Bishnu Prasad Rabha's Painting of the Vaishnava Saint Sankardeva
24 Nov 2021
Bishnu Prasad Rabha, Portrait of Srimanta Sankardeva, watercolour, mid-20th century
Bishnu Prasad Rabha (1909-1969) or Bishnu Rabha is one of the pioneering, colossal figures of the socio-cultural phenomenon known as Assamese modernism in the early 20th century. He was an accomplished and fine artist, painter, playwright, litterateur, singer and dancer, and a great revolutionary. An extraordinary versatile genius, he, for his lifetime, remained a champion of Marxist ideologies and relentlessly fought for the rights of the oppressed and mending the dismantling social and cultural fabric of Assam in the 19th to 20th century. Along with other dominant figures of Assamese modernism and advocates of progressive thought like Jyotiprasad Agarwalla, he contributed immensely to shaping the Assam we know today.
Bishnu Prasad Rabha's artistic contributions, mainly his literary compositions, including plays and novels like Kuri Bachar Jail, Banua Panchayat and Krishak, primarily reflect his extreme leanings towards Marxist socialist ideologies and his call for a progressive and inclusive society. Though he was also a master painter, not much is known about his paintings or painted compositions. One of his well-known paintings features a portrayal of the medieval neo-Vaisnava saint reformer Sankardeva. This painting is considered one of the finest available visualizations of the saint reformer. The defining attributes of Sankardeva's neo-Vaisnavism or Eka Sarana Hari Nama Dharma like dismantling of casteist ideologies or a longing for a society where everyone is equal sharing a contemplative and creative approach to life have always inspired Bishnu Rabha. He wanted to construct a society devoid of exploitation, hegemony and the systems that solely rests on divisive principles and approaches.
In the above painting, Rabha has visualized the form of Sankardeva as having all such attributes and morphological features or Lakshanas that are generally ascribed to Mahapurusas or divine saintly figures like Buddha. The bow-shaped eyebrows, somewhat half-closed lotus-shaped contemplative eyes, the long earlobes, the serene countenance, the youthful body and the overall graceful positioning of the body of the saint in the painting point towards Rabha's in-depth understanding of the symbolisms and theories regarding the human form elaborated in the ancient Indian Silpa texts like the Vishnudharmottara. The accuracy with which he had rendered the hand gestures of the saint hints towards Rabha's profound knowledge of the nuances and techniques of the classical Indian dance forms. In the latter part of the 1940s, he went to Kashi/ Varanasi to research classical forms of performing arts2. His innovations and experiments with Indian classical dance and music are evident in his numerous lyrical compositions like Biswar Chande Chande, Surare Deulare. A prolific dancer, he was deeply involved in the study and re-inventing the performing art forms practised in the Vaisnava monasteries or Sattras, which are centres of the neo-Vaisnava faith propagated by Sankardeva and his spiritual successors. This immense involvement of Rabha with the intricacies of the literature, music and dance of the Sattras, the culture of the Sattras, which is a result of an amalgamation of the classical and sylvan/folk meaning-making processes, seem to have got reflected in the above painting of Sankardeva. The very lyrical and the furnished form of the saint modelled completely on a thorough understanding of the Sastric conventions of Rupa (form), Rekha (line) and Rasa (mood or flavour) contrasts but goes in harmony with the somewhat crude rendering of objects surrounding the figure of the saint. These objects, like the Sarai ( lidded offering tray) are seen to be forming an intrinsic part of the regional and folk cultures of Assam. In the above painting, Bishnu Rabha has rendered the form or figure of the saint with utmost delicacy and had shaped each crease and curve meticulously following the Sastric norms and Sastric conception of the human figure. A linear lyricism, reminiscent of the forms of the figures in the murals of Ajanta and Bagh caves and the sculptures of the Gupta period, Rabha tried to manifest in the form of Sankardeva. But, the objects accompanying Sankardeva look rather sketchy compared to the saint's image at the centre of the painting. Whether it was done intentionally by Rabha to create some meaning or dialogue or it was just a formal device is not clear.
Considering the context of the profound involvement of Bishnu Rabha with the neo- Vaisnava modes of worship, styles of literature, arts and music, the form of Sankardeva in the above painting can also be thought to have been conceived by him in the light of the descriptions in literary works like the Guru Bhatima. The Guru Bhatima composed by Madhavdeva - the closest disciple of Sankardeva is one of the few and significant surviving literary works of the neo-Vaisnava tradition, which describes the bodily form of Sankardeva. In Guru Bhatima, Madhavdeva describes his Guru's bodily form, comparing him with the radiant moon. Even without any adornments, his body shines with a divine glow, and his mere sight gives solace and liberation to the gravest of sinners. This detailed description of Sankardeva's bodily form offered in Guru Bhatima is seen to be excellently manifesting and pronounced in the above painting by Rabha. It can be said that through a master use of the earth and tonal colours, Bishnu Rabha, in the above painting, had tried to bring out the sublime physicality of the saint, the 'ideal form' as spoken about in Guru Bhatima. The circular halo around the saint's head may be an inspiration from the Prabhavali, amply found in the sculpture of Budhha in ancient India.
Again, the saint's figure is seen to bear an exciting resemblance in certain aspects with Bodhisattva Padmapani featured in one of the mural paintings inside Cave I of Ajanta. We may not be wrong if we say that it was probably modelled by Rabha in the form of Padmapani from Ajanta, considering the deep insight and research in the artistic traditions of India which he carried out during his years at Kashi. His insightful and carefully executed form of Sankardeva following the tenets and ideologies regarding the movement and mood of line elaborated in the classical Sanskrit-Silpa texts also connotes him possibly getting inspired by the mannerisms evolved by the masters of the Bengal school like Abanindranath Tagore and Nandalal Bose.
Lastly, we have to say that, though a staunch Marxist, Bishnu Prasad Rabha never stayed aloof from the religious practices of Assam. Instead, he had imbibed in him the ideologies of various religious systems prevalent in Assam, especially that of neo-Vaisnavism of Sankadeva, which continued to be a driving force in his profound quest for socio-cultural reformation.
Nath, Debarshi Prasad and Parismita "Bishnuprasad Rabha as Cultural Icon of Assam: The Process of Meaning Making".Cosmopolitan Civil Societies: an Interdisciplinary Journal, Vol.9, No.1, 2017, pp. 64.
Bora, Parimita. "Bishnu Prasad Rabha's songs and the spirit of social freedom". Journal of Xi'an University of Architecture and Technology, Vol XII, Issue XII, 202
Guy, John. Indian Temple Sculpture, Victoria and Albert Museum Publications, 2007
Kramrisch, S. The Vishnudharmottara (Part III): A Treatise on Indian Painting and Image-making, Calcutta University Press, 1928.
Siddhant Medhi is an art historian, scholar, and writer who is currently doing his doctoral research at Tezpur University. An alumna of Kala Bhavana, Visva-Bharati, Siddhant has written extensively and published essays on Assamese art and cultural practices in journals and magazines.
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