Aesthetic sensibility, is nothing but a capacity of wonder more elevated than the ordinary one. An opaque heart does not wonder: non obstupescit.
Raniero Gnoli, paraphrasing Abhinavgupta
Vrindavani Vastra on display at the British Museum will move the opaquest of the hearts to ecstasy. You stand before it eyes wide open, gaping, trying to identify the motifs stretched before your eyes…. is that a Bakasura, and over there is that a Kalia Daman scene? Scenes look familiar and yet strange because you have never seen anything like this in your life…. ever! The tapestry before you is unsurpassed in beauty, unmatched in vibrancy and vigor in weaving the dramatic exploits of Krishna in warp and weft in a style called Lampa.
You have read that weaving is classified as craft but this chronicle of Krishna’s stay in Vrindavan woven in a style now extinct, in which every motif seems to jump out of its skein, can it be classified as craft?
For you the wonders never cease. The label says Vrindavani Vastra but is it from Vrindavan? No! It is from Assam. And then you feel ashamed about your ignorance. How little do you know about the artistic heritage of your own country?
You are intrigued by its peripatetic history and wonder how did it find a permanent house in British Museum? You got once in a life time chance to witness this glorious weave in a Special Exhibit organized by the British Museum. The title of the special exhibit is – ‘Krishna in the Garden of Assam: The Cultural Context of an Indian Textile. Is it another tale of colonial appropriation? How did this gigantic woven celestial saga move across time space and cultures?
What is ‘Vrindavani Vastra’?
Woven in the finest muga silk and in colours that still look radiant, it narrates the story of Krishna’s stay in Vrindavan, where he spent the best part of his life.
Story behind the Vrindavani Vastra
The story behind this divine weave needs to be told. It is unlikely that many in our part of the world would know about it. The British Museum displays not only great textiles but also a whole textile tradition, in fact — that came from Assam some 400 years or more ago. This ancient Assamese textile is over 9 meters long (length 937 centimeters and width 231 centimeters) and is the largest surviving example of this type of textile anywhere in the world.
It is a piece the like of which you do not see now. Its total of 12 pieces hang in few museums around the globe. Those weavers and those times are gone. You try to speculate about those times, those weavers and the underlying faith that inspired men to weave an art so sublime that it transcends human limitations and makes it appear effortless and blessed!
Three things, if it can be simplified so, were responsible for the creation of this heavenly weave; leadership of Srimanta Shankardeva, the socio-cultural factors of 16th century Assam and patronage by a transformed king.
Creative Forces behind the Vrindavani Vastra
If you try to contextualize Shankardeva, in the times in which he was born, then you can understand the inevitability of this divine tapestry. Srimanta Sanakardeva was born into the Shiromani (chief) Baro – Bhuyans family at Alipukhuri near Bordowa in 1499 in Assam. It was a time of conflict and churning. It was also a time of resurgence, revival of simple faith, simple literature and a direct connect with masses through bhakti. This was the time when saints like Nanak, Mirabai, Kabir, Ramananda, and Chaitanya Mahaprabhu were leading the path of bhakti.
Sankardeva was a child of these times. He craved for a simple faith, a simple religion that could heal the Assamese society torn apart by orthodoxy, sectarianism and fanaticism. In the course of his travels he witnessed the Bhakti movement sweeping across the country.
His own inclination towards surrender to a personal God through sadhna and bhakti found resonance with the Neo- Vaishnavite movement. It is said that Jagannath Mishra’s narration of Bhagavatam at Puri opened his eyes to single minded devotion to Krishna.
Sankardeva disapproved of idol worship. In the nomghars, community prayer houses that were set up by Shankardeva, the focus of worship was Bhagvata Purana. Srimanta harnessed art for spreading the message of Eksharana. A devotional song (borgeet) a spectacle of high melodrama (Ankiya Nat) actors traversing the stage in masks, a homely verse for community chanting, a dance portraying the life of the Lord (Sattriya) would all become vehicles for the propagation of his faith. Krishna was the sole worshipful and single minded refuge in him would lead to salvation and bliss was the simple philosophy of Eksharana.
Dance mask of Bakasura, used during the performance of Sattriya, the monastic dance form that evolved in the Satras and is a recognised classical dance of India.
In the Nomghars, the Vaishnavite silks were used to cover the manuscript and were draped over the altar on which the Bhagvata Purana was placed. This was the significance of Vaishnavite silk in Eksharna. But the Vrindavani Vastra was no ordinary altar piece.
Story of Royal Patronage
According to Katha Gur Charitra, a chronicle of events during the saint’s lifetime, the genesis of Vrindavan Vastra: It was woven at the behest of the King Narnarayan and his brother, Chairali. During his visits to the Koch Behar royal court, Sankaradeva often regaled Chilarai with descriptions of the fun-filled childhood days of the young Krishna in Vrindavan. The prince was enthralled, and wished he could partake of the experience by sniffing Shankardeva’s lips as he spoke. Sankaradeva replied that, for the prince’s enjoyment, he would have the narrative inscribed on cloth in a graphic form if only the king could assure him of the required quantity of silk yarns of different colours!
The king used his royal prerogative, assured him and appointed Shankardeva as the Bar- Bhuyan (Chief Administer) of Tantikuchi.
Royal Scroll Commences
Shankardeva kept his promise and personally supervised the weaving of the scroll. He conceived the design, worked out the pattern in different combinations and chose the weavers of Tantikuchi to translate the ambitious project in Lampa style of weaving.
Lampa is a very intricate style of weaving in which the base cloth is woven with one set of warp and weft threads, and a design is woven with another set of warp and weft. This method is also known as Dorukha and was done in bright colours like red, black, white, yellow and green. Apart from the primary colours, mixed colours such as kacha-nila and Gaura-syama were also used to breathe life into the sacred textile.
Shankardeva used his knowledge of the Bhāgavata Purāna to weave the sequence of events of Krishna-lilā. His personal expertise as a painter, artist and dramatist made this Vastra an intensely personal communication.
The weaving of the Puranic tales on a gigantic tapestry 60 yards by 30 yards took almost a year to complete!
Shankardeva himself delivered the divine vastra to the court. When unveiled the royalty was astounded to see the true-to-life depiction of Krishna’s exploits of Vrindavan in exuberant colours and woven captions. The king exclaimed that the cloth had come from the heavens and the weavers were not human! As a mark of respect and gratitude, Shankardeva was offered Barpeta which he declined graciously. For he had got his reward already. Vrindavani Vastra was a style now and would be used as a divine wrap in Nomghars everywhere assuring steady income to the weavers of Tantikuchi. It would further also help the Satras and their art survive. Alas, this art lasted just 3 centuries, from 1500 CE to 1800 CE.
The scrolls delivered by Sankardeava at Barpeta were separarted and what is on display are four major design sequences amongst the twelve separate strips of woven silk that were stitched together.
There are four different design sequences amongst the twelve separate strips of woven silk that are now stitched together. 1) the Krishna scenes – from the 10th century text of Bhagavata Purana, 2) incarnations of Lord Vishnu and 3) text – in early Assamese alphabets and is a verse from the drama ‘Kali-damana’ by Srimanta Sankardeva tells the story of the defeat of the serpent-demon Kaliya by Krishna
Shankardeva had the verses also woven in the fabric
Migration from the palace to the Monastery- Lamas and Lampa
The famous textile lost its royal moorings and had a second history in Tibet.
The weave traveled via the route of trade or loot you do not know. How and why did this huge and heavy textile travel so far can be an excellent theme for a whodunit.
The 12 strips were taken to Tibet. They were stitched together and then re-used as a hanging in a Tibetan monastery. It was now patched with a broad border made from Chinese-style silk material and on the top part of this textile, metal rings were attached to suspend it from the ceiling or the wall. It reincarnated itself as a Buddhist Thangka and was revered because it came from the land of Buddha! Does not matter that it depicts the life and times of Krishna.
Journey to London
The Vrindavani Vastra was acquired by Perceval Landon, a Times newspaper reporter covering the British military expedition to Tibet in 1903-04. Landan presented the textile to the British Museum in 1905.
The exile of the Royal Textile
The celestial tapestry was lost to the world, for the next 85 years! It was stored, filed and catalogued under the category of ‘Tibetan Silk Lampas’ by the British Museum – as Tibet was their last known place of origin!.
Finally, by a quirk of fate and persistent efforts of Rosemary Crill, Curator of the Indian Department of London’s Victoria & Albert (V&A) Museum, in 1992, the huge fabric at the British Museum was identified as Vrindavani Vastra from Assam.
Vrindavani Vastra is a stellar example of what glories ordinary mortals are capable of when inspired! It immortalizes the king, the saint, the weavers of Tantikuchi and the spirit of bhakti that made this creation a possibility.
Standing in front of this piece you ponder over its journey. Feeble attempts have been made by the Indian government to get the Vastra back but you know that it is not coming back.
You give a long lingering final look at the exuberant divine saga and step out in the London rain! You know for sure that it is going to enthrall you, haunt you and will appear before your inward eye, as Wordsworth had said! You will see the demon Bakasura being slayed by Krishna, you will hear the tapping of the Sattriya dancers, the humming of a Borgeet will surround you and then there will be no escaping from Shankardeva and his divine Vrindavani Vastra. After all it is Krishna and who can run away from him, more pertinently does anyone want to
Author – Aparna Pande Misra
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
All the pictures used in the post are courtesy Mr. Jay Shankar, who happened to visit the above mentioned exhibition, at the British Museum in London.