Leaf from the Dasavatara Series:Vamana, the Dwarf Incarnation of Vishnu attb. to the Master Artist Mahesh of Chamba (active c. 1730- 1770) c. 1740 Gouache and gold on paper Folio: 7 ⅞ x 10 ⅞ in. ( 20 x 27.63 cm.) Image: 6 ½ x 9 ½ in. ( 16.51 x 24.13 cm.) Inscribed in takri characters on upper red border and verso
Provenance: From a Private New York Collection, Ex collection of Terence McInerney Acquired February 25th, 1980, Invoice no. 43450, Greater India Company, Inc. (original invoice available upon request)
This magnificent work depicts the scene of the all-important gift being made to the dwarf- ascetic, who is the cleverly disguised Vishnu, by Bali, the demon-king whose charity has become legend. The dwarf avatar of Vishnu, Vamana- the fifth incarnation, is being received by the asura king Bali, who is dressed for ritual: pouring water from a golden flask. The dwarf Brahmin rendered blue, befitting of most avatars of Vishnu, is rendered as an elderly grey – bearded man dressed only in a yellow dhoti and a flowered crown, with an antelope skin thrown over his shoulder and carrying a parasol made of leaves. Behind Bali stands his white-skinned Brahmin preceptor, Shukracharya, wearing an orange dhoti and carrying a chowrie resting his shoulder and slightly behind him a demon to emphasize the fact that Bali, for all his normal appearance in this painting and others, was a king who ruled over a demon Kingdom. The throne that the Raja has left, with its high seat, raised scalloped in the back, occupies the inner chamber. To the far left stands an attendant, holding a cloth wound like a halter around the neck of a cow, signifying go-dana, the traditional gift to Brahmins.
Mahesh, the Master artist of Chamba, uses a vivid range of colors to establish the background: a flat white on the inside of the chamber, a pale yellow, and a strip of blue sky with “squiggly” clouds spread all across it towards the top, above the turrets and cupolas of the palace. At the very bottom is a strip in pink and mauve, indicating a courtyard floor with edging.
When one sees this painting in relation to that of other illustrations by Mahesh, there is an immediate connection in the facial types. The attendant holding the cow, the flesh tints used for the bodies, the treatment of the gold, the architectural detailing, and the meticulous rendering of the dhotis. The line is firm and considerably refined: one sees this especially in the rendering of the demon. The figures possess a certain monumental rigidity, and the faces somewhat larger in proportion to the bodies, idioms easily associated with Mahesh. To be noticed is the special attention Mahesh pays to the figure directly behind King Bali. This is undoubtedly the king’s preceptor, who endeavoured in vain to prevent the king’s making that fateful gift, having seen through Vishnu’s guise. He even reduced himself in size and sat inside the spout of the kings ewer to keep the water that would have sealed the act of gifting from pouring out. But Vishnu- Vamana sharply thrust a leaf of the sacred Kusha inside the spout, thus forcing the preceptor out and blinding him in one eye, as the text points out and we see him here, pointing to his blinded eye. When giving alms, Bali granted Vamana any wish he desired. Vamana cleverly asked for all the land he could cover with three steps and the king agreed. Immediately Vishnu changed into his giant form Trivikrama and covered the earth and sky with two steps and then asked Bali where he should place his last step. Knowing he had been bested, Bali offered his head to Vishnu, who immediately sent the king to the netherworld, which henceforth he was to rule as a pious and just king.
For works of the same subject and series, Attributed to the master artist Mahesh of Chamba, see Pahari Masters, by B.N. Goswamy and Eberhard Fischer; image 67- pgs 176 to 185 Also see W.G. Archer “Indian Paintings from the Punjab Hills”, London, 1973, vol ll, plate 16, pg. 55; J. Mittal., “New Studies in Pahari Painting”, Lalit Kala no. 12., figs. 5-6; V.C. Ohri, “Laharu and Mahesh”, Lalit Kala no. 13, pg. 50., fig. 3; Archer and Binney, “Rajput Miniatures from the Collection of Edwin Binney the 3rd, Portland, 1968, fig. 82. This series is fully discussed in Archer, op. cit. (1973), vol I, p. 82.
Behind Bali stands his white-skinned Brahmin preceptor, Shukracharya, with a demon behind him to emphasize the fact that Bali was a king who ruled over a demon Kingdom.
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