Mankhas as the Extinct Inheritors of a Profound Cultural Treasure

The story of Mankhas dating back to the Pre-Patanjali era all the way up to their extinction in "independent" India is both ennobling and profoundly tragic.
Mankhas as the Extinct Inheritors of a Profound Cultural Treasure

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Mankhas as the Extinct Inheritors of a Profound Cultural Treasure
An Introduction to Mankhas, the Extinct Sanatana Artists: Or How Nehruvian India Squandered Away its Cultural Suzerainty

THE EARLIEST MENTION OF MANKHAS occurs in Patanjali’s Mahabhasya mentioning the display of paintings (citra) depicting Krishna slaying Kamsa. The literal rendering of the text is this: “How in respect of the paintings? In the pictures, men see the blows rained down on Kamsa, and how he is dragged about.”

The clear inference is that the tradition of displaying these paintings in public such as in exhibitions, fairs, etc., was already in vogue during Patanjali’s era, and Mankhas or picture showmen was already a recognised profession.

Jaina Prakrt texts unambiguously define the term Mankha as a professional picture showman and he is clubbed in the class of entertainers such as actors, dancers, story-tellers, etc. The Bhagavati Sutra mentions the name of Gosala Mankhaliputta (also known as Maskari Gosala, Makkhali Gosala). The Mankhaliputta refers to profession of Gosala’s father, who was a Mankha. A Sanskrit gloss describes Mankhas as citraphalakavyagrakara-bhiksu-visesa meaning, a Bhikshu or mendicant who takes alms by exhibiting pictures of deities which he carries with him. In general, there are copious Jain texts mentioning and even extolling talented Mankhas.

Long story short, by the post Gupta era, picture exhibitions as an art form was flourishing and it would retain the position until the British colonial period. Its evolution is actually a thrilling story. From exhibiting and narrating picture-scrolls showing Kamsa’s pummelling at Krishna’s hands, the focus shifted almost exclusively to something known as the Yamapattaka or Yamapata. The Yamapata showed picture-scrolls representing virtuous and evil deeds and the reward and punishment arising therefrom in Yamapuri, the abode of Yama.

Major Sanskrit literary works mention Yamapattakas or picture showmen who painted Yamapatas.

In Vishakadatta’s renowned play Mudrarakshasa, dateable between the 5th and 9th century CE, Kautilya’s spy, Nipunaka disguises himself as a picture showman. He says that men earn their living by means of the same Yama who kills people. Then he enters Chandanadasa’s home, carrying a scroll with figures of Yama upon it. But before he enters, this is the dialogue he utters: “I will enter here, show my pictures and chant my song (yamapatam darshayan gitaani gayami).” After his errand is over, he brings its report to Chanakya saying in Prakrt, “Spreading out the Yama picture scroll, I commenced my song. (jamapadam pasariya pauttohmi gidaim gaidyum).”

Panel of paintings showing scenes from the Ramayana
Panel of paintings showing scenes from the RamayanaVijayanagara Era

BANABHATTA'S HARSHACHARITA PAINTS a descriptive picture of picture showmen: “Like those who depict Naraka, loud singers paint unrealities on the canvas of the air…In the market street amid a great crowd of inquisitive children, he observed a Yamapattaka in whose left hand was a painted canvas stretched out on a support of upright rods and showing the God of Death mounted on his dreadful buffalo.Wielding a reed wand in his other hand, he was expounding the features of the next world, and could be heard to chant the following verses…” (Verses clipped for this essay)

The prolific translator of Sanskrit literary works, M.R. Kale, in his notes on the Mudrarakshasa says this: “The exhibition of Yamapata was one of the sources of making money.” Likewise, K.T. Telang’s edition of the same play says this about Yamapata: “a series of representations of the exploits of Yama, something like the boxes of sacred pictures which are shown about to this day.” And Telang too, gives a reference to the aforementioned passage in Harshacharita.

Writing in the History and Culture of the Indian People, N.R. Ray, gives us a pretty brilliant description of the Yamapata and its various offshoots: “Yamapatas were executed on textile scrolls and dealt with themes of a narrative-didactic nature, showing the results of Karma in the other world. Buddhaghosha, the celebrated Buddhist scholar…refers to a similar kind of painting to which he gives the name of charanachitras which consisted of scenes of happy and unhappy destinies of men after death with appropriate labels attached to them and shown in portable galleries. There can be no doubt that these yamapatas or charanachitras are the ancestors, in form, meaning and presentation, of the patachitras that are widely current in Eastern India…” As we mentioned in the previous episode of this series, like all else in the Hindu cultural life, this tradition of a sub-genre of art too, shows our unbroken continuity. N.R. Ray concludes his assessment on a sombre but profound note: “No contemporary example of Yamapata or charanachitra…has survived to this day; but it was evidently a folk-art of ethnic and religious significance and of wide popular appeal, an itinerant school of deep and great educative value for the rural masses.” (Emphasis added)

The prolific and comprehensive scholar of Indian art and culture, Stella Kramrisch wields her pen like a brush: “As permanent or temporary decoration, on the floors, on the walls and ceilings of private houses, palaces and temples, and in the streets, paintings instructed and enlivened the mind of the public. Even religious teachers used painting as the most popular means of communication, that could be understood by the illiterate and the child. ‘There is a class of Brahmanical teachers, known by the name of Mankha. They make a (portable) framework upon which they cause to be drawn) a variety of pictures, depicting scenes of good and evil destinies, of fortunes and misfortunes, and causing the labels to be inscribed: 'By doing this deed one attains this,' 'By doing that, one attains that. Thus, showing different destinies, they wander about with these pictures.’”

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Mankhas as the Extinct Inheritors of a Profound Cultural Treasure
The Extinct World of the Bhaṭṭārakas or Bhattas is a Dried-up Teardrop of History

In the Vijayanagara Era, picture showmen, quite obviously received a huge fillip. In a short but valuable study of Vijayanagara paintings, C. Sivamurti gives us impressive details of how chitrapatas had evolved during that period. While Yamapatas retained their prominence, their model branched out in various forms. Jain chitrapatas for instance, played an influential role and perhaps for the first time, elaborate labels were inscribed under each scene. Some examples include the life of Rishabhadeva, birth and life of Vardhamana Mahavira, etc. The Hindu side displayed paintings of Yudhishtira’s coronation, the love between Radha and Krishna, Amritamanthana, etc. We see a feeble continuation of the same tradition even today in most temples in South India. The walls of these temples show an elaborate and scene-by-scene depiction of say, the Sthala-Purana, the various Mahimas of the presiding deity, and other stories.

Story of Muchukunda. Painting from the Nayaka Era
Story of Muchukunda. Painting from the Nayaka Era

FOLLOWING THE TRAGIC IMPLOSION of the Vijayanagara Empire, the Mankhas preserved their art under the patronage of the Nayakas in South India. Thanjavur, Madurai, Kadapa, and Mysore among others sustained and embellished it. In other parts of Bharatavarsha as well, Mankhas somehow managed to survive, painfully wheezing out their last breaths in say Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Bihar, Bengal and Odisha.

And what Rudyard Kipling’s father saw and documented in 1890 was an art form that was in its death throes, impelled by the plunder-hungry marauders of his own native England. Once the pride of the Sanatana society, Mankhas, like the Vipra-Vinodins and Bhattarakas were hurtling towards extinction.

And when I encountered them in my childhood, they were standing on the verge of beggary but their generational reverence for our deities and our sacred stories, and the memory of the profoundly devout manner in which they narrated their picture-stories wells up my eyes. Even as I conclude this.

They themselves weren’t aware of their preeminence as the exalted inheritors of a hoary cultural treasure. That perhaps is the greater tragedy.

Series concluded

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