Hanuman ... Ram’s tallest bhakt.
Snapshot
  • This collection of some of the most awe-inspiring works on Hanuman, curated by B N Aryan, depicts him not only as a Ram-bhakt but celebrates the divine beauty of Hanuman himself.

At the backdrop of every decisive dharmic battle, is a pataka, a symbolic flag fluttering behind yoddhas. It announces their decisive progression towards the final assault or a convincing conclusion. For Hanuman, in most of his depictions in Pataka paintings of Rajasthan, Pahadi paintings from Himachal and manuscript paintings from Kashmir, the pataka remains the undisputed, gentle weapon of his eternal flag bearing for Ram, dharma and his own devotee.

Ram and dharma may find more bhakts and contributors. But Hanuman knows that as Ram’s tallest bhakt, a devotee needs the presence of the one he worships, in journeys and on the battlefields. It is perhaps for this reason that Hanuman is depicted holding the pataka in the Rajasthani Pataka paintings, even when he is out to protect and defend his own bhakt from evil. This could be his own way of serving Ram. This could also be the way the pujaris, who are said to be the creators of Pataka paintings of Rajasthan, viewed Hanuman. They seem to understand well the coils of a mortal devotee’s mind. Their belief in Hanuman is steadfast.

Dushta Drishti Nivaraya Nivaraya

The line inscribed on top of a Rajasthani Pataka painting, placed there to ward off the evil eye seems to be doing its job well. The enormous collection dedicated to Hanuman, of which the pataka paintings are part of, stays protected and preserved under its wandering view. The Navamukhi Hanuman, whom the worshipper turns to whenever he needs to ward off an evil eye, is in fierce form. His tongue flaps facing the pataka, and from the crown on his head emanate animal heads, completing his deadly, protective arsenal.

Standing before these patakas, I am reminded of the presence of similar patakas at the makeshift shanties where Pakistani Hindu migrants live in Rajasthan. I do ask myself why Hanuman patakas are absent at rooftops of houses in Jodhpur, where most of these eighteenth and nineteenth century paintings were made by pujaris, and where, many Pakistani Hindu migrants are settled today. A patient reading of the patakas on display spells out something — that Hanuman as visualised from the worshipper-pujari eye, does make every effort to ward off the evil for the worshipper. Some staunch devotees of Hanuman, like the Hindus from Pakistan, surpassed evil to walk over from a dark, dark battlefield, to be in the brooding safety of dharmic security they find in Jodhpur. It could be a mere co-incidence. I myself am a Hanuman bhakt. I visited this display as one. I saw these works not as works of art (folk and tribal), but as deep Indic impressions of a common man’s devotion towards Hanuman. I saw these as numerous icons of Hanuman’s sacred swaroopa, of which Ram is the permanent audience.

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These works were part of a display ‘Hanuman: The Divine Simian’. It was held at Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) earlier this year. The display is a portion of a collection of artworks, that is housed in the Museum of Folk and Tribal Art, Gurugram. It is a portion of the collection of India’s folk and tribal heritage, preserved by B N Aryan, son of painter and sculptor K C Aryan, who began collecting these works over his travels in the 1950s across India. According to K C Aryan, his father was guided by Hanuman bhakti, more than thirst for acquiring and collecting art, to find, buy and preserve these works. BN has shared the museum and collection with his sister Subhashini Arya.

Some steps away, from the intense action of patakas, is a nineteenth century bronze work depicting Hanuman carrying a mace and a pataka. A fish is inscribed at the centre of his pataka. The sculptor has grounded it firmly to the pedestal on which the Ram’s warrior and bhakt stands with one foot forward. Hanuman is shown wearing an armour, another beautiful protective shield-like gear on his stomach. He holds a mace in the other hand. The mace is coarsely done and bears no intricacies, which are a solid feature of its depiction from south India. In Hanuman depictions from south India, the mace becomes smaller. It seems as if the sculptors turned all their attention to the smallest detail in reflecting Hanuman’s agility as a warrior. His half open jaw and teeth protruding in action scream of his ferocity in devouring passion. The inside of his mouth gnaws at evil. Each tooth — fine, sharp — like a monkey’s. The contrasting demeanour of the Ram bhakt in a sixteenth century work in bronze from Karnataka, where he is shown carrying Ram, imposes his sense of duty, and his own enormity against Ram’s body.

Hanuman’s weapons become deadlier as he moves to the war scene visualised by Kangra geniuses. A nineteenth century work shows Panchmukhi Hanuman standing atop the corpse of Abhiravana after slaying him. It reminds me of a work, again from Kangra and displayed at the New Delhi’s National Museum, which shows Bhadrakali dancing on a corpse. Works from Kangra come across as the aesthetic war rooms of Hanuman, especially in his action in chasing, attacking and following Trishira, who can be seen trembling, shuddering and bursting to Hanuman’s fury in every work.

This roop of Hanuman tumbles the entire image of Panchamukhi Hanuman I have revered over the years and end up running into unexpected junctures of my meaningless or crucial journeys. The more I ponder over these depictions of Panchamukhi, Navamukhi and Ekadashamukhi Hanuman, my head seems to be warming up to this aesthetic play of aggression emanating from Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh and in some depictions from Karnataka. Hanuman seems to be issuing a battle-ready warning. But there is something in the display I definitely was not prepared for.

It is a brass plaque of Hanuman cast in, what the curator describes as “an unusual manner”, but to me it comes across as the most natural way in which the artist could have split the movement of Hanuman’s face in metal. This early nineteenth century work from ‘Maharashtra/Karnataka’ leaves me in a jolt and choked. It is an extraordinary work, a radical departure which makes a moving attempt towards, what west knows as ‘cubism’. Take into account what could have gone behind this work in metal, including bhakti for Hanuman, and a brilliant command on drawing.

The nineteenth century Indian artist casting bronze in his bhakti for Hanuman was much ahead of Picasso in putting together the different dimensions of the face of his muse. Also, it becomes clearer that by mid-nineteenth century, most depictions of Hanuman experimenting with the facial dimensions of Hanuman, in bronze and paper were already thought, flowing in paint, line, or melting metal, done, cast, folded, or placed as an object of devotion and ritual.

Indian folk and tribal art, in all its tumultuous stillness laden with ornate and sublime depictions, is a fertile field to witness the artist as a devotee to Hanuman. For me, like for many Indians, the calendar of awareness is flipped over by intermittent viewing of what comes from the West or East against the witnessing of what remains and resides in our country. Our viewing is disjointed in so many ways, often in chronology.

In 2001, I witnessed the enormous retrospective display of Picasso’s astounding and provocative works, which took place at the National Museum, New Delhi. In 2001, I had not imagined that I would be standing before a work of bronze, which depicts a front and profile view of Hanuman in singularity of his action-ridden face, which is part of late K C Aryan’s collection, in 2019.

I try to exhale some emotion, but BN, who gave me the tour of the display of works from his father’s collection of folk and tribal art, which is now his, was quick to notice awe welling up in my eyes. “I told you, Madame, I saw the bhakti in your eyes, that’s why I brought you straight here, first. Can you imagine how ahead of times the unknown Indian artists were?” he said. BN says he has not only inherited the works of art from his father, but also the madness to preserve the treasure. He has a point.

Aryans’ is an archive of aesthetically beautiful works dedicated to Hanuman, which deserve to be seen on the highest ground of human effort gone into the recording of the intellectual, physical and emotional might of Hanuman. By contemporary standards, these would qualify as low art, but they cut an image of lofty assertion from the unknown Indic artist, who passes on his best and finest take on our dynamic deity from text and visual folklore — to medium and art. These sculptures and folk paintings express Hanuman’s story without preaching, appeasing, without glossing over his bhakti-driven bearings, without an apologetic tone on his threatening demeanour and without fussing too much about the inherent gentle cast he wears for the needy and the conscious devotee.

The unknown Indic artist approaches Hanuman, circumvents him closely, observes him in reverence, detaches himself to say Hanuman’s story, expresses it without drawing a moral epilogue to his dramatic entry and exit. He is at the helm of the ritual known as performance. He is the uncelebrated bhakt of Hanuman, the forgotten hero of Indian art.

The bronze head of Hanuman, a nineteenth century work from Karnataka displayed at ‘Hanuman: The Divine Simian’, announces an aspect — loud and clear — the Indic artist’s incredible wealth of articulation has given Hanuman bhakti a new dimension, muse, and works shaped in sacred devotion. In the metal renderings from south India, the realities of form, features and fantasy portraying Hanuman are so accurate that art — just art alone — shrinks into a brittle myth.

Aryans’ collection has a treasure of works from Himachal Pradesh, Kashmir and Nepal depicting Panchamukhi Hanuman. These surpass other works in objectivity and brevity of thought exercised most simply through lines. They are exceptionally bold in the way they approach the placement of the five faces. The arrangement is never the same, and is a playful celebration of artistic liberty. One of these is a nineteenth century work showing Panchmukhi Hanuman seated on a composite animal — a crocodile with fish tail. Hanuman in Padmasana is shown seated on a lotus. Padma itself. The lotus rests on the crocodile. And the crocodile is shown grounded on the river bed in neck deep water, his jaw barely pulled away from the surface.

Another nineteenth century work from Kashmir, a manuscript painting, is a brave departure, from the calm Panchamukhi depictions of Himachal Pradesh. Three of the five mukhas are shown in tandem with Hanuman’s watchful aggression and two turned away in quiet retrospect. Nine of the 10 hands are shown holding different weapons, including an uprooted tree and a looped rope in two hands, and a saffron dhwaja in one. This work illustrates the might of Mahavir Hanuman, it displays the hefty imagination in art that would have once occupied the artists of Indic Kashmir.

One of the first paintings in the introductory set of works at the display was a work celebrating the bal roop of Hanuman. The baby Hanuman is depicted devouring the sun. The ball-like sun fits into his arm. Chasing him on a ratha is Indra and his bent bow. Here, Hanuman’s body conveys his physical strength in the tender phase. Another nineteenth century work from Kashmir is a folio from Ramayan depicting Ram and Lakshman’s battle with Ravan.

The extraordinary expression of the battle scene places Hanuman at the top centre of the 24 by 33 cm work, even as Ravan takes centre stage pushing Ram and Lakshman slightly towards bottom right. The viewer’s attention falls first on Ravan, then, on Hanuman. His mukha is open during the aggressive move he is making towards the enemy.

A nineteenth century work from Awadh, Uttar Pradesh, depicts Bharat, Ram’s brother transporting Hanuman to the battlefield of Lanka on his arrow. Bharat is shown seated on a mat, Ram’s khadau placed on a chauki before him and facing him is a Shivalinga and Nandi on a dais. Hanuman is shown crouching comfortably near the tip of the arrow. On his arms rests a portion of a hillock — its flora and fauna, and a small dwelling, too. The arrow is longer than usual. Long enough to come across as what we know as the bhala.

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The eighteenth century pataka paintings from Rajasthan mostly represent the multi-headed Hanuman drawing, according to Aryan, by priests for the devotee, as part of the rituals undertaken on the latter’s behalf. These are Panchamukhi, Navamukhi and Ekadashmukhi representations of Hanuman, arriving with text in Devanagri script, “for invoking blessings on the worshipper” and to rid him of the evil eye. In a painting showing the Navamukhi Hanuman, Indra is shown “attired like a Rajput mahout”.

God and demon interactions are celebrated in several unique complexities. BN tells me that he has gnashed many arguments on gender contours involving depictions of demonesses and Hanuman. He seems well equipped with impatience for controversies surrounding Hanuman that some foreign and Indian viewers are prone to stirring.

The towering visualisation of Hanuman in folk art provides a link between the divine and human. His portrayal in simplicity and honesty of the spontaneous, deft yet untrained hand points to the unknown Indic artist’s consciousness, his embracing of deity, and the ease with which he walks into contemporaneity of his times keeping Hanuman in focus. BN recognises that essential distinction between human imagination attempting to portray Hanuman and human imagination that assimilates devotion in art to weave extraordinary, pronounced and dynamic images of our sacred superhero.

It is a retrospective that Hanuman deserves. With this display of the works of Indic artists seen as one sole devotee of Hanuman, as in many works of art found at ancient temples and temple complexes, he stands as the undisputed and tallest of Hanuman bhakts. This visually ambitious, contextually singular and emotionally diverse collection opens up a plain of feelings, which is multilayered, deep and channelled towards a deity who himself is known for devotion — to Ram. What strikes me is that the Indic artist sees Hanuman as a muse, and outdoes himself, in each depiction.

Invoking Hanuman in metal and material becomes his resounding ritual. He has conquered many a restrictive component in his medium in the process. He has been able to overcome that impulse of seeing Hanuman in Ram’s light, has been able to look beyond it, most importantly, he has been able to detach himself from texts in his irreversible, enduring and indestructible relationship with the deity.

The Indic artist’s bhakti for Hanuman is as vast as the deity’s own journey in Ram bhakti. Hanuman’s roopas, moods, expressions, movements and role in Ram’s own quest for dharma have found expression in various visual and movement art forms. These reflect his presence in the hearts of devotees across India. His presence in the form of depictions in painting, sculpture, wood and cloth, is pan Indian, much as the love and devotion for him.

The dedication with which Hanuman’s ornamentation has been depicted in most sculptures and paintings dated late eighteenth century and backwards, says that the Indic artist’s bhakti for Hanuman resides not just in his conquering image, but also in the smallest details of the minutest trinkets he constructs for Hanuman.

Understanding the visual expressions, whatever comes our way, from outside the temple precincts, pillars, and heritage, and viewing them would be incomplete without watching and knowing how these have spilled over into movement traditions outside of the current mass of land that defines what we know as India, today. The complete swaroopa of Hanuman lives in their co-existence. It arrives in glimpses, pieces and episodes.

The facial details you pore over in an eighteenth century work of brass depiction of Hanuman, will spring before to you in a Ramlila performance from Cambodia. What you see depicted in a Kangra work of art on paper, dedicated to Hanuman’s eternal leaps for Ram and Lakshman, can spring before you, coming alive in a movement depiction of the deity, worked in and emanating from Thailand’s take on Ramayan and Ramlila. This can leave you stunned and unnerved sometimes. BN’s collection puts many pieces together in this civilisational jigsaw, and the continuous scrambling to find Hanuman as the eternal guru-parent-friend-protector.

This constant mirroring of the expanse of Hanuman’s territory, splutters in BN’s collection, as if they were jewels from Hanuman’s own ornaments. “Human imagination is not restricted to depicting Ram-bhakt Hanuman. It has been occupied to a great extent with the urge to depict his own divine beauty. The Indic artist has made humble attempts towards measuring Hanuman’s spiritual quests, his unbound and mammoth stature in Ramayan, his physical attributes, intellectual prowess, his moods. This is not about art alone,” he says.

The cusp of visual in movement and movement in visual, which is so hard to segregate, no matter what the medium, has visited Delhi’s art hubs during the last five years. The fact that K C Aryan’s collection took more than three decades to come to display, tells the story of how this very short period of five years has seen a tremendous change in the response of government-run institutions towards art collections and traditions that celebrate Ram and Hanuman.

BN doesn’t want to rough up the past. He acknowledges the change and attributes it to Hanuman’s own wish. He adds, “Hanuman never wants to grab the limelight. He wants to be projected in Ram’s reflection. This display took more than 30 years to appear from my father’s complete collection. Hanuman decided the time, and may be, he found it conducive now.”

I would attribute this change to the powers of Panchamukhi Hanuman — his swaroopa, as depicted by the devotion-driven unknown Indic artist. His heads changed in arrangement, perhaps, as they do in the paintings from Kashmir, Kangra, Nepal and Rajasthan. May Hanuman again take artistic liberty in rearranging his own weapons and heads, and keep the pataka and saffron, intact.

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