Poetry has the power to touch and evoke a sea of emotions in a human being – intense love, anger, and even jealousy. The ‘Chaurapanchasika (fifty verses of the thief)‘ is one such remarkable piece of literature about forbidden love. An 11th century Sanskrit poem by the Kashmiri poet, Bilhana, it tells the story of a thief’s secret love for a Princess.
In collaboration with the Lalbhai Dalpatbhai Museum, Ahmedabad we bring you a masterpiece : a 16th-century illustration from the N.C. Mehta collection (housed at the L.D Museum itself) depicting one of the verses of the poem. Scroll till the end for more on this fascinating narrative.
Can you piece this masterpiece together?
# puzzle pieces might just be on top of each other – look carefully!
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# hint: we found it easy to piece Princess Champavati & the lotus pond at the beginning!
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Bilhana’s love lament, ‘Chaurapanchasika‘ was a forerunner of all intense love poetry. It’s popularity can be estimated by the sheer number of translations and versions that exist of it. As the legend goes, the 50 verses are narrated by the thief (author), as he awaits his execution [a punishment for having fallen in love with the Princess]. This is why, each stanza begins with “…Still I remember” or in some versions “Even now…”.
Depending on which version you’re reading, the thief (author) either meets a very Devdas-like fate in the end, or gets lucky when the King moved by the poem, forgives the thief and consents to the relationship (the South India version). The Chaurapanchasika was translated into French in 1848; another notable translation in 1919 by Edward P. Mathers titled ‘Black Marigolds‘ was quoted extensively in John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row.
Bilhana, the poet born in Kashmir to a scholarly family, travelled widely – Mathura, Kannauj, Benaras before reaching the court of Vikramaditya (Karnataka). Here he was honoured with a court position because of his talent.
About the Painting
This painting corresponds to verse 19. The poet (the hero) himself is absent, yet in his imagination, he is able to paint a picture of the beautiful lovelorn body of Champavati. The lines, simply translated :
Even now I remember her, of a slender build, with her limbs afflicted by fire of separation (from me) and as one having eyes like those of a deer, and as the sole resort of love-sports, with her ornaments of many kinds, her beautiful face, and with the (graceful) movements of a swan.
The artist uses several motifs and symbols to illustrate the beauty, youth and sweetness of the heroine : the dark star-studded sky, a blossoming tree and lotus, honeybees hovering around Champavati’s face are just some examples.
The Chaurapanchasika manuscripts are characterized by the use of bold, bright and contrasting colours.
About N.C. Mehta Collection
The late Nanalal C. Mehta (1894 – 1958) was one of the pioneers in the field of Indian Miniature Paintings. A member of Indian Civil Service, Nanalalji had the eye of an aesthete, the perception of antiquarian. After his demise in May 1958, his collection was generously donated by his wife, late Smt. Shanta Mehta to the Gujarat Museum Society, Ahmedabad The exhibition was housed at the Sanskar Kendra, Paldi (Ahmedabad) in 1963 and continued till 1991. Eventually, to display the N.C. Mehta Collection, a new wing, was integrated with the building of the Lalbhai Dalpatbhai Museum. It was designed by the renowned architect and Padmashri awardee, Dr. Balkrishna V. Doshi and was inaugurated by the eminent art historian, Late Shri Karl Khandalavala in October 1993.