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  • Vinit Vyas

Bhāṅḍs & Bahurūpiyās? -Entertainers, Impersonation and Performativity at the court of Udaipur




Fig.1: (Detail) of Fig.1.1.

Intensely gazing at each other, engulfed in each other’s arms, raising their hands in the air, two ladies dance in ecstasy, as seen above. While their physiognomy and facial features are similar, their complexion poses a sharp distinction. This makes up only for a fine detail of a large painting (Fig.1.1) executed in 18th century Mewar, the Southwest part of Rajasthan, present-day India.


Fig.1.1: Mahārāṇā Amar Singh II, prince Sangrām Singh and courtiers watch a performance, circa 1705-1708 CE, Mewar, Rajasthan, India. 90.8 x 52.1 cm; Opaque watercolor and gold on paper.

Collection: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Acc.no. 1996.357 [1]



Fig.1.2: (Detail)

A glimpse at the scene makes it clear that the show is set for the rulers, who sit in a palatial structure – the haloed protagonist, Mahārāṇā Amar Singh II (r. 1698-1710 CE) offers a pān to his son, prince Sangrām Singh (Fig.1.2). They enjoy the drama that is unfolding – acrobats doing the impossible and actors playing the role of lovers, caught in flirtatious moments. Overall, it would not be incorrect to say that desire rumbles across the painting, and to return to the detail (Fig.1), we are left to wonder – are the two actors playing the role of ladies embracing? Or just two friends dancing in joy? Or both?


These questions evoke as much curiosity as an elephant (Fig.2), who gazes at us while others are busy providing assistance for a busy event, which again is a minute detail from a large painting painted in 18th century Mewar (Fig.2.1). The dancing ladies (Fig.1) & curious elephant invite our attention to the fact that painters of Mewar “emerged as experts in devising new, imaginative ways to visualize historical moods, mining the aesthetics of idealized emotions, enduring natural and built environments, ephemeral atmospheres, and celebrated seasons”, to borrow Dipti Khera’s words.[2]



Fig.2: Detail of Fig.2.1

Fig.2.1: Mahārāṇā Sangrām Singh celebrating the spring festival with his nobles in the rose garden (Gulab bari) in Udaipur, circa 1715-1720 CE, Mewar, at Udaipur, Rajasthan, India. 46.5 x 85 cm; Opaque pigments and gold on paper.

Image courtesy of Francesca Galloway, London.[3]


Many such large-format topographical paintings were painted in Udaipur, the erstwhile capital of the kingdom of Mewar, which unfailingly continues to enchant visitors from around 1559 CE. Rulers of Mewar, the Sisodia Rajput dynasty, emerged as major patrons of the arts and architecture.[4] Scholars argue that the making of these large-format topographical paintings like the above-discussed examples, initiated under Mahārāṇā Amar Singh II (r. 1698-1710 CE), as seen in Fig.1.1 and blossomed during his son, Mahārāṇā Sangrām Singh’s reign (r. 1710-1734 CE) - watching a wrestling match, enjoying a hunt, leading a procession for festive occasions or visiting a shrine, the painters evocatively captured the tamāṣā (तमाशा; loosely, “entertainments and spectacles”) with much elegance and sensitivity.[5] Here, the visual spectacle and luxuriance of the rose garden (Gulab bari), the aroma of flowers, the sharp enclosement of the qanats (tent-walls) and the placement of figures at a designated distance reveal the private nature of this elite gathering and the hierarchy of courtly life. Seated under an intricately embroidered tent, we see the haloed ruler, Mahārāṇā Sangrām Singh smoking a hookah, surrounded by a formally seated group of noblemen, all wearing a garland of roses. We also see his curly haired son, prince Jagat Singh II sporting a vibrant gold-garment, to whom we will return later.


Fig.2.2: Detail of Fig.2.1

But before you get swept away by the delicately rendered roses and the, let me draw your attention to a group of five individuals, who are seen not once, but twice - one plays the ḍholak (two-headed drum) while the other two (possibly singers) clap as the three protagonists dance in ecstasy.[6] Jeremiah P. Losty, identifies them as “a troupe of entertainers” performing “a story based on Rādhā and Krṣṇa”.[7] A careful observation yields no confirmation regarding the entertainers’ identity, and their association with Rādhā & Krṣṇa remains equally elusive (2.2). The dagger tucked in the male figure’s waist-band, the shield, the morchhal (peacock-feathered fan) he waves, his attire and the gray skin (possibly ashes smeared or natural color applied over the skin) echoes a warrior-ascetic figure (possibly Śaivite?) while the female figure appears to be his consort. The troupe’s identity becomes even more complex as we see a young boy or a dwarf-like figure wearing a saffron lower-garment with a curvy tail, echoing the figure of the monkey-god Hanumān.


Fig.2.3: Detail of Fig.2.1

The couple and two musicians are seen again (Fig.2.3), and here, the Mahārāṇā is actively watching them perform with panache. Who are they then? Lord Rāma and his consort goddess Sītā along with Hanumān? Their precise identity remains unknown, but it is clear that they are performers impersonating. Practices of impersonation or guising are not unknown in South Asia, be it in ritual, performances, theater or cinema.[8] Harshita Mruthinti Kamath, in her recent monograph, defines impersonation as that which “...can be expanded to indicate the temporary assumption of an identity or guise of a group which is not inherently one’s own, regardless of whether this assumption is an intentional or deliberate act.”[9] Kamath’s rigorous discussion on this term in the context of the Southern Indian classical dance Kuchipudi (in which Brāhmin men dress as Krṣṇa’s wife Satyabhāmā) reveals the concept and the term’s complexity, and it is useful to meditate over these ideas when we examine South Asian painting traditions.


To return to our image, the figures appear to be jesters/performers/entertainers.[10] Little scholarship exists on this subject, but jesters are known to be active in the Mughal & Rajput courts, with mentions in texts like A’in-i-Akbari of Abu’l Fazl.[11] John Emigh and Ulrike Emigh, in their important essay on jokers in Rajasthan discuss at length, two categories which are crucial for our discussion – Bhāṅḍs, who were “jesters”, and Bahurūpiyā “a wandering mimic and comic” who “assumes many forms and playfully takes on different identities”.[12] This act of guising as someone else is called as Veś, a term which is also in other performative and ritualistic traditions.[13] Emigh and Emigh note that Bhāṅḍs “entertained in the evening hours or hunting expeditions, singing out praises for a good shot or jibing at a missed one. Similarly, they accompanied rajas into battle – sometimes dressed as a Rajput ancestor – praising brave deeds or making jokes at the expense of both sides.”[14]


While there is considerable confusion, and perhaps even fluidity regarding the distinction in the identities of Bhāṅḍs and Bahurūpiyās, it is known that at some point, the former learned the art of becoming a Bahurūpiyā. This patronage of entertainers seen in Fig.1.1 continued and probably blossomed well more during the reign of Mahārāṇā Jagat Singh II (whom we encountered as a prince in Fig.2.1), as a series of refined rās-līlā paintings commissioned by him opens the world of performativity, pleasure and questions of guising, as seen in the example below (Fig.3).[15] The stout, hirsute body of the actor who wears an elephant mask to become lord Gaṇpati, another in the guise of Krṣṇa lifting mount Govardhan and even the intricately painted tent showing the thundering clouds and lord Indra riding his vehicle airāvata reveal the precision with which painters depicted performers.[16]



Fig.3: Mahārāṇā Jagat Singh II attending a rās-līlā performance, dated 1736 CE, Mewar, at Udaipur, Rajasthan, India. 62.1 x 45.1 cm; Opaque watercolor and gold paint on paper.

Collection: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; AS130-1980.[17]


The pleasures of Gulab bari continue as Jagat Singh II also commissioned (at least) one scene of being entertained in the garden (Fig.4). The compositional formula is different from Fig.2.1, but the aura of the scene remains the same. It is easy to get lost in the minute details of the Mahārāṇā entering the garden (seen in the lowermost section), the awaiting attendants, the shrine of five-faced Gaṇpati and a sage smoking behind the elephant.



Fig.4: Mahārāṇā Jagat Singh II celebrating the festival of flowers in the Gulab bari garden, dated 1750 CE, Mewar, at Udaipur, Rajasthan, India. Artist: Raghunāth, son of Malukcand. 49.8 x 41.8 cm. Opaque watercolor and gold paint on paper.

Collection: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; AS144-1980.[18]



The pompous and celebratory mood of the scene dominates the setting, but what goes unnoticed again is the troupe of entertainers dancing and singing in ecstasy, seen on the right (Fig.4.1). One figure plays the ḍaflī while another, the cymbals and the third, energetically plays the ḍholak. Here, the lead-performers appear to be in the veś of a happily married lord Śiva and his consort goddess Pārvatī, gazing at each other with utmost love. The tiny figure (probably their child) in the front holding a water-pitcher and the figure on the far-right may be gaṇas (Śiva’s attendants).


Fig.4.1: Detail of Fig.4.

While the entertainers’ precise identity remains elusive, these paintings give a glimpse of entertainment, performance and impersonation at the court of Udaipur.[19] The first example (Fig.1.2) opens many doors to read the moods and emotions of the actors - some charm us with their riveting romance, others with “on-stage chemistry” and other tender, coy moments captured impeccably by the artist.[20] Similarly, the last two examples (Fig.2.1 & Fig.4) immerse us in the realm of smell, the magical aroma of roses, privileging the position of the ruler and the garden.


A common thread among these scenes is that they restrict the viewer to “focus” on one subject, rendering a multitude of emotions, moods and identities. The painter sensitively and powerfully evokes the drama, the tamāṣā – the entertainers’ swift movements, their moving bodies and awkward postures discernibly elicit a sense of performativity. To dress as someone, I argue, is also to become someone. It is also the materiality of costume, of ornaments, of masks and of the make-up that allow the performer to become the “warrior-ascetic” and Lord Śiva-Goddess Pārvatī.[21] “The ability to give both flattering praise and stinging abuse” being central to a Bhāṅḍ’s skills, is distinctly echoed here as by becoming the divine (Fig.4), the entertainers could briskly enter a tricky and privileged space where they could praise, abuse or satirize the ruler, balancing their livelihood and life like the acrobats. With their thoughtful brush, the artists painted the pleasures of smell, but they also painted the performers, and to read them is to acknowledge their position, their performativity and their elegance, afterall, it is this “garland” that makes the grandeur of tamāṣā possible.


 

Vinit Vyas recently finished his MVA in Art History from the Faculty of Fine Arts, the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, Gujarat, India. His interdisciplinary research focuses on early modern and colonial visual & material culture of South Asia, especially paintings. His research focuses on questions of style, text-image relationship, erotica, gender and sexuality, history of emotions and sensory experiences. Previously, Vinit was a research associate at the Museum of Art & Photography (MAP), Bangalore, and has been a visiting & guest faculty at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. Among other publications, he is the author of Shrinathji: Krishna paintings from Nathdwara (Joost van den bergh, London, 2021) and a chapter on a colonial-period painter from Gujarat in an edited volume. He is based in Ahmedabad.


 

Footnotes:



1. Accessible online: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/38058?ft=Amar+Singh&offset=0&rpp=40&pos=4 (last accessed 10/08/22). I thank Bharti Lalwani for inviting me to write this essay and Sonika Soni for reading a draft of it.

2. See Dipti Khera, The Place of Many Moods (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2020), 5.

3. Published in J.P. Losty, Rajput Paintings from the Ludwig Habighorst Collection (London: Francesca Galloway, 2019), Cat. 7. I thank Bharti Lalwani for getting a high-resolution image of the above.

4. For a survey on the painting tradition, see Andrew Topsfield, “Court Painting at Udaipur: Art under the Patronage of the Mahārāṇās of Mewar,” Artibus Asiae. Supplementum 44 (2002): 3–327. For a recent study on architecture, see Deborah Stein, The Hegemony of Heritage (California: University of California Press, 2018), https://doi.org/10.1525/luminos.46

5. The term, first used by Andrew Topsfield, is used for the genre of paintings which portray the Maharanas’ entertainments. See Topsfield, “Court Painting at Udaipur: Art under the Patronage of the Maharanas of Mewar.”, 9. For the dictionary meaning, see: https://dsal.uchicago.edu/cgi-bin/app/dasa-hindi_query.py?qs=तमाशा&searchhws=yes&matchtype=exact (last accessed 27/07/22).

6. Also notable are the three royal musicians named Kan, Chand and Piro who appear twice in the scene. For further reading, see Andrew Topsfield, “The Kalavants on Their Durrie: Portraits of Udaipur Court Musicians, 1680-1730,” in Arts of Mughal India: Studies in Honour of Robert Skelton, ed. Rosemary Crill, Susan Stronge, and Andrew Topsfield (London and Ahmedabad: Victoria and Albert Museum and Mapin, 2004), 249–63.

7. Losty, Rajput Paintings from the Ludwig Habighorst Collection, 48. Rādhā and Krṣṇa are one of the most revered deities in the Hindu traditions. They are often considered to be the ideal lovers. For further reading, see Joan Cummins, ed., Vishnu: Hinduism’s Blue-Skinned Savior (Ahmedabad and Nashville: Mapin Publishing in association with Frist Center for the Visual Arts, 2011).

8. For some important readings, see Kathryn Hansen, Stages of Life: Indian Theatre Autobiographies (London and New York: Anthem Press, 2011); Kathryn Hansen, “Theatrical Transvestism in the Parsi, Gujarati and Marathi Theatres (1850–1940),” in Sexual Sites, Seminal Attitudes: Sexualities, Masculinities, and Culture in South Asia (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2004), 99–122; Harshita Mruthinti Kamath, Impersonations: The Artifice of Brahmin Masculinity in South Indian Dance (California: University of California Press, 2019), https://doi.org/10.1525/luminos.72

9. Kamath, Impersonations: The Artifice of Brahmin Masculinity in South Indian Dance, 6.

10. Lack of adequate scholarship makes it difficult to distinguish between these categories, hence tentatively, I use these terms interchangeably.

11. It notes of Bhāṅḍs “singing and mimicking men and animals”. See John Emigh and Ulrike Emigh, “A Joker in the Deck: The Many Faces of a Rajasthani Bahurūpiyā,” in The Idea of Rajasthan - Volume I: Constructions, ed. Karine Schomer et al. (New Delhi: Manohar Publishers, 2001), 280; An early Mughal example of a jester dancing is depicted in the c. 1560 series of Tutinama extant in the Cleveland Museum of Art. Accessible online: https://www.clevelandart.org/art/1962.279.155.a (last accessed 10/08/22)

12. Emigh and Emigh, “A Joker in the Deck: The Many Faces of a Rajasthani Bahurūpiyā.”, 278-279.

13. Veś dharnā or to disguise as someone is a common Hindi term; a great parallel is the festival from the Telugu-speaking region of Andhra Pradesh in which men disguise themselves as the goddess, calling it Strī-veśam. See Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger, When the World Becomes Female (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013).

14. Emigh and Emigh, “A Joker in the Deck: The Many Faces of a Rajasthani Bahurūpiyā.”, 280.

15. Often called as the “dance of love”, rās-līlā refers to the circular dance of Krṣṇa with his friends-lovers, gopīs. It occurred on a particular night in the Hindu calendar called Śarad Pūrṇimā and still remains a living tradition in different dance forms. For further reading, see https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/essay/udaipur-paintings-of-the-raslila/ (last accessed 7/08/22).

16. In the above cited essay, Topsfield notes that the main figure of the performer dressed as Krṣṇa is of a young boy, but seeing the nose-ring, I suspect, it is more plausible that the figure is a woman dressed as Krṣṇa. Only further research can yield more results. A gorgeous, parallel example of women of the zenana performing the rās-līlā was painted in c. 1800 Jaipur, possibly by the master-artist Sahib Ram. See Giles Tillotson and Mrinalini Venkateswaran, eds., Painting & Photography at the Jaipur Court (New Delhi: Niyogi Books, 2016), 99-100.

17. Accessible online: https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/explore/collection/work/53496/ (last accessed 30/7/2022)

18. Accessible online: https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/explore/collection/work/53511/ (last accessed 30/07/22)

19. It is useful to note that Bhāṅḍs were even patronized by later Mewar rulers, including Mahārāṇā Bhupal Singh (1884-1955). They continue to survive.

20. My thinking on pre-modern Indian art and finding parallels with popular culture and films has been ignited by writings on Agents of Ishq and conversations with its founder Paromita Vohra. I thank her and YP Foundation for also inviting me to speak about erotic art and Tiktok at the Love, Sex and Data conference held in October 2021.

21. Conversations with and guidance of Harshita Mruthinti Kamath & Molly Emma Aitken have inspired me to ask the many unasked questions and examine things more critically, and I thank them for the same.


Published: 12 August 2022


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