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King Vajrasimha and Queen Surasundari in Conversation
Page from a dispersed manuscript of the Kalacharyakatha (Legend of the Teacher-Monk Kalaka)

Artist/maker unknown, Indian

Made in Gujarat, India, Asia

Medieval Period

14th century

Opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper

Sheet: 2 9/16 × 9 7/16 inches (6.5 × 24 cm)

Curatorial Department:
South Asian Art

Object Location:

Currently not on view

Accession Number:

Credit Line:
125th Anniversary Acquisition. Alvin O. Bellak Collection, 2004

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This page of a Jain text is among the earliest works on paper from the Indian subcontinent. Its long, horizontal format mimics the narrow dimensions of the palm-leaf pages used for religious manuscripts before Muslim settlers brought papermaking technology to India. The manuscript would have been bound by strings threaded through the central red dot (the hole has been filled). The figures are the parents of Kalaka, a Jain monk and teacher, whose life and adventures are described in the Kalakacharyakatha. They are drawn in wiry, black lines against a solid red background and their pointed profiles include the farther eyes, which project out of their faces. These characteristics typify the style developed in western India primarily under Jain patronage.

Additional information:
  • PublicationIntimate Worlds: Indian Paintings from the Alvin O. Bellak Collection

    This exquisitely illustrated page of a Jain text is among the earliest works on paper from the Indian subcontinent. Its long, horizontal format mimics the narrow dimensions of the palm-leaf pages regularly used for religious manuscripts before Muslim raiders and merchants imported paper and papermaking technology from western Asia in about the fourteenth century. In addition, it bears residual reminders of the palm-leaf binding technique in the form of a prominent red circle (chandraka) painted at the center where a string hole would have been, and indeed, although the hole is now filled, this page was once bound with a central string. In addition, the red dots to either side still carry folio numbers, as was also the practice on palm-leaf pages. Although the illustration occurs close to its textual description, the text runs from left to right on the full page, despite the interruption of the illustration and borders, and it is written out continuously on the front and back of the folio. Thus there is only an indirect relationship between the picture and that portion of the text that appears on the page.

    The distinctive style of this illustration is often termed “Western Indian” or “Jain,” although it is entirely exclusive neither to the region nor to Jain patronage. The palette consists of red, black, white, yellow, green, blue (from lapis lazuli), and gold, the last two used sparingly in the early Jain works. The colors are jewel-like and luminous, painted in flat, saturated areas with only rare touches of tonal modulation. The earliest illustrations, from the second half of the fourteenth century into the fifteenth, often display, as here, the background of solid red that had been typical of earlier palm-leaf paintings. Wiry black lines delineate the figures and setting, seldom overlapping but making up a richly patterned surface. Clarity rather than spatial depth is paramount in the composition. The figures have oversize heads, and their flexed limbs make exaggerated gestures. Lower bodies are depicted in profile; upper bodies, with wide shoulders tapering to tiny waists, are twisted into an almost frontal view. While the faces are shown in sharp profile, both eyes are drawn frontally, so that the eye on the hidden side of the face projects outward into space. Although this feature has an earlier history, it becomes a distinguishing characteristic of Jain painting from the fourteenth century onward. These Jain images also display a fascination with sumptuously patterned garments and furnishings, which is not surprising since the Jain community was in large part mercantile and closely involved with western India’s extensive international textile trade.

    Jain illustrated texts were produced for donation to monastic libraries, the donor gaining religious merit in the giving. They were primarily patronized by members of the Shvetambara tradition, one of the two main branches of Jainism. This painting formed part of a dispersed manuscript of the Kalakacharyakatha (Legend of the Teacher-Monk Kalaka), read and venerated by the Shvetambaras especially during the annual rainy-season festival of Paryushana. A compilation of legends about a number of individuals, the text is primarily based on the life of Kalaka, a leader of the Shvetambara hierarchy in the fifth century A.D. The story begins with the conversion and initiation of Kalaka as a Jain monk. It then narrates the battle in which Kalaka, aided by the Sahis (local rulers from Central Asia), overthrew the wicked king Gardabhilla of Ujjayini, and concludes with the remainder of Kalaka’s life and teachings.1

    This first page of the manuscript shows Kalaka’s parents, King Vajrasimha and Queen Surasundari. They rest beneath a canopy (chandarvo) on an elaborate golden throne, upholstered in a swirling red and pink fabric. The king holds a sword in one hand and a dagger in the other, with one finger raised to indicate that he is conversing with the queen. She, too, displays a gesture indicating discourse, her palm turned inward with thumb and index finger touching. Both are elaborately bejeweled in gold and pearl ornaments.

    Stylistic comparison with many related works that bear colophons can yield a fairly accurate dating for this page. The narrow page proportions, fine outlines, red ground, and delicate physiognomy, among other features, link it both to late works on palm leaf, such as a Kalpasutra of A.D. 1382 2 and to other early works on paper, such as a Kalpasutra and Kalakacharyakatha of A.D. 1381.3 It also closely resembles other manuscripts that are without dated colophons but attributable to about 1375–1400. The images, for example, are particularly close to those in a manuscript in the Prince of Wales Museum, Mumbai,4 showing such strikingly similar details as the peculiarly shaded beard, long-nailed fingers, and preference for half-tone textile patterns.

    Four other pages from the same manuscript as the Bellak page have recently been published as part of the Goenka Collection.5 The five precisely match in size, format, and calligraphy. The Goenka pages do show more vibrant colors, as is understandable given that they come from the unfaded middle pages of the manuscript, and also retain the string holes in their central chandrakas (that on the Bellak page was filled at some point in its history). In discussing the Goenka pages, B. N. Goswamy and Usha Bhatia hypothesize that several painters contributed illustrations to this manuscript, filling in the work of a single pagemaker and calligrapher. This likely accounts for the slight differences in drawing found among the five illustrations. Darielle Mason, from Intimate Worlds: Indian Paintings from the Alvin O. Bellak Collection (2001), pp. 32-33.

    1. See W. Norman Brown, The Story of Kalaka: The Kalakacaryakatha (Washington, D.C.: Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1933).
    2. In the collection of Nemi Darshana Jnanshala, Palitana, Gujarat (Umakant P. Shah, ed., Treasures of Jaina Bhandaras [Ahmedabad: L. D. Institute of Indology, 1978], figs. 23–28).
    3. National Museum, New Delhi (Moti Chandra and Umakant P. Shah. New Documents of Jaina Painting. [Mumbai: Shri Mahavira Jaina Vidyalaya, 1975], figs. 8–8a).
    4. Saryu Doshi, Masterpieces of Jain Painting (Mumbai: Marg Publications, 1985), fig. 4 (color).
    5. B. N. Goswamy with Usha Bhatia. Painted Visions: The Goenka Collection of Indian Paintings. (New Delhi: Lalit Kala Akademi and Rabindra Bhavan, 1999), pp. 9–11, nos. 8, 9. They identify the manuscript as a combined Kalpasutra-Kalakacharyakatha, but there is actual evidence only of the latter. I thank Shridhar Andhare (personal communication, 2000) for confirming the connection between the Goenka pages and the one in the Bellak Collection.