Directorate of Museums, Government of Assam

Arts Research and Documentation

Grant Period: Over two years

Historically, the manuscript paintings of Assam reveal definite connections with manuscript painting traditions in other parts of India. Mr Samiran Boruah, Principal Investigator, points out that Assamese manuscript paintings have stylistically remained somewhat aloof from other such painting traditions and cannot be categorised as belonging to the Mughal, East India Company or British periods. He thinks that this is partly because manuscript paintings in Assam were always in the nature of illustrations that supplemented religious texts. Artists were required to embellish sacred texts rather than explore their own creativity or render personal interpretations of the text. He therefore feels it would be better to consider the paintings “autonomous religious artefacts” rather than think of them as an art form.

Another factor responsible for the somewhat insulated nature of these paintings was that they were largely products of a rural culture as against the urban and courtly milieu that produced the paintings of the late Rajasthan School, for instance. Mr Boruah points out that though some kings and queens from late medieval Assam commissioned scribes and painters to prepare manuscripts, there is no evidence that they had their own royal ateliers. Manuscripts were generally prepared by traditional scribes and painters who lived in villages, and who supplemented their incomes from these crafts by farming. Besides, the Vaishnava monasteries or sattras, another important site for the production of manuscripts, were also situated away from urban centres.

Mr Boruah, a visual artist and art historian, who currently occupies the position of Guide-Lecturer-cum-Exhibition Officer at the Assam State Museum in Guwahati, devotes a good part of his proposal to theories about the origin of the manuscript paintings of Assam. He traces the first reference to inscriptions on bark originating from Assam to Banabhatta’s seventh century Harshacharita, where mention is made of gifts sent to Harshavardan by the Assamese king, Kumar Bhaskarbarman. While evidence suggests that manuscript writing on palm leaves and birch bark was prevalent among the Buddhists and Jains as far back as the fifth and sixth centuries respectively, Mr Boruah would like to consider the possibility that Assamese manuscript writing did not draw on these precedents. He bases this view on the fact that the technique of preparing palm leaves and birch bark as a writing medium is not as complex as preparing aloe bark, which is the oldest writing material of Assam. He conjectures, therefore, about an older Aryan tradition of manuscript writing, which might have come to Assam with the earliest wave of Aryan migration.

Theories about the origins of the painted manuscript in Assam are similarly inconclusive. The Palas of Bengal had a thriving tradition of painted manuscripts during the tenth century and the contiguity between Assam and Bengal implies that this ought to have influenced manuscript painting in Assam. Nevertheless, there is very little evidence to suggest such an influence, according to Mr. Boruah. While it is possible that proponents of the 15th century Vaishnavite movement destroyed manuscripts of the earlier Pala Buddhist school, stylistically too, points out Mr. Boruah, there is very little similarity between the Pala and the Assamese schools of painting.

A possible alternative to this theory that Mr Boruah himself puts forward would show this tradition to have originated during the medieval era. According to this view, the existing Jain tradition of manuscript illustration was influenced to some extent by the Persians in the 15th century. It was during this time also that the Hindus started illustrating their manuscripts in the context of the growing cult of Vaishnavism. Mr Boruah adduces several arguments to refute scholars who suggest a Mughal influence on the early phase of Assamese painting.

Accompanied by a photographer, Mr Boruah will cover all the districts of Assam where there are known to be manuscript paintings either in Vaishnavite sattras or private possession. According to him there are 38 known manuscripts. Primarily, it is the illustrations in these manuscripts that require to be documented. The photographs will be scanned and stored in a digital database at the Assam State Museum in Guwahati, which will be made available to researchers. Mr Boruah also proposes to publish a catalogue of the database, classifying the paintings according to chronology and style.