In the Mahabharata, the prince Arjuna holds ten names. Of those, one is Partha. Sarathi is a Sanskrit word meaning charioteer. In the battle of Kurukshetra, Sri Krishna, the king of Dwarka, decides not to take part as a warrior but as the charioteer of Arjuna. Therefore Parthasarathi means Sri Krishna, the charioteer of Arjuna.
At the outset of the Kurukshetra battle, Arjuna requests Sri Krishna to drive his chariot at the middle of the battleground to see both the Kaurava and Pandava armies from an equal distance. As his chariot reaches the centre, Arjuna sees all the warriors from both sides are his relatives and gets disheartened thinking of the devastating consequence of the war. He gets perplexed and decides to quit. At this moment, Sri Krishna motivates and persuades him to fight using his words and panentheistic divine image. Sri Krishna and Arjuna had a long conversation, compiled in the sacred book called Srimadbhagabad Gita. Executed in 1912, this watercolour painting, the subject matter of this essay, is an imaginative still taken from that conversation.
Now the question is, what is so special about this painting? Working on mythological subjects was not something exceptional to the Bengal School artists, and Nandalal was the foremost artist of that school. In Nandalal Bose: The doyen of Indian Art, Dinkar Kowshik writes, 'The stories of Ramayana and Mahabharata entered into his awareness even as a child.'[i] He further writes, 'Nandalal started on his test with an appropriate ceremony which was considered auspicious. All good endeavours were initiated with homage to Siddhidata Ganesha.'[ii] He was born and raised in a devout Hindu family and strongly preferred traditional Indian culture. Furthermore, as the Bengal School artists also extensively used the Hindu and Buddhist mythological narratives and icons, Parthasarathi appeared as a ready consequence. It is, however, not entirely true.
At Tagores' mansion in Jorasanko, Abanindranath worked on the famous Sothern Verandah, which was his "studio." The studio on the terrace was open to his students, who would go and learn under the guidance of Abanindranath. Nandalal was one of them. And about Abanindranath's teaching, Dinkar Kowshik writes, 'Abanindranath would go round the class and encourage the students to work independently, from imagination. He frowned on those who preferred the easy way out by copying pictures done by others or working on studies from models in which there was no effort at discovering painterly solutions. Originality was his watchword, and he reserved his praise for those who showed invention as well as observation.'[iii] In his book on Nandalal, he mentions, 'During those hectic days, Sister Nivedita was one of the most ardent builders of India's national image […] Abanindranath was all praise for her graceful yet commanding appearance. He was wont to say that, when Sister Nivedita appeared in the social gathering, she looked like Parvati incarnate, the legendary daughter of Mount Himalayas.'[iv] The appearance of something resembling something else is called metaphor. In Abanindranath's Bharat Mata and, particularly, Nandalal's Uma's Tapasya, Sister Nivedita seems to have been the muse. Therefore, the inference is that the images we see in Nandalal's paintings are merely not what they appear. They carry profound significance. Thus the Parthasarathi is not just an image of Sri Krishna but something more than it. So, now the question is: why did Nanadal choose this particular image of Sri Krishna to express a higher feeling?
In Indian miniatures, the picture of Sri Krishna-Arjuna conversation abounds. But it turned into a political image when it appeared as the cover image of Karmayogin, the English weekly edited by Aurobindo Ghosh started in 1906 till 1910. Accused of the Muraripukur Conspiracy, Aurobindo decided to leave Kolkata. Before that, he gave Nivedita the charge of Karmayogin in 1910.
Preogopal Dass, Front Cover of Karmayogin, woodengraving, 1909, Source: Wikimedia
As mentioned before, Nandalal painted Parthasarathi in 1912. So let's have a quick look at the important events in Nandalal's life in the previous years. In 1909, Lady Herringham came to India and 'undertook to make fresh copies of these (Ajanta) murals. Sister Nivedita, who had taken a keen interest in this project of resuscitating the murals, wanted that some Indian painters should benefit by such studies too.'[v] Thus, by Nivedita's interference, Nandalal became part of this project. Nivedita died in 1911.
Besides, two people who left a significant influence on Nandalal were Coomaraswami and Okakura. In 1910-11, he met Coomaraswami and Okakura in 1912. Coomaraswamy taught him to think about image philosophically, and Okakura's teaching was that Art is a combination of three things: Tradition, Observation and Originality.
Now, look at the painting. Unlike Karmayogin's cover picture, Nandalal takes a close-up of Parthasarathi. The image of Parthasarathi dominates the whole of the pictorial space. He is neither looking at Arjuna nor us. His half-closed meditating eyes and serene countenance, elegant body contour and fingers remind us of the image of Avalokiteshvara at Ajanta. It is a picture where Krishna and Bodhisatva have overlapped. To execute it, Nandalal invokes the apparent presence of Bodhisatva by following Ajanta's traditional style, evident in the painting. But what is the sign that proves that the image is the image of Krishna? It is an exceptional one as it bears no iconographical signs of Krishna. The three non-iconographical traces are that of textual evidence, which proves Krishna's identity. One is the title, the second, the suggestion of Arjuna's hands in the background, and the third is the lead rope held by Krishna with his left fist. And this masterstroke by Nandalal makes the painting a masterpiece. The horses are prancing towards, and suddenly the charioteer holds back the lead rope to stop rolling forward. That momentary stillness comes due to the action of two opposite forces at the same time. The whole Gita speaks of these opposing forces instrumental in achieving transcendental peace. Like Duhkheshu Anudvignamana Sukheshu Vigataspriha'[vi] (One should not get anxious in sorrow, and one should be indifferent to material happiness, and this quality leads oneself to the state of transcendental peace). That is also the quality of a Bodhisatva. 'A Bodhisatva has the essence or potentiality of transcendental wisdom or supreme enlightenment.'[vii]
But why Arjuna has not been adequately shown in the painting? To get a possible answer, let's analyze the formative structure of Gita. In the Gita, there are four characters. Sri Krishna, the first speaker Arjuna and the listener who questions from time to time. The third and fourth characters are King Dhritarashtra and his charioteer Sanjaya. Here, in Mahabharata, Dhritarashtra also questions and his charioteer replies. So, there are two tiers in the structure, and in each level, there are two characters related in the same means. But there is a third-tier too. It includes the narrator of Mahabharata, Vedavyasa and we, the readers.
Like Dhritarashtra, the king blind by birth, we listen to every detail of Gita narrated to him by Sanjaya. Sanjaya had a divine eye, watching the battlefield and listening to every dialogue between Sri Krishna and Arjuna. Dhritarashtra, however, could not identify anyone visually, nor did he understand the deep meaning of Gita. In the picture, the largely missing Arjuna might be the mirror image of us. Who are we? We are like Arjuna sitting close to Krishna, and hence, the close-up frame is justified. At the same time, we are supposed to be the blind Dhritarashtra who does not have the quality to understand the deep meaning. Then how would we attain the Bodhisatva state? The answer is by doing our work selflessly. Let's go back to the context of Karmayogin and recall its motto.
‘Mayi Sarvani Karmani Samnasya Adhyatma Chetasa
Nirashih Nirmamah Bhutva Yudhyasva Vigatajvarah II’[viii]
[O Arjuna, on being spiritually conscious, you offer your all achievements to me and fight without affection, desire and sorrow.]
It is undisputed that Sister Nivedita to Nandalal and many of her admirers was the flesh and blood presence of this ideal concept. Therefore, the picture is shrouded by a third visual layer. And it might not be wrong if I say it is also the image of Sister Niveditainscribed on Parthasarathi. Thus, the Parama-Purushaha shed his dark complexion and wore the fairness of Parama-Prakriti, appearing as Ardhanarishvara before us.
[i] Dinkar Kowshik, Nandalal Bose: The doyen of Indian Art, National Book Trust, New Delhi, 2018, p. 5
[ii] ibid, p. 13
[iii] Ibid, p. 14
[iv] Ibid, p. 15
[v] Ibid, p. 26
[vi] A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Srimadbhagavad Gita as it is, Bhaktvedanta Book Trust, 2018, pp. 138 2:56
[vii] Jaideva Sing, An Introduction to Madhyamika Philosophy, Motilal Banarsidas, 2016, p. 31
[viii] A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Srimadbhagavad Gita as it is, Bhaktvedanta Book Trust, 2018, p. 184 3:30
Guruprasad Dey is an art historian and writer, currently doing his doctoral research at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur. His articles have been published in many journals and magazines, including Art & Deal.