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This excellent painting, a large size canvas rendered in oil, represents the legendary beauty Damayanti, the queen of Raja Nala, the king of Nishadha Pradesh, one of the known Janapadas during the period of the Great Indian War – the Mahabharata, with Narwar, situated on a tall hill, its capital. Nala was exceptionally handsome and undefeatable in war. Once when strolling in his garden he saw a flock of swans arrive there. They had golden feathers. He caught one of them but the bird prayed him to set it free and promised to do him a rare service if he let it go. When asked, the bird said that it would go to Damayanti, the daughter of Bhimaraj, the king of Vidarbha, possessing divine beauty and convince her for marrying him. Nala let the bird go. In the course of time the swan, released by Nala, reached Damayanti and narrated to her how rare was the beauty of Nala and that he alone was for her the suitable husband. This inseparably associated the bird swan with Damayanti’s iconography, medieval or modern.
Later, in swayambara Damayanti chose Nala as her husband, though Dikpalas – the guardian gods of ten directions, like Indra, Varuna, Agni, Yama among others tried unsuccessfully to beguile her mind. After a period of happy married life and with a daughter and son born to them, Nala lost his state and everything in the game of dice to his brother who ousted him and Damayanti in just one piece of cloth each. Later, by sheer bad luck he lost even that piece of cloth. When on the verge of starvation he asked Damayanti to go to her father but she did not agree. Hence, one night he left her sleeping in a house they were staying at and went away. Somehow Damayanti reached Chedi and began serving the queen mother. When Bhimaraj, her father, came to know about the sad plight of his daughter, he sent teams to search her and thus she was brought to her father’s house. Later, she searched Nala and thus the two were re-united and their kingdom was also regained.
This background – a mighty king possessed of rare handsomeness, who even gods adored, and a royal born princess endowed with divine beauty, but the entire life being exceptionally pathetic and full of trials, greatly helps in appreciating Damayanti’s person, or her iconographic vision in art. As in this paintings Damayanti is usually represented unlike a mighty king’s consort or a daughter of another, ruling as large a kingdom. As almost always, here too she has been portrayed as a relatively simple person though with divine aura, grace and elegance enshrining her entire being – appearance, demeanour of face and every act. She has been represented as sprawling along the bank of her palace-pond caressing a swan reaching its waters, obviously a pre-marriage phenomenon when the swan lands on her pond’s waters as the messenger of Nala, and thus her face might be interpreted as dreaming of him she has heard so much of, from the bird. It however also reveals her pathos that has ever been her destiny, and hence, a feature of her iconography. A silk sari with zari border, a kanchuki – breast-band, and just a couple of ornaments define her high rank but not a prince’s. In the Nayika-bheda tradition seeking to classify women in love under various categories, she is a Hansini Nayika, the most virtuous, beauteous and faithful woman.
The artist has conceived her gold-pinkish form clad in red with maroon defining its shades and surges and gold highlighting her neck, arms and wrists, against a back-drop, consisting of the pond’s palatial enclosure, its floor, sides and columns, and the spaces beyond this enclosure, all created by assimilating various geometrical formations, rectangular cubes in particular, in black and blue mixed with different shades of light grey and green, giving it brilliant contrast. Besides that the painting is unique in creating the perspective of depth it also helps give Damayanti’s figure projection like a three-dimensional marble statue. A secular legend, Damayanti has been a favorite theme of Raja Ravi Verma, who gave to the art of the post-miniature era, unprecedented heights and founded a new school of Indian art. This painting is very close to his Damayanti painting or rather series of his mythical paintings.
This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr. Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of literature and is the author of numerous books on Indian art and culture. Dr. Daljeet is the curator of the Miniature Painting Gallery, National Museum, New Delhi. They have both collaborated together on a number of books.