The Mahabharata: a visual narrative
- Padma Jayaraj

December 14, 2016

Click on images for enlarged version

Kerala Lalitha Kala Akademi organized a 12 day national painting camp “Mahabharata Vicharam” (30th Oct to 10th Nov 2016) with the Mahabharata as its theme, at the Akademi Gallery in Thrissur.  National level artists cutting across the country gathered to paint. In the course of the camp, eminent speakers looked at the Mahabharata from different perspectives.
The renowned artist Nampoothiri who inaugurated the exhibition spoke of its national stature and hoped the paintings would be showcased in different parts of India. Acrylic on a huge canvas, each painting is a magnificent burst of passion, a visual narrative. The painting exhibition proved a raconteur of our times. Most of the paintings brood on, in moody, heavy rhythms, fusing traditions with politics, steeped in a sense of history.

Bara Bhaskar’s work is commanding: a large painting, acrylic on paper in shades of earthy brown.  The artist indicates the historical authenticity of the Mahabharata war, painting the excavated site. The tiny remains, the remnants of their lives take the story of Mahabharata from a poetic work to the reality of history. Indeed the excavation proved the theatre of Mahabharat war is the Ganga plains and it did happen sometime in 10th c B.C.

Tribal issues is an underlying theme of many paintings. Swami Vivekananda mentions three Krishnas in our ancient times. One was a tribal chief, for nomadic and pastoral tribes roamed in northern parts of the sub-continent before Aryan tribes migrated to the plains. K.G. Babu and Sravan Paswan connect this version with the contemporary neglect of the tribal by the mainstream society.

Babu K.G is an artist noted for his hyper realism in his work. The larger than life presentation of the suggested image, the face of a child, cast in indigo blue with violet tinge is a tribal that recalls Krishna. Can you imagine a tear-filled Krishna? The sad face, tears streaking down shows the universal dimension of sorrow. “I will walk to the depth of deepest forest with you” is the message. The painting is significant in present day politics that displace the forest dwellers to confiscate their home, the wilderness.

Sravan Paswan, a noted painter of Mithila school in Bihar paints the plight of his community back home. The upper class sidelines them. Krishna and Ganga are their only consolation in his narrative.

From Ekalavya to Rohit Vemula, the same story goes on: the crushing of the tribal talent. Pushpakaran thinks drawing has great future. Using Indian ink as his medium he has painted Ekalavya as the prince of the wild. On his right is the civilized world that cut his finger and his home the tree; on his left is the forest in stylized form, home to flora and fauna.

Sindhu Divakaran
connects the iconic youth Ekalavya who haunts our conscience to Rohit Vemula the promise nipped in the bud in our great university. The ideal Indian pose gives the painting mythical dimension; the enveloping brown the gloom of their plight; the radiant white their talent; the reddish tinge the tragedy.   

V.S. Madhu brings the tribal to the center in his canvass to remind the viewer of the native people of the subcontinent. Hidumbi, Gadotgajan, Ekalavya and their descendants, in an unending line in silhouette, pose question marks.

For Dinesh P.G, his canvas is a representation of how memories and myths work to create a painting. The entire canvas, brown in color, is the picture of a pond from his childhood memories. In the center we find a linear drawing that is evidently of Bhishma on his bed of arrows. The waters are now transformed into the waters of Ganga. The nervous system of his body that matches with his hoary hair stands for the rivers and rivulets of the land. Though farfetched in theme, the impressionist style, captivates the attention to the pivotal figure. The magic of minimalism with contrasting images attract the viewer.

Ramsing Urveti presents another narrative of the Mahabharata, an example of how the story got embedded in the subcontinent. Here, Siva and Parvati on either side are  placed above a picture that tells a  myth: the story of Pandu’s curse  unknown in this part of India. The images of a pastoral life make the canvas a retelling of the story of a tribe, perhaps Krishna’s tribe.

Women smothered by patriarchy, is another theme. Perhaps, Gandhari blind-folding her eyes to be a pathivrita is the root cause of the Mahabharata war. Kunti’s hapless plight and the story of Karna is a sad tale in a patriarchal society. The disrobing of Draupadi that shocks the sensibility is a daily event to date. The gambling board recurs as a symbol in many paintings to indicate the nature of politics.

Sreeja Pallam depicts the plight of the women in the story, a repetition in our own times. Her canvas projects life from birth to death, leading to the peace of acceptance after the tumult - an endless fight against inimical forces that pushes one to compromise. Kunti, the pregnant mother with the Sun above her, Karna meeting his death below, is the tragedy of a girlish whim. The blind-folded Gandhari with her dying son on her lap recalls The Pieta, the cause and result of her thoughtless decision. Draupadi with Bheema, her avenger, point to the war and its aftermath: the eternally wandering Aswathama and Bhishma on a bed of arrows.  Shikandi, the 3rd gender is not spared in this recap of visuals with contemporary resonance.

Sreekumari places the game board in the center and on its middle on a bed of arrows she places a woman, perhaps herself, the pawn. Two metaphors coalesce here, Dharma and the woman in the game of power politics. A shower of peacock feathers that trickles down to the dress of the Indian woman is perhaps the only hope even today.

Smiija Vijayan highlights the tragedy of Kunti and Karna.

Deepti Vasu and Muthu Koya take up one of the contentious issues to date: rape. Deepti’s painting is figurative depicting the fury of revenge while Muthu Koya’s work is a powerful portrayal in symbolic dimension powered by impressionist mode. The losers are mainly women.

Latha N.B in her absract painting portrays the cry of the land rising to the sky and collapsing in a whimper in an acceptance of the inevitable.

Manoj Brahmamangalam takes the pain of war. The artist has painted bricks in the background to construct his visual narrative. The color scheme brown and grey with streaks of red, takes the viewer to the court premises where war brewed. The visuals gather around the tragedy of war, Gandhari Vilapam: the mother image, carrying the flames of anger, pain, loss and death within.

Power politics is the theme in some paintings. Gurupath Chitrakar from Bihar paints it as two parallel streams in his traditional patachitra style. Three pictures: coronation of Karna, disrobing of Draupadi, a scene from war, has a parallel. We see a replica of present day India: the Minster under the national flag, the plight of the woman, and Kashmir the troubled spot, symbolic representations of the same theme. The Mahabharata, yes, ironically, is our tradition. A caustic comment from a humble artist is quite revealing.

Udaya Kumar fuses the iconic Bhishma and Gandhiji for persecution of values in politics. Despite the calendar art style, it is a powerful presentation.

Jalajamol points to the inherent loss in any war. The mirror image of a man aiming at himself is the tragedy of war, anywhere, anytime, although the context is when Dharmaputra realizes Karna to be his brother.

K.P. Reji, a Baroda based artist, fuses the story of Duryodana trapped by Krishna’s advice with the modern uniform of soldiers who fight in jungles. The background resembles the camouflaged military clothes meant to ambush the enemy. The traps of war are the same.

Thomas Kurisingal, is concerned with contemporary issues. His painting in colorful visuals recounts the turning points of Mahabharata, which symbolically represent the evils of modern society. Pointing to private loss and public crisis the painting solicits to mediate in human history.

The holocaust of war is the theme of Bahuleyan. In animal imagery, war fossilized is the canvas of the artist. The gadha in the middle recalls the earth in the midst of death.

In the painting of Sanil KumarK.K, the images from Picasso’s Guernica and military tanks sporting flags, in grey, is a commentary on modern war.  The stories of destruction in Mahabharata war bordering the center in brown color and in line drawings recall old palm leaf manuscripts.

Premji’s canvas, the final journey of the Pandavas dogged by the dog is the finality of death after a life in search of glory, in a gory battlefield. The dog stands for the karmic baggage as well as death. The painting speaks of private loss and public crisis in the context of the Mahabharata.

G. Pratapan hints at the insignificance of humans and the earth their home. The painting pricks the ego like a bubble.  His work showcases a telescopic reach to the astronomical span where the earth is a tiny thing.

Tom Vattakuzhi presents Shanti mantra, the message of Shanti Parva in the Mahaharata. The luminous, inward looking, relaxed figure pointing to the heart is a painting that reminds of Buddhist way of life, the ideal for which the subcontinent is famous for.
Although each artist conceived and executed his work in his and her aloneness, the entire show as a visual narrative of the epic, of its landmark events that recall its contemporary relevance, comes a surprise.
Padma Jayaraj is a freelance writer on the arts. She is a regular contributor to