An Introduction to Mankhas, the Extinct Sanatana Artists: Or How Nehruvian India Squandered Away its Cultural Suzerainty

Mankhas or Picture Showmen were practitioners of narrative pictorial storytelling. From very ancient times, it evolved into a separate art form and captured the imagination of countless generations and lasted up to even recent times.
An Introduction to Mankhas, the Extinct Sanatana Artists: Or How Nehruvian India Squandered Away its Cultural Suzerainty

IN HIS ENGLISH TRANSLATION OF THE JAIN text, Uvasagadasao, the German Indologist Rudolf Hoernle recounts a common sight that he witnessed in his travels in Bengal and Odisha.

At the present day, beggars may be found in Bengal who carry pictures of such deities as Shitala, goddess of small-pox, or Olabibi, goddess of cholera; in Puri they carry pictures of Jagannatha.

The translation was published in 1890 and Hoernle had clearly spent several years in preparing the book. The simple observation evoked hazy memories of similar scenes that I had witnessed in my own childhood in various parts of rural Karnataka. These occurred in Jaatres (fairs, melas) and Sidi-Utsavas. Men and women would be squatting down or running behind people, beckoning them to see their picture-scrolls. The scrolls would be neatly bound and folded inside small wooden boxes, and the boxes too, had intricate carvings on them. The picture-scrolls or Paṭa typically showed elaborate scenes from various Puranic stories drawn as snug little miniatures encased in panels. Not unlike the comic strips we are all familiar with. Except that these Paṭa-s had no text. In a way, these were the mobile equivalents of the renowned Paṭa-Chitra in Odisha. And the men and women who displayed them in these fairs would open up the picture-scrolls and narrate the stories in animated detail, infusing impressive dramatic skills in their narration. They didn’t charge a fixed fee. I recall paying 50 paisa on one occasion. That was followed by an elaborate blessing in rustic poetry…invoking Shiva or Devi.

Little did I know back then that these people were professionals and the fact that they had a name, and that their profession was indeed Sanatana—timeless. They were called Mankhas. Both Ananada Coomaraswamy and Dr. V. Raghavan translate Mankha as “picture showmen.” They were also known by other names: Gauriputraka, Kēdāraka, Yamapaṭaka, aṇḍ Pratimādharin.

For countless centuries, Mankhas were a ubiquitous presence not just in India but abroad as well. What began as a practice and profession of exhibiting scroll-pictures and paintings depicting different Puranic themes eventually became an invaluable cultural treasure. Travellers from various countries were so awestruck and inspired by it that they spun off variations to suit their own cultures. Over time, this art form journey all the way to China and Brihad-Bharata. For example, as recent as 1416, the Chinese work, Ying-yai Sheng-lan records this scene in Java:

There is a sort of men who paint on paper men, birds, animals, insects and so on: the paper is like a scroll and is fixed between two wooden rollers three feet high; at one side these rollers are level with the paper, whilst they protrude at the other side. The man squats down on the ground and places the picture before him, unrolling one part after the other and turning it towards the spectators, whilst in the native language and in a loud voice he gives an explanation of every part: the spectators sit around him and listen, laughing or crying according to what he tells them.

The Bali variant of the Mankha art form is known as Wayang Beber. It was classified as a dramatic art. The artist who performs it is known as the Dalang. He unfurls several sheets of cloth containing paintings of scenes of stories from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Each cloth is unrolled one by one, i.e., scene by scene and the Dalang narrates the scenes using dialogue. Like so many such ancient art forms, Wayang Beber is also on the verge of extinction.

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The art form was also popular in Persia. The meaning of the Persian word, ṣūrat-ḵẖẉān is highly revealing: “One who pictures the state of angels and men as to reward and punishment on the day of resurrection, and receives a remuneration for it from the bystanders.” This scene or painting is a direct lift from the Yamapaṭas, which were wildly popular in India for several centuries as we shall see. Interestingly, the word ṣūrat also means a puppet in Persian popular theatre, and ḵẖẉān is the reciter or singer of the story performed by the puppets. Even more incredibly, the ḵẖẉān begins the performance with an invocatory verse of an Islamic song known as the rāk-ī-hindi. The word, rāk is a corruption of the Sanskrit word, rāga. Thus, rāk-ī-hindi means “Indian tune or song.” And both the manner and modalities used in enacting this art form was almost wholly imported from classical Sanskrit theatre complete with the Nāndi invocation at the beginning up to the Mangala in the end.

The Mankha tradition survived almost intact even during the British colonisation of India. John Lockwood Kipling, father of the arch racist Rudyard Kipling, describes his experience of watching the Mankhas in action in his travelogue, Beast and Man in India.

One of the most popular of the pictures sold at fairs is a composition known as Dharmraj, a name of Yama, the Hindu Pluto, and also used broadly for Justice. The Judge is enthroned and demon executioners bring the dead to receive their doom. The river of death flows on one side of the picture and those go safely across who hold a cow by the tail, while others are torn by terrible fishes. Chitrgupt, the clerk or recording angel of Yama, considered to be the ancestor of the Kayasth or clerkly caste, sits in an office with account books exactly like those of a Hindu tradesman, and according to the record of each soul, punishments or rewards are given. For, as a popular native saying has it,— "God looks out of the window of heaven and keeps account." Duts or executioners torture offenders, while the blest sail upwards in air-borne chariots.

Kipling wrote his book in 1891. See how neatly this corresponds with Rudolf Hoernle’s observation in 1890? Kipling was a teacher and traveller and documenter of foreign societies while Hornle was an Indologist. Both witnessed the same India around the same period.

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WHEN WE THINK ABOUT IT TODAY, consternation and melancholy strikes us. The criminally nonchalant manner in which we have squandered away Bharatavarsha’s profound cultural stamp that had exercised such invisible suzerainty throughout a vast region in Asia. That the squandering happened after “independence” magnifies the extent and scale of the crime. For example, Walang Beber is an endangered art form in Indonesia because Mankhas have become extinct in the very cradle they were birthed in: Bharata. Exactly how many sins against the Hindu cultural heritage should Nawab Nehru account for? The legendary DVG castigates this Nehruvian felony in memorable language:

Flirting with Russia and dreading China, India's relations with America are ambiguous; and she must seem all things to all men and nothing in particular to any one, which is her non-alignment! And what gives poignancy to the reflection that WE ARE SO MISERABLY INCAPABLE OF GOING AT LEAST TO THE MORAL SUPPORT OF CAMBODIA IS THE RECOLLECTION OF THE HISTORICAL FACT OF OUR ANCIENT KINSHIP. ONCE UPON A TIME PERHAPS ABOUT THE TIME OF THE BEGINNING OF THE CHRISTIAN ERA – CAMBODIA WAS PART OF THE CULTURAL EMPIRE OF HINDUISM.

This is the proven fact of history: as long as the tempering, soothing and motherly palm of Sanatana culture exercised its silent influence on alien cultures, they remained largely sober. Despite successive Islamic invasions in many parts of South East Asia, the intrinsic Sanatana clime remained unchanged. Even a Persia which had been wholly Islamised centuries ago, continued to draw inspiration from our culture and art forms. But the day India opted for the unwritten Quran of Nawab Nehru known as secularism, the whole thing not only imploded but became irretrievable.

And on this pessimistic note, we shall explore the brief history of the lost cultural treasure of the Mankhas in the next episode of this series.

To be continued

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