SPL Hand Coloured Rare Book Collection Featuring Norman R Bobins

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Stories of the Avatars of Vishnu.

India: Kishangarh, Early 19th century.
India: Kishangarh, Early 19th century.

Ink, silver and opaque watercolour on paper, 61 folios, 37 lines of Braj Hindi in black Devanagari script to the page, keywords and verse markers in red, 286 colour illustrations, floral decorative borders, modern black leather binding, 40.5 x 28.5 cm. This extraordinary compilation of Hindu tales is a showcase for the remarkably vibrant results that on occasions emerged from Indian scriptoria as a result of Islamic, North and South Indian manuscript and painting traditions. The manuscript is also a rare example of a book from the Rajput kingdom of Kishangarh, well-known for its graceful school of painting, but seldom-encountered as a school of book production. With 286 paintings, the compilation is more akin to a picture book than an illustrated manuscript. The domination of the paintings over the text is enhanced by the use of eye-catching turquoise grounds and the lavish use of silver for waterscapes, crowns, jewellery, chariots and weapons. The sleepy eyes, highly stylized figures and horses with steeply arched necks, are all unmistakable characteristics of the refined Kishangarh style. The bound, portrait format of the manuscript is borrowed from Islamic book traditions at a point in time when Hindu patrons began to rival Muslim ones in wealth and taste. Intriguingly, the ‘multi-tiered’ page, whereby tiers of horizontal paintings run across the length of the page, and in particular, the astonishingly vivid floral borders point to the influence of South Indian traditions. Both of these features are found in one of the most remarkable South Indian manuscripts of the period, an illustrated North Deccani copy of a commentary on the Bhagavad Gita now in the Virginia Museum of Fine Art (illustrated in Joseph M. Dye III, The Arts of India, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, London 2001, no. 162, pp 370-74). The multi-tiered format is even more visible in another late 17th-century Deccani manuscript in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, this time a Salihotra (illustrated in ibid., no. 165, pp. 378-79). Deccani influence is also visible in the predominantly pastel palette, the extensive use of silver, and the distinctive Deccani floral crowns worn by the various avatars. All the tales in the compilation are centred on one of the various avatars of Vishnu, starting with Krishna in the form of a section from the Bhagavata Purana, followed by the tale of Kali, the tenth and final of the avatars, and concluding with an excerpt from the Ramayana. Though Kishnagarh painting has been noted for its occasional taste in the bizarre and the humorous, the colourful iconographic opportunities offered by these Hindu myths are fare more extensive than is normally the case in paintings in this refined, Mughal-influenced style.