna is the love of human soul for Him ! Wonderful sculpture and paintings have been inspired by Krsna -Radha ..... as you would delve more and more into this subject, Beauty of this ancient Tales from Hindu scripture and mythology would pervade your mind and heart like divine fragrance.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008




Chandu was the most likable person of the team Mallaraj assembled. A balanced man and a great devotee of Krsna , he evolved as a writer stories in terra cotta .

Like in any Sutradhar family of 16th and 17th centuries, he started his apprenticeship early. 2nd among 5 children of his father's 2nd wife ( 1st wife was barren) , he was closest to his father in work-related matters.His bond with his father was the same Aalam's . Chandu had to compete with 4 others for his father's attention, but, he stood out because of his skill and nature . His youngest brother was very jealous,but Chandu tolerated his tantrums and mischief.

His work was getting noticed within 2 years .When he was working as an assistant to his father and uncles on a simple 'ek-chala' temple for Swarup Bhatta's family , he was allowed to make two small panels on Krsna's childhood . Those were adjudged better than those made by his 26 years old uncle.

This uncle and Chandu's younger brother would cause problems to Chandu in later years when he did his Ramayana panels for Vrindabanchandra temple.

Swarup Bhatta was so impressed by this budding artist that he called Chandu's father and advised him to send this son to the village school during 3 months recess from masonry work in the monsoon period. Two successive years in the village school gave Chandu rudimentary ideas about alphabets which was not common among Sutradhar families.But, his real 'guru' was a 18 years old Padabali-singer madly in love with one of his cousins . Chandu would play the role of intermediary and in return received lessons in alphabets. Chandu could read the erotic portions of 'Srikrsnakirtan' when he was 15 years old , thus honing his imageries which would later set him apart from from other artists of his community.

Since his adolescence,handsome and lithe Chandu would have many flings and love-affairs in his life.He was endowed with a quiet appeal and equipped to win a woman's heart with his command on erotic verses of 'Padabali' and his ability to create plaques with the face of his beloved .Faces of two of his beloved were immortalised on the walls of Bishnupur temples......none of them is Phulni ,his 1st wife . More about his love life later.

Chandu's imageries went for a lot of changes as Charandas would guide him through the maze of religious scripture . Aalam gave him ideas on observations of human anatomy. He grew more confident and learnt to take artistic deviations. These trait would enable him create the now-famous 'Uragendra^bhoga^baahu^dando' (.....His hands compared with the of body of Snake King.....) Krsna panel where He placees his hands over the breasts of two Gopis simultaneously with his lips in kissing distance from one. This technique of using longer-than-normal arms have been repeated in any temples including in panels showing Sage Rishyashringa .

Chandu would evolve to be a sought-after terra cotta artist after Shyam-Rai temple was built.Life-story of Chandrabanshi alias Chandu would have been written in golden letters if Indian history would not have been so forgetful about her sculptors and painters.


Laxman was a difficult person. He had every reason to be one.

He was not from any lineage of artists.Born out of wedlock .....his father a successful pot-bellied Palmist of the then-famous military town Munger and mother a doe-eyed beautiful 'Temple Dancer' of a Krsna-Radha temple near-by. He was brought up among neglect in the servant's quarters of his father's family till he started working in a mason's group and moved away to Murshidabad area, much to the relief of his biological father. He worked for masons, in fields , among iron-smiths, a doctor whose herbal medicines were good for heart and libido and finally for a group of potters, all along learning how to survive in a society which showed no affection to a bastard.

Six elderly men, five women and three young couples from his locality left for Puri in 1630 AD on a November morning. He managed to join this entourage as an odd-job person.This trip to Puri and Bhubaneswar would bring out the artist in Laxman. On his return among the potters, Laxman made four erotic plaques, in line with what he saw during the trip to Puri, Bhubaneswar and Konark , which found a taker among the virile male gentry he came to know during his tenure with the doctor practising herbal medicines. This man liked the plaques in spite of Laxman's inadequate firing technique.

As this side-business grew, Laxman realised that he would need a lot more knowledge of depiction of human figures and moods to look beyond selling erotic panels and plaques. He wanted to make a plaque each of Goddess Chandi and Lord Rama, but he found his own figure-work had a lot of limitations. In quest of a teacher , he moved to Burdwan district and later to Mayurbhanj district where 'dokra' artists used to create wonders for kings and rich persons. It was very difficult to get an entry into this group. He used the little savings he had and his young body to gain a toe-hold among this community .By 1936 AD, his eyes and fingers improved . He also got more ideas about Hindu gods and goddesses of both Vaisnava and Shakta cult worshipers.

He was settled for a while in Panchakot of Purulia district, working among specialist masons engaged in Temple building .During this period, he had decorated at least four dance-halls of local landlords with terra cotta plaques . Not all his panels were erotic in nature. He did good work on depiction of dancers and musicians.
During this phase of life , young Laxman learnt how to fend for himself as he drifted from place to place. He had several relationships with women of various ages and at least two relationships with men before he joined the team for Shyam-Rai temple.While he did as an Artist, as a person,he was totally under the control of his demons .He had no scruples about lying, stealing and manipulating women for money .His early work brought out those demons on the terra cotta panels he created for Shyam-Rai Temple.

When he got a chance to join the team at Shyam-Rai temple, he left Panchakot with confidence. But, he would find it difficult to adjust to the religion-charged atmosphere of Bishnupur. In the beginning, Swarup Bhatta and Manomay Acharya would also find it difficult to tackle Laxman and extract the kind of imageries Shyam-Rai needed from him.

Time proved that their patience paid.

Sunday, August 17, 2008


When we took photographs of the terracotta panels of Shyam-Rai and Jor-Bangla temples of Bishnupur during our visit there in December,2007, certain panels with depictions of animals ( real and imaginary) Palace and Street scenes struck us as quite different from the 'usual'. I created a folder called 'Anokhi', meaning 'Strange & unique' translated in English , where I stored these photos for future reference.

The first one was that of an animal which has wings, beaks eating elephants and a feline body. It was flying and trampling elephants. This was a panel from Jor-Bangla temple .A similar panel was there in Shyam_Rai too, but with a difference in shape and nos of limbs.

In my Tale about the terra cotta artists of Bishunur , I attributed Shyam_Rai panel to 'Aalam' : and

(from Shyam-Rai Temple)

All the while, I wanted to find out if this 'image' has its root in Hindu mythology or imported from outside. History says that there was migration of artists from West Asia to India during Muslim rule and Indian art was influenced by the painting skills and imageries of West Asia.

Based on this clue, I searched and found that the fire-spewing animal of Bishnupur has considerable similarity of image of 'Griffin'.

13th Century bas-relief of Griffin. Picardy,France.

The griffin is a legendary animal with the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle. The lion is the king of animals and the eagle is the king of birds.Combining the two, human imagination gave birth to a majestic 'creature' which 'lived' through centuries as a symbol of power with appearances in heraldry too.The idea of Griffin was known to artistes of Greece,Egypt and medieval Europe. In Persia, this creature is known as Homa

Heraldry Griffin.15th Century, Italy.

One can read about this subject in more details from :

I have posted two photos from my album here which are close to Griffin's image.

The one from Shyam-Rai temple is a big winged bird, has two leonine hind limbs with talons and two ears. It is about to gobble an elephant and tramples nine others. One elephant has escaped its wrath and stands staring at the herd from the rear.

The one from Jor-Bangla is closer to the Western concept of Griffin. Its open beaks eat up two elephants, tramples four elephants by its four talons while one elephant, again at the rear, has survived the assault. It has wings and two rather small ears. A child Griffin is watching her mother's action from the top.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008



Manomoy Acharya and Aalam

Difficult to read the inscription ,fixed onto the centre of this Arch !

Manomoy Acharya

It was early morning at Bishnupur. Mid- September,1640 AD.
Manomay Acharya has finished his prayer and pranayam. He stared at the cloudy sky from his prayer romm .Krsna has cleared his mind about the task ahead.He walked out and stood in front of the model of Pancharatna temple Bishnudas has created with folded hands and murmured "Jai Nanda-Nandan Krsna, Jai Radhe".

He was in a big dilemma for last three days. His mind is clear now. He would take a step to create the temple the King dreamed about and he,Krsna willing,would deliver.It will be his ultimate gift to the Lord and to the dynasty.

The Pancharatna temple King got built for Vrindabanchandra developed cracks twice since its completion in 1638 AD. Ramesh Sutradhar convinced the court , mainly the Prince, that his design would be stronger yet economical than that of Bishnudas Sutradhar and he would get the temple ready in less than 2 years Bishnudas was humble and firm ...he said : he would take no chance with the 1st Pancharatrna temple of the kingdom, he would do his best , but he promised no time schedule till he would complete the arches.

Ramesh was confident, but, Swarup Bhatta was not so sure that the temple construction would be smooth.Well, his apprehension came correct.The rear wall developed crack before it reached roof level,fault being with quality of firing of bricks. The central dome was ugly. The King forced Ramesh to revise his plan. During the monsoon of 1639 AD , the roof started leaking so badly that Vrindabanchandra had to be shifted.During Rasa festival that, the King openly criticised Ramesh and asked Swarup Bhatta to start a second Pancharatna temple with Bishnudas in charge.

Ramesh left Bishnupur . At a crucial time, Swarup Bhatta and Manomay discovered that three of the brickfield workers and two skilled masons would leave Bishnupur.

Swarup Bhatta and Bishnudas could eventually coax them to stay with promises of better wages and some land for their families . The key mason of their team wanted to marry the sister of his perennially sick wife. Since her family dodged him , he was planning to settle in another place and enjoy marital life with a healthy woman. Swarup intervened and persuaded the girl's family to agree to this mason's demand.

But, the second issue was more complex and had no quick-fix remedy.
The few terra cotta panels local 'boy' Chandu and Laxman from Bihar and other craftsmen created for the Vrindabanchandra temple had problems.

The problem started from the beginning. Chandu was to create six panels - two on Krsna's childhood and four on Radha-Krsna . Laxman was to make mural on the battle scenes of the Ramayana. Chandu's artwork was good and attracted a lot of praise ,but Laxman's mural did not capture the momentum of the battle. But, the major problem was stability of these panels after baking. Repeated cracking left the team frustrated.Eventually, a few small panels with floral designs were put up .The King was very unhappy. Throughout the citation of Srimadbhagabat, he sat with a frown. In the evening, he called the Prince, Swarup Bhatta and Manomay Acharaya to the temple after Sandhyarati (evening prayer) was over and advised them to get the best craftsman of Bengal to overcome the problem of firing. The implication was clear - Lord Krsna would expect them to rise above the narrow arc of religion.

Laxman's repeat panel on Shyam Rai. Arabesque by Aalam.

The solution was to invite one of the three Muslims who had the reputation in this field. Through a survey, Manomay and Swarup found Aalam was free and would respond to an invitation of commission, if his terms be met.

Manomay decided to advise Swarup to reach out to Aalam.He would convince his religious community later.He prayed to Krsna and Chaitanyadev to give him strength to look beyond the boundary of convention.

This September morning of 1640 AD would change the darkness which enveloped Aalam's life since his father expired 17 years ago.

Manomay Acharya and Charandas created this Padabali on terra cotta. Chandu's portrayals and Aalam' arabasqe,viewed in
the night as Shyam-Rai gets illuminated in a December,07 night


Aalam was only son of his father, the 2nd brother of a family of artists with North Indian origin, settled in Bengal - in one of the settlements in outskirts of Pandua. His mother was a lower caste Hindu who got converted to Muslim faith when she was 4 months pregnant and had 'nikah' with Aalam's father. Aalam was very much attached to his father who was an artist associated with building work. Aalam was illiterate till he was seventeen. He picked up alphabets when he was under commission in a Vaishnab landlord's family in Rajshahi. An intelligent and hardworking person, he learnt to read Bengali and Pharsi in two years time but not write.

Aalam's father first came to fame with his work on the Atrya's Mosque at Tangail. He worked for a while at Bara Sona Mosque too. He also became quite well known for his maintenance work of the Mosques built during 13th and 14th centuries in and around Pandua. He was respected for his skill and temperament.The patrons who commissioned him expected him to not only restore the damaged walls and terra cotta panels , but also create a few beautiful ones of his own to replace the worn-out mediocre work. Though an otherwise open person, he was cautious about not sharing his knowledge of intricacies of terra cotta work with outsiders. Through generations, it stayed among the members of this migrant family from North India who came to Bengal at the time of Sultan Sikandar Shah who commissioned a large contingent of craftsmen for Adina Masjid around middle of 1360s.

Aalam's father appreciated his son's interest,his deft fingers and took him more than once to short commissions he worked upon. The child's arabesque was wonderful.

Aalam's apprenticeship under his father was cut short at 11 when he fell down from scaffolding while working and returned home paralytic.

Aalam never got a chance to have hands-on training from his father on the techniques of firing and preservation of terra cotta. Aalam's father's health decayed fast and he realised his life was coming to an end. He imparted whatever knowledge he could verbally to Aalam and decided to request his younger brother to take Aalam under his wings and complete the training in the family's specialties.Dark days of Aalam's life was about to begin.

The uncle was a superb technician ... his firing technique could handle all sorts of soil characteristics. His additives did wonders to the life of terra cotta work. But, his nature was crooked and he was no great artist.His arabesques and flowers were average . He traveled relentlessly and earned good money.But, he was mean, fought with his eldest brother for cash who looked after the cultivable land of the family and was thick with the money extortionist of the locality.

A man without any feelings about others and family values, he would often pass lewd remarks aimed at his sisters-in-law whenever the elder brothers were not home and he was free to sneak in . Aalam's father was often away from the village and he took full advantage of the situation to allure Aalam's mother to his bed whenever he would have an urge. Aalam gradually started to guess what was happening during his father's absence. Later, he shared the humiliation his injured father silently swallowed during his wait for death while his uncle , during a break from his outstation work, would sleep with his mother under the same roof .

During this phase, he assisted his father's elder brother in the field or took up assistant's job with local masons. A couple of weeks before his death, Aalam's father called both the brothers near his bed and whispered his last requests : he asked his younger brother, in the name of Allah, to marry his widow after he would die and take Aalam as his apprentice and share with him the family's knowledge about terra cotta work.

The younger brother kept both these words. His half brother Kamal was born before his twelfth birthday.

He paid heavy price as his uncle abused him physically as well as psychologically till he was 19 old.We shall learn about the animals in Aalam's darkness and how he tamed them later in these Tales.

He would surprise Manomay Acharya with his Krsna-Rama-Chaitanya 'collage' which was used much later in Ananta Vasudeva Temple at Bansberia and replicated here at Madanmohan Temple too . He would create remarkable social panels for Jor-Bangla and later at Ananta Basudeva Temple of Bansberia. I often wonder if history was kinder to Aalam, he would have received the fame Sahibdin of Mewar received during his lifetime and also a place in the history of art of India alongside Sahibdin.

Krsna-Rama-Chaitanya 'collage' at Bansberia


1. All photos in this Blog are taken by me.
2.Except for the Aalam's and man-woman pictures which I created , based on Internet source.


It was a bright morning, sun rising in a clear sky.There were traces of cloud in the horizon,The sky washed clean and blue after 6 weeks of rain.

Ruby ,my wife and I carried our Canon Powershot during the morning walk again .There was no threat of rain.Breeze was pleasant.Our plan was to take a few snaps of the Krsna's idol fixed on a banyan tree. We were also on the look-out for interesting and colourful photos of the early morning street scene at Parnasree.

Mother and the calf

We came across a she-buffalo mothering her kid, colourful advertisement corners, a street-side fruitstall getting set by two brothers, sisters hurrying to school. I tried to capture the struggle of a tree , uprooted during stacking of concrete pipes (construction material) on the side of road, yet alive and green. I took a photograph where the access to a water-body almost opposite our flat blocked by pipes and filth......yet the shimmer of sunlight caught the camera's lens !We captured newspaper vendors exhanging loads of tneir merchandise, children talking incessantly while rushing to school.

Krsna tied to a banyan tree

Setting the stall before
the shopping hours

Exchanging the wares !

Deserted to rot !

Struggle for life

A north-south road in our neighbourhood, leading to Behala Flying Club is experiencing now a major construction work. Drain pipes are getting laid, Scores of trees have been uprooted to make room for the pipes.I do not think, any re-plantation will be possible. I took snaps of the road parallel to the unfortunate one , with the greenery and the chequered design of light-and-shade on the same.. Who knows when area development will take away this view from our life .

The reluctant bird !

'Trees are poems that the earth writes upon the sky.

We fell them down and turn them into papers

That we may record our emptiness.'

-- Kahlil Gibran

Chequered by light & shade