Wednesday, January 18, 2012


Venus, the lady God of the Greeks, is associated with love and all other enjoyable things. Venus, the male Asura Guru Shukraacharya, is associated with the same things according to Indian Astrology. Thus, among all the Authorities on the Ancient Indian theory on painting, Shukraachaarya occupies the foremost position. However, like all other things, it is Brahmaa, who is the creator of this science. And the credit for the first painting goes to Mahaaraajaa Nagnajeet.

It all happened one day when the young son of a Brahmin suddenly died of no apparent reason. The father of the boy was crying uncontrollably, when Mahaaraajaa Nagnajeet met him. The Mahaaraajaa had taken a vow to ensure that none of his subjects will unduly be aggrieved. Thus, when the old Brahmin requested him to bring his son back to life, the Mahaaraajaa challenged Pretaadhipa Yama – the God of death, to either bring life back to the boy or face war. Yama refused to bring the boy back to life as it is contrary to the principle of life. Then a fierce battle ensued between the Mahaaraajaa and Yama. The Mahaaraajaa started destroying the Pretas, the subjects and agents of Yama. Unable to protect the Pretas, Yama prayed to Brahmaa to come to his rescue. Brahmaa appeared in the battlefield and directed the Mahaaraajaa to stop destroying the Pretas. The Mahaaraajaa put a condition that he will stop only after his vow is fulfilled and the boy is brought back to life. Brahmaa reasoned with him that bringing back the boy to life is not possible as it is against the principle of life. However, he promised to work out an alternative mechanism to ensure that the grieving Brahmin is consoled. The Mahaaraajaa agreed to this proposal. Then Brahmaa told him to draw the portrait of the boy on a canvas so that its features resemble exactly with the boy when he was alive. He taught the Mahaaraajaa the theory and practice of painting – CHITRALAKSHANA. The Mahaaraajaa drew the portrait as directed by Brahmaa and gave it to the Brahmin with lot of consoling advice. The Brahmin was consoled and happy to see the painting. Then Brahmaa named the Mahaaraajaa as Mahaaraaj Nagnajeet – the conqueror of Pretas, who are Nagna – who do not wear any clothes. The Mahaaraajaa is one of the greatest authorities of painting, Shilpa (architecture) and Vaastu (geomancy). However, it is Shukraachaarya, who developed the art of painting to subliminal heights. Here I propose to discuss the salient features of the theory of painting as instructed by Shukraachaarya.

Like all other branches of Vedic knowledge, the theory of painting is also divided into six branches. The first of these branches is called the Roopa bheda. To understand this concept, let us try to draw the portrait of three female figures, out of which one is a mother, one the daughter and the third a servant. There are no fixed characteristics, which can define the basic differences between the three female figures. The mother need not be an old lady and the daughter need not be young always. While the servant will be poor, it is not necessary that the mother and the daughter will always be rich. Both the mother and the daughter may do some household work, which is done by the servants also. For example, if the daughter is sick, both the mother and the servant may look after her. Then how do we distinguish between the three female figures to identify the mother, the daughter and the servant?

The answer lies in our concept of Roopa – loosely translated as images. The visible content of what we see is the Roopa. When it is present in medium dimension (its spread in any direction is neither zero nor infinity – mahattwa), revealed in an uncovered condition (anabhibhavatwa), and in many different ways (aneka dravyavattwa), we can receive the roopa through our eyes with the help (sahakaari kaarana) of light. When the dimension is zero or infinity, we can not see the object. It must have perceptible dimensions to be visible. When it has roopa, but is covered by some thing, such as the person behind a wall, it is not visible. When the object is uniformly spread out without any identifying marks, we can not see its roopa. Light is not a necessary condition for vision as we can see self-luminous things without the aid of light. For example, we can see the sun (and not only its light that reaches our eyes), without any other light. However, we can not see the stars in daytime with plenty of light, due to covering up (anabhibhavatwa). This shows that light is only an aid and not a necessary condition of vision.

When our eyes come across a substance having roopa, the impulse is carried by the praana vaayu through our mind to the brain, where it is processed. The reaction of this impulse on our intellect is called Ruchi. Depending on our earlier samskaara from memory, we react to this ruchi. If the ruchi is harmonious with our samskaara, then it is accepted in our mind. Then we get hooked to it. If it is not harmonious to our samskaara, and not repulsive either, then we ignore it. If it is repulsive, then we look the other way. Since the roopa that generates the ruchi is the same, it awaits for a harmonious response from some one else. These distinguishing features of roopa and ruchi create the difference in our mind about the concept of difference between different figures.

The second branch of Indian painting is called pramaanaani (the measurements). A created substance is a composite of parts called avayava. These parts have different spreads (vistaara) in different directions. These spreads in different direction are related to the whole body by a fixed proportion. This relationship of proportions is what makes a thing beautiful. Here I will like to quote an ancient anecdote to high light the emphasis on proportions.

Once upon a time a king wanted to see the portrait of the most beautiful woman ever born. He ordered his Prime Minister for getting the portrait. The Prime Minister thought that the poets are the best persons to describe beauty. Hence he called the greatest poets of the land to a brainstorming session, where they were given the task of describing in the best possible manner, each individual part of the body of a woman. After a long and acrimonious session, the poets prepared the best and the most beautiful description of the various individual body parts of a woman. Then the best painters of the land were requisitioned and directed to draw a painting as per the description prepared by the poets. At last the big D-day came. The king was informed that the portrait of the most beautiful woman ever is ready. The king, with full of dreams, unveiled the portrait. But alas! What he saw was so repulsive that he instantly turned his eyes and covered the painting. In place of the most beautiful woman ever, what stared at him was the portrait of a vamp!

The above anecdote emphasizes the importance of proportions in any painting. In ancient India, proportion of each part of the body to the whole body has been described elaborately to the minute details.

The third important branch of Indian painting is bhaava – the emotions. As has been described above, the ruchi must be harmonious to the samskaara. Samskaara follows mechanical rules. Thus, there are fixed rules as to how it will respond to a particular ruchi. These rules are called bhaavas. The bhaavas in painting are the same as the bhaavas in Naatya shaashtra – musicology. The book of Bharata Muni should be referred to for more details on this subject.

The fourth branch of Indian painting refers to laavanya yojana – glamorization. For understanding the concept better, let us take the example of a pearl. A pearl is a spherical object. But what distinguishes it from other spherical objects is the brilliant luster associate with it. This glowing luster is called the laavanya and the process for adding this luster to the painting is called laavanya yojana. 

The fifth branch relates to similarity – “saadrhshya”. During painting, the manner of using the painter’s brush is very important. For example, when a painter wants to paint the outline of the face of a young girl, the manner of brush movement and the pressure applied at various points is not the same. While painting the outline of the forehead, the brush is held very hard and the pressure on the brush is increased. But while drawing the outline of the cheeks, the brush makes a gentle movement sweeping the whole outline delicately as if the hand is really touching the cheeks. These techniques of brush movement enhance the inner beauty of the portrait.

The last of the branches of painting relates to varnikaabhanga – color assimilation. Indian painting relied on natural colors. Various natural produces have their own distinguishing natural colors. When they come across other specific substances, they create a stain, which lasts for considerable periods. The combination of these stains in an appropriate manner generates the desired color, which lasts for considerable periods. The pre-historic rock paintings at Bhimvaithikaa near Hoshangabad in M.P., which has retained its color even after 10,000 years, is a mute testimony to the above concept.

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