Art Criticism

Patanjali, in the Mahabhasya, ca. 140 B.C., elucidates the use of the historical present by reference (1) to dramatic representations of the Krsna legend given by a sort of actors called Saubhikas, who certainly employed pantomime and may or may not have used spoken words, (2) to the display of paintings (citra) representing the slaying of Kamsa, and (3) to the recitations of the Granthikas. Here we are concerned only with (2). This part of the text, literally translated, reads: "How in respect of the Paintings? (Here too the historical present is employed, for) in the pictures themselves men see the blows rained down on Kamsa, and how he is dragged about." Both Luders[1] and Hillebrandt[2] have supposed that this refers to the practice of painters who carry about pictures and explain them aloud for a living, using the historical present in their spoken words. But nothing is said about this, and Haradatta's commentary seems to imply no more than that the canvases are living speeches, and that the historical present is framed in the spectator's mind; Keith,[3] who treats the subject very fully, citing the texts, ridicules the view that spoken words are implied. Nevertheless, as will appear from below,the practice of picture showmen explaining their own pictures has been so general and wide-spread in India and Further India that the possibility that Patanjali had in mind a performance of this kind cannot be altogether rejected. In any case, whether or not there were spoken words, Patanjali's text provides us with the earliest extant evidence of the public exhibition of pictures; we learn that this dealt with evidently a familiar custom, though here practised by a woman for a special purpose, will be found in Hemacandra’s Trisasti-salakapurusa-caritra, 1, 650ff., written some time between 1057 and 1173 A.D. The text is dealing with the former births of Rsabhanatha:[5] Srimati recalls her former births, and longing for the husband of her previous incarnation, falls sick. She reveals the whole matter to her nurse Pandita, who, being a knowledgeable person, painted a picture according to Srimati's relation on a piece of canvas, and went out to exhibit it. Pandita spread out the canvas in the public, on the highroad, outstretched like Srimati's hopes, and stood beside it. Some, learned in the scriptures, praised the representation of the divine Nandisvara and other personages, which accorded well with the descriptions of the sastras. Other pious persons nodded their heads and described to each other the representations of the Jinas. Those expert in the technique of art praised the correctness of the drawing, as they examined the outlines again and again with sidelong (critical) glances. Others remarked that the white, black, red and blue colours on the canvas made it appear like the variegated sunset sky. When prince Durdanta saw the painting, he recognized the events of his previous incarnation as Lalitanga, husband of Srimati, and fell fainting. When he recovered, he explained the whole story to Pandita, pointing out in the picture Mt, Meru, the city of Pundarikini, the heaven of Isana, the vimana of Sriprabha, where he had been the god Lalitanga, saying "Here am I shown as worshipping the images of the Jinas on the Nandisvara mountain." The result is that Durdanta and Srimati are re-united.

In many of the later references the picture showmen are called Yamapattaka because the pictures which they exhibit represent the reward of good and evil deeds to be experienced

in the realm of Yama, the picture scrolls being yamapata. In Visakhadatta's Mudraraksasa, dateable perhaps in the fifth and certainly before the tenth century, Act I, Canakya's spy Nipunaka adopts the disguise of a picture showman; and remarking that men thus earn a livelihood by means of that very Yama who slays all people, he enters Candanadasa's home, carrying a scroll with figures of Yama upon it (yamapata), and remarks "I'll enter here, show my pictures and chant my song (yamapatam darsayan gitani gayami)." Subsequently, reporting to Canakya, he says "Spreading out the Yama scroll I commenced my ballad" (jamapadam pasaria pauttohmi gidaim gaidum).[6]

There is a still more explicit account in Bana's Harsacarita. I quote the version of Cowell and Thomas, p. 119: "Like those who depict Infernos, loud singers paint unrealities on the canvas of the air" (canvas, air-ambara); and p. 136: [7] "In the bazaar street amid a great crowd of inquisitive children he observed an Inferno-showman (Yamapattaka) in whose left hand was a painted canvas stretched out on a support of upright rods and showing the Lord of the Dead mounted on his dreadful buffalo. Wielding a reed wand in his other hand, he was expounding the features of the next world, and could be heard to chant the following verses:

Mothers and fathers in thousands, in hundreds children and wives,

Age after age have passed away; whose are they, and whose art thou?"

In the Prabandhacintamani (Tawney's translation, p. 160) there are mentioned "those who carry pictures."

The references to picture showmen cited above are all that I have been able to collect so far as India proper is concerned; they are sufficient to suggest that the practice of exhibiting scroll paintings of various kinds has been generally current throughout the historical period. Kramrisch, in her Visnudharmottaram, 1st ed., p. 5, quotes the following from the Saratha Pakasini, Siamese edition, Part II, p. 398: "There is a class of Brahmanical teachers known by the name of Nakha,[8] They make a (portable) framework upon which they cause to be drawn a variety of pictures, depicting scenes of good and evil destinies, of fortunes and misfortunes, ‘by doing this deed one attains this,' ‘by doing that one attains that,' thus showing different destinies, they wander about with these pictures." I have not been able to consult this work, and assume that here also the reference is really to the old Indian practice, current in Magadha. However this may be, we have other evidence for picture showmen outside India proper. In particular, the Chinese author of the Ying-yai Sheng-lan (A.D. 1416)[9] states with reference to Java: "There is a sort of men who paint on paper men, birds, animals, insects and so on: the paper is like a scroll and is fixed between two wooden rollers three feet high; at one side these rollers are level with the paper, whilst they protrude at the other side. The man squats down on the ground and places the picture before him, unrolling one part after the other and turning it towards the spectators, whilst in the native language and in a loud voice he gives an explanation of every part: the spectators sit around him and listen, laughing or crying according to what he tells them.”

Besides this, it is very well known that at the present day there survives in Java, and more especially in Bali, the same practice, which is classed as a dramatic art and known as Wayang Beber: the man who exhibits and recites being known, as in the case of the shadow plays, as the Dalang. The custom seems also to be found in Persia; for although I cannot cite any reference, the Persian dictionary of Steingass has s.v. surat khwan "One who pictures the state of angels and men as to reward and punishment on the day of resurrection, and receives a remuneration for it from the bystanders." This is clearly a parallel to the Indian Yamapatika. Surat also means puppet and in the Persian popular theatre the reader or singer for the puppets is called khwan or khon; he usually prefaces his performance by the recitation of a religious poem called rak-i-hindi. Martinovitch, to whom I owe this information, renders this "the Indian way," but it seems much more likely that rak=rag, and thus the meaning should be "Indian song or tune." In any case there is here some positive evidence for an Indian origin of the puppet show in Persia, or at least for Indian influence in the manner of its presentation, and this supports the idea of an Indian origin for the surat khwan.


[1] Sitz, kais, Akad, Wiss., Berlin, 1916, pp. 698ff.

[2] Z.D.M.G., LXXII, pp. 227ff

[3] The Sanskrit Drama, pp. 33ff.

[4] F. W. Thomas, in the Cambridge History of India, 1,

[5] The Summary given above is condensed from Banarasi DasJain, Jaina Jatakas, Lahore, 1925, pp. 69 ff.

[6] In M. R. Kale's edition, 1911, there is the following note: "The exhibition of Yamapata was one of the sources of making money; see Harsacarita [Cowell and Thomas, p. 119], where a Yamapatika, exhibiting the scenes in Yamapuri painted on a piece of cloth, is described (paralokavyatikaram kathayantam yamapatikam dadarsa).

[7] A footnote cites Kipling's Man and Beast in India, where mention is made of pictures of Dharmraj (Yama) sold at fairs.

[8] The word "Nakha" does not sound plausible. Can there be an error for "Mankha" ?

[9] W. P., Groeneveldt, Notes on the Malay Archipelago and Malacca. Compiled from Chinese Sources. Verhandelingen van het Bataviaasch Genootschap van Kunsten en Wetenschappen, Vol. XXXIX, 1876. A modern example of Wayang Beber painting is reproduced in N. J., Krom, L'art javanais dans les Musees de Hollande et de Java, Ars Asiatica, VIII, 1926, Cf, Helsdingen, The Javanese Theatre, Straits Branch R. A. S., Dec. 1913. Cf. H. H., Juynboll, Die Hölle uni

die Höllenstrafen nach dem Volksglauben auf Bali, Baessler Archiv, IV, 2, 1913.

Sign In Close
Only Critical Collective subscribers can access this page.
If you are already a subscriber, then please log in.
 Forgot Password?
Subscribe now
Sign In Close
Only Critical Collective subscribers can access this page.
If you are already a subscriber, then please log in.
 Forgot Password?
Subscribe now

The Photography Timeline is currently under construction.

Our apologies for the inconvenience.