Title: A profusely illustrated manuscript of part of the Sat-sai or ‘Seven Hundred Verses’ of the 17th-century Hindi poet, Bihari Lal, accompanied by the commentary of Krishna-datta. The scale of illustration, the beauty of the calligraphy, and the use of highly decorated papers all indicate that this is a de-luxe manuscript that must have been almost certainly a royal or ministerial commission.
Content: The Sat-sai is a collection of couplets (dohas) written in the Braj bhasha western dialect of Hindi associated with the cult of Krishna. Bihari is “unsurpassed in his use of the doha, matching originality of thought with vividness and aptness of expression in a way designed to gratify the courtly patron” (Rupert Snell, The Hindi classical tradition: a Braj Bhasa reader (London: SOAS, 1991), p. 34).
The number of couplets is not exactly 700 but varies according to different manuscripts. The standard modern printed edition has 713. The couplets describe the moods and attributes of the ideal romantic hero (nayak) and heroine (nayika) as represented by the figures of Krishna and his consort Radha. Whereas in earlier works of the devotional period of Hindi literature (bhakti-kal), Krishna and Radha are depicted as the cowherd and cowherdess in the rural setting of Brindaban, in this later work they are transformed into the figures of prince and princess in the environs of a Rajput court.
Significance of the work: The Sat-sai is the most famous and popular of all the works composed during the Riti-kal period of Hindi literature, rivaled perhaps only by the Rasika-priya of the poet Keshav Das. The Riti-kal is the immediately pre-modern period of Hindi literature which saw the heyday of Rajput courtly poetry in which the perfection of poetic style (riti) assumed great importance and when Krishna-cult poetry focused more on the earthly erotic aspects of Krishna’s life rather than emphasizing his divine nature as an incarnation of the god Vishnu. The tradition of collecting verses into groups of fifty (panchashika) or a hundred (shataka) is an ancient one in Indian literature, collections being known in both Sanskrit and Prakrit dating from the 5th century onwards.
The popularity of Bihari’s work is attested not only by the many paintings inspired by it but also by the large number of commentaries written about it. In preparing his printed edition of 1896 George Abraham Grierson mentions 17, one of the most important being that of Krishna-datta of Mathura, a poet working under the patronage of Raja Aya Mall, a minister (mantri) of Sawai Jai Singh II, ruler of Amber (Jaipur) 1699-1743.
Jai Singh was renowned as a patron of Hindu learning and also acted as a senior general of the Mughal Empire, taking part in Aurangzeb’s campaigns in the Deccan. During his reign Amber became the most fashionable centre of a new mixed Mughal-Rajput culture. Bihari accepted the patronage of Jai Singh and settled at Amber where he composed the Sat-sai, his only known work. Tradition has it that the Sat-sai was begun at the behest of Jai Singh’s head-wife and minister to persuade the Maharaja to resume his duties of state which he had been neglecting after marriage to a new young wife.
According to a couplet by Bihari himself, he completed the Sat-sai on the 6th day of the dark half of the Hindu month of Chaitra, Vikram Samvat 1719 = Monday, 31st March, 1662, only a year or so before the traditional date of his death in 1663.
Particulars of this manuscript: Paper manuscript 32 x 21.5 cm with the block containing the text in calligraphic Nagari script and the miniature painting 22.5 x 12.5 cm. The miniature paintings are typically 9 x 9.5 cm. The text comprises the first 314 verses of the Sat-sai in the order in which they appear in copies containing the commentary (tika) of Krishna-datta. It contains therefore some 44% of the whole text (compared with the standard printed edition of 713 verses). It would appear therefore that the copy of the complete work was originally bound in two volumes – this being the first volume. This conclusion is supported by the fact that this volume had a wrap-around blank endpaper (inadvertently removed when the manuscript was conserved and rebound). Each of Bihari’s verses in the doha metre is followed by Krishna-datta’s commentary in kavitta metre. The manuscript contains 311 miniature paintings, one on every single page (except for three which are blank).
Foliation: 157 folios. NB The folios were not originally numbered – a later hand has added numbers in black ink in the top left-hand corner of each verso 1-158 but omitting the number 99 in the sequence. There is a similar sequence also added later in red ink in the bottom left-hand corner. The folios numbered 1a, 57b and 106b are all blank (with neither text nor painting). From the verses missing from the text (see below), at least 6 folios are lacking from within this portion of the manuscript.
Verse-numbering: The verses are numbered: 1-61 / [verses 62-65 lacking] / 66-77 / [verses 78-81 lacking] / 82-102 / 103-138 / [verses 139-143 lacking] / 144-314. NB An idiosyncrasy of this scribe is that he actually numbers the verses 1-102, then reverts to 3, etc. up to 99, then uses the number 200, then reverts again to 1 through 99, then uses the number 400 (a mistake for 300), then reverts yet again to 1 through to 14. This manuscript therefore lacks some 400 verses from the whole text.
Page-layout: A miniature painting in gouache heightened with gold is set in the centre of the page surrounded by floral borders and with bands of text in black ink above and below. The text panel above contains between two and five lines; that below from four to seven. The first double-page opening is fully illuminated with bands of gold and polychrome interlocking floral palmettes. This shows the Islamic influence that was typical of the mixed Rajput-Mughal culture of the Jaipur court.
Paper: The manuscript is copied on a whole series of highly decorated pages displaying at least twenty different floral designs or chevron patterns in gold in the margins around the text.
Illustrations: The subjects depicted break down as follows:
Subject No. of paintings
Krishna and Radha 101
Radha and attendant (sakhi) 88
Radha and 2 attendants 7
Krishna and Radha and attendant 45
Krishna and Radha and 2 attendants 9
Other scenes 10
‘Other scenes’ include several of Krishna and Radha with more figures, as well as Krishna’s round dance with the gopis (f. 29a) known as the rasa-lila), and Krishna holding up mount Govardhana (f. 131b) to protect the people and their cows from Indra’s rain-storm. The sakhis attend to Radha’s needs and also act as messengers between the lovers.
In the absence of a narrative to be depicted, this was not an easy text for any artist to illustrate. His task was akin to illustrating an ‘extended ragamala’ – to create moods of love rather than scenes from a story. Krishna and Radha appear together in over half of the paintings (165), emphasizing the core theme of the text, while Radha features in a further 143 as one would expect given the text’s detailed focus upon the ideal of the romantic heroine. To portray the various moods, manifestations and situations of the courtly love between Krishna and Radha, the artist has used variations in dress fabrics, carpets and couches as well as depicting the lovers in different locations – on terraces (f. 155a), in pavilions, in groves of trees (f. 133a) and even on rooftops (f. 65b) – and during the night as well as the day (f. 142b). The artist has also depicted some scenes from everyday life – Radha braiding her hair (f. 86b), an attendant massaging Radha’s feet (f. 117b) or churning butter in a pot (f. 139b), and children on a swing (f. 3b).
Goetz (see below) described the style of the manuscript’s paintings in unfairly disparaging terms: it “has a purely Rajput composition and drawing technique, but the illumination, the shadowing, colouring, sky effects, etc. are purely Mughal; yet there is no organic fusion between both, the Mughal decoration is laid merely superficially over a Rajput composition following quite different principles. Also the psychological atmosphere is further toned down; it is rather the torpor of a court where heart and soul are suffocating behind the masks of luxury, etiquette and dissimulation.”
Provenance: The manuscript was acquired by its present owner from a dealer in London who in turn revealed its previous ownership (obtained from the family who sold it) as “personal library of Nawab Siddique Ali Khan” subsequently passed down through family by descent. Nawab Siddique Ali Khan was the husband of ruler Nawab Shah Jahan Begum … ruler of the princely state of Bhopal 1844-60 and 1868-1901”. Siddiq Hasan Khan (correct name) (1832-90) was the Begum’s second husband and became an important fundamentalist Sunni Muslim leader in India. (It seems surprising, though admittedly not impossible, that such an Islamic scholar would possess a Krishna-cult manuscript imbued throughout with the erotic sentiment (shringara rasa)!.
In the 1940s the art historian Hermann Goetz saw part of the very same manuscript in the collection of Sri Mandhata Singhji, the then Prime Minister of Bikaner (see his article on ‘The Kacchwaha school of Rajput painting (Amber and Jaipur)’, Baroda Bulletin Vol. IV (1946-47), pp. 33-48). Goetz did not say whether that manuscript was complete or incomplete and the folio illustrated (see illustration A below) is doha 538 i.e. from the second half of the text not covered by this copy. He also stated that the manuscript was dated Amber Samvat 1703-05 (a. D. 1647-49) i.e. implying that he saw the final colophon leaf or leaves. BUT Goetz must have misread the date because Krishna-datta’s commentary could not have been written before 1699, some 50 years later! (No published catalogue of the Mandhata Singh collection has been traced.)
When complete, the original manuscript would have contained between 600 and 700 paintings – one can therefore imagine its preparation taking some three years as the colophon quoted by Goetz indicates. It must have been commissioned by a Rajput ruler or some other very wealthy sponsor, given the care and expense devoted to its preparation. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that this copy is the original manuscript prepared for Raja Aya Mall, incorporating the new commentary written by Krishna-datta, a poet working under his patronage at Amber, and perhaps intended for presentation to Sawai Jai Singh II himself. It may therefore probably be dated to the first quarter of the 18th century.
A remarkably similar manuscript is in the private collection of the famous Indian art-dealer, C. L. Bharany, which is described as “Bikaner, c. 1800” (see illustration C below). It is another Krishna-cult work, the Bhagavata-purana with a miniature placed centrally on the page with llnes of text both above and below, with very similar calligraphy, and on decorated paper with floral patterns - see Giles Tillotson ed., A passionate eye: textiles, paintings and sculptures from the Bharany collections (Mumbai: The Marg Foundation, 2014), p. 53. On the romantic hero-heroine figures in general see Harsha V. Dehejia ed., A celebration of love: the romantic heroine in the Indian arts (New Delhi: Lustre Press / Roli Books, 2004) and Harsha V. Dehejia ed., A festival of Krishna (New Delhi: Lustre Press / Roli Books, c. 2005), especially chap. 9: “From gopi to nayika: Ritikal and the courtly Krishna”.