Palm-Leaf Miniatures is a study of and a tribute to Raghunath Prusti, an artist who lived about a hundred years ago. He wrote and illustrated palm-leaf manuscripts in Mundamarai, a small village in Ganjam District of southern Orissa late in the nineteenth century. He must have produced a large number of works, but only thirteen have so far been found in private and museum collections. Some of his works are still in his village, but other woks of his have made their way to the New York Public Library, Museum Rietberg in Zurich, and to Museums in Bhubaneswar, Benares and New Delhi.
These thirteen known works reveal a distinctive style that combines the traditions of the area with contemporary details. Himself from a family of oil-men, Prusti produced illustrated books for patrons who were often the merchants of the locality. He grew from the position of an apprentice to an independent artist who also functioned as a story-teller, deciding what to illustrate and how to treat his subjects. His works ranged from the Gita Govinda to Oriya romances to a fortune-teller's cards. Some memories of this humble, maverick artist survive in his village even a century after his death.
Many other scribes produced illustrated palm-leaf manuscripts in the eighteenth through early twentieth centuries. While many of these works are of indifferent quality, Prusti's illustrations stand out as some of the most beautiful and imaginative.
The importance of the present study lies in the first place in showing the high quality of Raghunath Prusti's work. In the second place, comparison between his and other's illustrations clarifies the entire development of illustrated palm-leaf manuscripts in Orissa. Thirdly, his pictures give an unusual glimpse of actual material culture in the 1880's, including details of both village and court life. Finally, the career of Prusti brings alive a historical Indian artist as a real human being and individual, rather than as a stereotyped anonymous artisan.
This book is the first detailed study which deals with a single artist and his development within a traditional Indian context.
Dr. J.P. Das, the well-known Oriya poet, is the author of Puri Paintings as well as Chitra-Pothi: Illustrated Palm-Leaf Manuscripts from Orissa. Professor Joanna Williams teaches the History of Indian Art at the University of California in Berkeley and has written The Art of Gupta India.
Looking back from the threshold of the twenty-first century, we may be amazed at the quaint and archaic form of palm-leaf manuscripts. It comes as a surprise to learn that a pile of palmyra folios laboriously engraved by hand and strung together between boards was the standard type of book used in some parts of India less than a hundred years ago. In Orissa, some remain in use today, although the production of manuscripts is almost at an end. Such relics of the past are bound to change. Traditionally the palm-leaf manuscript was recopied and immersed in water after a hundred years. Today it merely crumbles into dust unless carefully preserved. It is therefore time for us to scrutinize what survives, documenting what we can and retrieving from this a picture of the past. The illustrated palm-leaf manuscripts of Orissa record not only what existed when they were made but also what interested people, their stories, ideals, and sense of humour. If we examine the pictures carefully, we see no longer a blur of uniform style but rather a wide range of concerns and of artistic quality. Out of the too-prevalent stereotype of the anonymous Indian artisan, the makers of these illustrations emerge as real individuals.
This is precisely where the present study began. We had enjoyed looking at several manuscripts that were accessible from publications-a ragamala known as the Sangita Damodara, and a courtly poetic romance, the Lavanyavati. We realized that both were illustrated by the same hand, even though at that point the published evidence suggested that the first was produced early in the eighteenth century, while the present owners of the second work said that it had been made only three generations ago. This puzzle led us into obscure arguments about chronology and the reading of colophons; other information ultimately confirmed the more recent date. In the process of comparing these with various illustrated palm-leaf manuscripts, we were delighted to find that more works by the same hand were preserved, unrecognized, in collections all over the world.
We also made a total of five visits to the town where this artist had lived, discovering by the end three additional works of his still preserved their. The owners of these woks came to trust us and in 1987 kindly allowed photography of the masterpiece, the Lavanyavati, for the first time. While the details of Mundamarai must have changed in the past century, we had some sense of entering into the world in which these manuscripts were made. The scribe/illustrator grew from a name into an artist, a story-tellers, and a personality. Our admiration for his work increased. This short study is therefore dedicated to that skillful, witty, yet humble individual Raghunath Prusti, son of an oil-man from the village Mundamarai in southern Orissa.
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