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‘The Birth of Evil’ — an important Basohli painting

The Basohli style of painting is a school of the Pahari Miniature that was hugely popular in the 17th and early 18th centuries in states at the Himalayan foothills, in India.
The Basohli style is known for its use of bright colours, peculiar facial features and boldly energetic line. It predates the more lyrical and delicate Kangra school of painting. Faces in Basohli paintings are highly stylised and almost always shown in profile. Receding hairlines and large, widely-open eyes are hallmarks of these paintings. Basohli paintings employ bright, vivid colours that are generally borrowed from nature – yellow ochre, green and brown – and from the primary colour palette – red, blue and yellow. Silver and gold are both used in Basohli paintings. Natural items, such as eggs, seeds and feathers, are occasionally used to represent gems and other sparkling items. The line is bold, almost reckless, and known for its energy and vigour. Basohli Paintings integrate Hindu mythology, Mughal miniature techniques and the folk art of the Himalayan hills. The best Basohli paintings are highly imaginative, eccentric and inventive. They have a remarkable ability to secure attention, shock and engage.
The school of painting takes its name from the small, independent state of Basohli. The style was popular in the states of Jammu and Punjab and practiced all over the region; Basohli, however, always remained the centre of the style of painting. The state was not powerful politically and is known primarily for its contribution to art. The earliest dated Basohli paintings are illustrations to Bhanudatta’s Sanskrit work ‘Rasmanjari’, known as the ‘Chittarasmanjari’, which were commissioned by Raja Kirpal Pal of Basholi in 1693 and completed one year after his death, in 1694. The paintings were made by artist Devidas.
‘Rasamanjari’ literally means a cluster of blossoms. Bharat Mani described nine rasas or emotions, in the ancient treatise on music, dance and theatre, known as the ‘NatyaShastar’. These rasas are Sringhar (erotic), Veerta (bravery), Karun (pathos), Adbhuta (surprise), Hasy (laughter), Bhayanak (horror), Bibhats (digust), Raudar (fear) and Shanti (peace). Bhannudatta composed the ‘Rasmanjari’ in the 16th century. It deals primarily with the Sringharras and describes the behaviour of nayaks (heroes) and naiyakas (heorines) in love. The treatise describes the emotional, sexual and amorous behaviour of the heroes and heroines in vivid detail and, therefore, lends itself readily to illustration. It has been the subject of thousands of Bhasohli paintings.
The ‘BhagavataPurana’ is one of the most highly regarded, researched and celebrated text of a variety of sacred Hindu literature in Sanskrit, known as the Purana. The Puranas are extensive literary works that deal with an expansive range of topics, which include theology, cosmology, music, dance, mythology, legends, folklore, medicine and philosophy. The ‘BhagavataPurana’ is one of the 18 major Puranas, known as the MahaPuranas. It was formalised between the eighth and tenth centuries and consists of 12 books, with a total of 332 chapters and about 18,000 verses. Theologically, ‘BhagavataPurana’ focuses on devotion to Vishnu, one of the principal deities of Hinduism, and his avatars, most importantly, Raam (according to the Ramayan) and Krishan (according to the Mahabharat).
Centuries of inspiration, devotion and interpretation of the ‘BhagavataPurana’ has resulted in an enormous body of literature, poetry, paintings and art based on what is the most popular of Puranas.
An illustration to the ‘BhagavataPurana’, the 18th century Basohli painting, titled ‘The Birth of Evil’, is one of the finest representatives of the school of painting. Painted in dramatic shades of grey, the painting is rich, bold and arresting. It features the heads of seventeen 17 and partial bodies of 19 creatures, hidden in dark grey clouds of smoke and smog, all appearing simultaneously to create evil that will haunt the earth forever. Painted using Mughal painting techniques, the 17 faces depict features that are representative of the Bhasohli painting. Painted, most probably, in 1730, The Birth of Evil has held an important place in the annals of Basohli painting for almost 300 years.