Royal Life : A Kalamkari Narration


Kalamkari, a multistep process for dying textiles by applying each color with a stylus (kalam) or by using resists, is a specialty of the Deccan region of India. Although the region produced many types of dyed textiles for export to Europe and Southeast Asia between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, this hanging is one of a small group decorated with multiple figures, made only in the early 1600s. This particular cotton hanging was once attached to several other similar panels, and was probably used as a backdrop for royal ceremonies.  The Eastern coast of India (the Coromandel Coast) is one of the main textile production centres, especially for Kalamkari or cotton wall hangings, which fall into two main categories: 1) religious scenes for hanging in temples and 2) fabrics with floral motifs for furnishing purpose, exported to Persia, Southeast Asia and Europe. Kalamakari with mundane iconography made for the local market are comparatively very rare, making this piece truly special. This piece finds its provenance in South India, ca. 1660.


This painting captures a crowded scene – a procession passing a palatial facade. At the bottom-right of this section, a prince-figure stands beneath his royal umbrella holding an elephant goad. Behind him is an attendant, bearing a chauri (Yak-Tail fly whisk). Both were probably mounted on an elephant, for in front of them is a canopy along with a flying bird and part of a billowing cloth standard. Beyond a painted screen, eight swaggering, bright-eyed soldiers march dizzily along, waving their South-India straight-bladed swords, threatening flights of insects with their fly-whisks in good humour. The architectural setting, the costumes, the packed figurative composition  and the general atmosphere of the courtly life is reminiscent of the Nayak Dynasty from Southern India. The celebration of beauty and the pursuit of pleasure were central themes in Nayaka court culture as can be seen in this painting.

The Nayaka Influence: The daily cycle of the life of a King has been ritualised to the extent that it resembles the daily cycle of worship performed for a deity. Much of the Nayaka courtly art has a voyeuristic aspect to it. This painting evokes the celebrated poem of that time – Raghunathanayakabhudayamu – A day in the Life of Raghunatha Nayaka – the Nayaka ruler of Thanjavur. In the poem, the story of a king’s day is chronicled and his private pastimes, i.e eating, entertaining, lovemaking – are laid bare for the public.


This painting was part of Krishna Riboud’s collection, now in the National Museum for Asian Art Guimet (Musée National des arts asiatiques Guimet ), France


National Museum for Asian Art Guimet

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