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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Kelly

Under the tree

Another Murshidabad painting from the Victoria and Albert Museum, made around 1750.

(Murshidabad was the provinical capital of Bengal under the Mughals. With the takeover by the British East India Company in the 1760’s Kolkata/Calcutta became the centre of power and the Murshidabad painters shifted there to follow the interests and tastes of these new patrons, effectively ending this older style.)

The man sits under a tree with his legs in gomukhāsana, meditating or engaged in some other static seated practice: he holds a japa-mala (‘mutter-garland’) for counting breaths or mantra repetitions. Over his shoulder is the saffron cloak of renunciation. The coloured forms on his undyed tunic are patches: the plain fabric has been repeatedly repaired. Clothing, often sumptuous and elegant, is prominent in Mughal painting: at the time Bengal and India generally was producing some of the most sophisticated fabrics in the world—so the bland and damaged clothing is meant to be noticed. The forked stick on the ground must have done service as a yogadaṇḍa, a mediation prop, and has been laid aside. Perhaps it is no longer needed.

The tree under which he sits, with its aerial roots, is the peepul tree (Sanskrit pippala), ficus religiosa (‘religious fig’!): the tree the Buddha is supposed to have attained enlightenment under, known in that context as the Bodhi (‘awakening’) tree.

Ficus religiosa is an invasive epiphytic weed that will grow almost anywere (on walls and roofs etc), splitting open and destroying the tree it grows on; it can live for thousands of years. All of those features may have fed into its widespread role as the tree of spiritual transformation.

Under yet another name for the plant, aśvattha, it is used as a cosmological tree like the Norse Yggdrisil, a tree as a model of the universe: this tree is upside down with roots pointing up, and its branches down. It can also represent the frame of ordinary human experience of reality with the claim that one might “with difficulty” break out of this by severing the tree. (Sadly I was unable to consult Murray Emeneau’s 1949 monograph The Strangling Figs in Sanskrit Literature.)

Three bands of empty but textured colour take up much of the area of the painting, increasing in size from top to bottom in blue, brown and white. Seventy years or so later the painter Bulaki will use abstract vibrating fields of colour (gold and blue) to represent the “absolute”, with form if present only in the bodies of the practitioners. These illustrations have only recently come to light thanks to Debra Diamond, a student of the visual culture of yoga.

But the Murshidabad style often shows single figures within expanses of colour like this, with as here only minimal framings of architectural form. As in this fabulous image of a woman alone on a terrace kicking back and smoking. On the other hand a lot of Mughal painting crowds the scene with persons and their roles and frames them in complex architecture—with possibly in the distant background a fort under siege or someone being eaten by a crocodile. Maybe smoking and meditation have something in common after all.:


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