Wednesday, October 16, 2019
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Portraits In The 10th Century Indian Paintings | Benoy Behl

Now, King Raja Raja Chola with his guru, Guru Karuvurar. This is the earliest surviving portrait in Indian painting. And this is at the end of the 10th century. Now one of the most marvellous things about Indian art, is that for a thousand and five hundred years, this art showed, brought before you, thousands of figures, deities were created, animals were created. beautiful flowers, fruits, and trees were created, and the common man was made. But portraits were never made. Not even of the King under whose rule the art was being created. For the purpose of the art was to transport us, and to take us far from the realm of the ego, to take us away from human concerns, and away from any sense of one’s own importance, and therefore, a portrait was completely unnecessary, and against the purpose of the art.

The Chitra Sutra is also very clear, that art is far too important, for the making of any individual person. It should convey only the eternal values and eternal themes. But as I say this, it should be noted that there is an exception.

In the period of the Kushanas, the Kushana rulers who came from Central Asia, in the 1st century. They had portraits made of themselves in their temples. But after their rule, the Indian tradition immediately reverted back to itself, and the first portraits that you get to see are actually in sculpture, of the 7th-8th century, and they are to be seen at Mamallapuram. And as I said before, in painting, this of the end of the 10th century, is the earliest surviving portrait. So it is King Raja Raja Chola and his guru, Guru Karuvurar. It’s also very interesting to see, that though the King is breaking tradition, to have himself presented in the art, he is doing so with hesitation, and he’s doing you know, standing behind, standing in the shelter of his Guru.

This continues right up to the 13th century, in various sites and various temples in the country. Some portraits of the King begin to appear, but usually they are made very small, or they are made with the King praying before Shiva Linga, or they are made with the King kneeling before his Guru. So the King has started to present himself in the art, but he does so, still with the sense of humility, which over the years you will see will change and gradually Kings will show themselves with great pomposity and a great sense of self-importance. But this is indeed one of the greatest, one of the greatest things in the Indian tradition of art.

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