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Reviving the ancient art of Hamzanama in The Christ Commission

Design Log 27 Apr

In a fascinating collaboration, curator Paul Abraham and miniature painter Manish Soni tell the story of Christ through an ongoing series of 24 Hamzanama-style paintings.

  • Baptism
  • Birth

The Baptism of Christ & The Birth of Christ painted by miniature painter Manish Soni

Mumbai-based museum Sarmaya has grown to be a carefully curated repository of art, artefacts and living traditions from the Indian subcontinent. Yet their most recent collaboration - The Christ Commission - transcends boundaries in a most unusual way; it visualizes moments from Jesus Christ’s life through the ancient Mughal Hamzanama tradition of miniature paintings.

While Sarmaya founder and collector Paul Abraham turns to his roots as a Knanaya Christian to examine the Eastern context of Christianity, third generation miniature artist Manish Soni, who hails from Bhilwara, Rajasthan, diversifies his practice by immersing in the unique Hamzanama style from Akbar’s time. Over the three years, the two aim to create a rich and engrossing series of 24 contemporary paintings that will leave the viewer in awe.

With the first batch of paintings unveiled recently, featuring key events in Jesus Christ’s life, we spoke to Paul about the collaboration, adapting the Hamzanama style for the project, and a brief history of Christianity in India.

What sparked the idea of telling the story of Christ through a medium as unique as miniature paintings?

I have worked with Manish in the past. Manish comes from a fairly illustrious family of miniature painters from Bhilwara, Rajasthan. His grandfather, Badrilal Chitrakar, was an award-winning master craftsman, art restorer and painter. Manish and I had discussed the possibilities of a long-term partnership. With Sarmaya being a multi-genre collection, I wanted to try and engage with the artist to experiment and create contexts which are slightly different from what they’re used to over generations. It was a conscious leap of faith to try out a new idea, in this particular case, the theme of an Eastern identity for the character of Jesus.

Also, I’m a Catholic and come from the Syrian Christian community of Kerala, which started when St. Thomas is said to have come there in 52 AD. The narrative that is typical worldwide is a Western-oriented Christianity, where the personalities are Western and the look and feel is European. In reality, Christianity’s geographical expansion was from present-day Palestine, Syria, Israel to the North African belt, and then towards Takshila (now in Pakistan) and Muzuris (Kerala).

All these ideas were playing in my mind and I wanted to create a project that brought this perspective to life. I wanted to present a different narrative and also utilize a style that people were familiar with.

  • Temple

Painting of Jesus at the Temple

Why did you choose to use the Hamzanama miniature style for the series?

The miniature style itself is an amalgam of Persian and Islamic art, which blended with Indian ouvres over the years. Manish and I decided to choose the Hamzanama style, which is essentially attributed to Mahmud of Ghazni. It was a huge, multi-volume initiative detailing the stories of Amir Hamza, the uncle of Prophet Mohammed.

When Akbar became emperor, he decided to put things to paper in terms of creating an illustrative story. He had a royal atelier set up to make the Hamzanama come alive in the miniature tradition. Two Iranian master artists - Mir Sayyed Ali and Khwaja Abd-as Samad - worked with hundreds of other artists and the project took 15 years to complete. It was exciting, different and brought about a sense of collaboration.

We have also stuck to original techniques, like how the original canvases were made as a combination of cloth and paper. Everything is traditional - the glue is part resin, part boiled onion; the size of the folio is kept intact to 27’ x 20’; the colours are all natural. We’ve extensively researched these to stay true to the Hamzanama style.

Take me through the collaboration. How did you get a Hindu artist to grasp your vision, which is so starkly different from his own style?

Soni practises his craft of miniature paintings in the Pahadi and Rajasthani styles, but for this project, everything was governed in terms of the styling and colours of the Hamzanama tradition. So while it was challenging, he was eager to learn and take this on.

We have had plenty of discussions, and I would often read out passages from the New Testament and the Bible, which he’s totally unaware of, and explain the context of the sections. We’d discuss things like time of day, do research on clothing styles and musical instruments and food habits to depict it close enough to the historical context. We’ve also looked at various interpretations of the Gospels and texts at great lengths, and maintained a certain context of Christ overcoming bias - both gender and political.

As collaborators, there is a lot of back and forth before Manish and I finally agreed on a treatment, after which he penciled it in. Following that, there would be no interference and he’d render the painting. Over the course of a year, he has completed 7 of 24 paintings. With passage of time, he has also become far more familiar with the context, setting and visual language.

Manish Soni preparing the canvas, which is made of two layers of cloth and canvas each

Manish, tell us about your relationship with Hamzanama and the process of developing the paper, the paint and creating each painting?

I’m the third generation in a family of painters, and my grandfather Badrilal Chitrakar was the senior most miniature painter of India. He was a self-taught painter and did restoration work. From childhood, I’ve been making colours and learning different painting techniques. At our place, we’ve never stuck to a particular style - we are restorers, so we deliver what the painting needs.

I had personally never explored the Hamzanama style. Then suddenly, when I met Paul, he came up with the idea of a single painting of the Birth of Christ in Hamzanama. I did a lot of research reading up a book by Debra Diamond. The Hamzanama is a style where one paper, one cloth come together in 4 layers to give the painting its long life and hold the colours. Then I prepare my paper - my grandfather would say don’t focus on the painting, focus on what you paint on. That’s most crucial because with miniature paintings today, there’s no guarantee if it’ll last for even 100 years or not.

I use two chemical and one natural colour. Vegetable dyes don't last long. Some colours like red (cinnaber) are extracted from nature where lava rivers flow and the pigment gets collected as stones by the shore which are then crushed and used. The mercury is extracted from the stone, so in these paintings, if you take it in the heat, the colours turn to black. I find that really interesting. With yellow, there are rumours about how to get the colours. In the British period, the colour was banned - it was said that cows were killed because maybe it's made from their urine. But our locals say that it was banned because they wanted to introduce their own yellow colour and remove ours from the market. So the indigenous technique of developing the colour is now lost. I just use the yellow pigment my grandfather has collected over the years. We came up with a substitute called tiavari where the colour is extracted from heating the pigment to a certain extent. The blue, which we call danafirang, is not found in our natural Rajasthani terrain. It's a foreign colour that comes in chunks. It's ground in the mortar till it starts becoming white. You have to experience and understand the process of extracting these colours. In most colours, you have to grind the pigment, add water and keep repeating the process all day.

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A new sketch Manish is working on

Paul, how did you pick which stories of Christ to depict?

Some are iconic, like the Birth of Christ and The Last Supper, while others will make even those who have studied the Bible ask what scene it is. We don’t want to do a chronological thing but have an element of surprise about the next painting we put out.

With some scenes, we have taken artistic liberties and played around a bit. For instance, in the First Miracle of Cana, where Christ converted water to wine, all pictorial representations have very few people in it. But we decided to show the full wedding - with musicians playings, guests bearing gifts, the married couple, and on one side, Jesus trying to help the host who ran out of wine.

For The Last Supper, the painting isn’t in Da Vinci’s grand context as displayed in Milan. In the Eastern context, they’re probably sitting on the floor in the evening around the fire. It’s a solemn moment because a lot is going to happen thereafter, and the divine persona of Jesus may have premonitions of it. So we decided to humanise the whole scene. This could be a dinner in a village today. Manish is also an ardent follower of the Nainsukh style, so with The Last Supper, it’s a contemporary setting unlike the other paintings, where there’s a lot of architecture and characterisation. Da Vinci’s interpretation was too clinical for Manish - there’s a table and 12 characters. Here, you can see the outline of the trees and houses but it’s night and the fire illuminates only a few characters’ faces while others have their back to you. It’s very rustic and sombre.

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  • The Last Supper

The Last Supper being filled in; the final painting

Tell me more about the historical significance of the project.

For that, we have to rewind to the history of Christianity in India. In the Bible, there is a reference to how after Jesus’s time, the Apostles were ear-marked to go to different parts of the world. St. Thomas was supposed to come to India, he was reluctant but his peers prevailed and he headed here. For the longest time, this was thought to be in the realm of myth.

In mid 19th century, a French archaeologist Masson discovered a cache of coins in Takshila dating back to 30 and 40 AD. The other finding was at one of Ashoka’s edicts in Takshila with Greek on top and Aramaic, an ancient language, on the bottom. Typically, Ashokan edicts had two languages, with the court language on top and the language of the people at the bottom. It is well known that Aramaic was spoken in and around the time of Jesus. So the general theory was that there was a large community that spoke Aramaic, and since those communities were largely Jewish, it explained why St. Thomas must have headed there in the first place, before moving down to the Kerala coast of Muziris, which is also evidenced in Roman trade maps and historical writings In 345 AD, a community of 72 Christian families from Cana known as the Knananays in Malayalam came to Kerala. This grew into a large Syrian Christian community, who moved into other parts of Kerala. I’m from the Knanaya community myself and Christianity is something I was born into, grew up with and lived with. But in the historical context, I’m just an Indian and Malayalee. For me, while this project sets the story of Christ in an Eastern context, the most interesting part is having a Christian theme visualized and rendered by a Hindu artist in an Islamic and Persian style.

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Painting of the First Miracle of Cana

What’s been your biggest takeaway from this collaboration?

Paul: I started Sarmaya with coins and contemporary art, which has grown into different genres over time. But most importantly, I love indigenous Indian arts like gond, bhil, patachitra, phad, tholu bommalata, and others. I get fascinated about how we’ve visualized our oral history in India. Recently, someone spoke about how our older generation is our library because it’s all based on oral traditions. So when one person dies, it’s a part of the library disappearing. In that sense, India is a country that’s so rich and diverse and wonderfully vibrant in its traditions of craft, culture, art and heritage that we can spend lifetimes learning, living and working in this field.

With The Christ Commission, the excitement was in bringing out a theme that the world understands as Western but rendering it seamlessly in an Eastern tradition that I’m rooted in. We have drawn on a variety of art forms and cultures within the country to visualize and create it. It’s an educative exercise meant to induce awe and wonder because the paintings are really beautiful and there’s a great element of detail.

Manish: Collaborating is very enjoyable, and I’m getting to understand Christianity from Paul’s perspective, which is beautiful because despite being Christian, he’s not at all fanatical. He’s just pure - he doesn’t want to make Christ a God; he was a human being among us but a reformer. I like how clean and pure Paul’s thinking is. In our paintings, we’re not trying to glorify Jesus or Mother Mary; We’re just communicating a message.

What’s the future of this project?

The project will be complete by end 2019 with at least 24 paintings, maybe even 36 if we can get there. We look forward to doing a large-scale exhibition when the whole set is ready.

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