Mahisasuramardini: The slayer of the buffalo demon

Today is Vijaya Dashami or Bijoya. Today is the day when the Goddess Durga defeated Mahisasura or the buffalo demon, after a fierce battle that lasted 9 days and 9 nights. After killing him on the 10th day, Durga came to known as Mahisasuramardini or “she who killed the buffalo demon”.

Durga, Mahisasuramardini, Hindu Mythology, Indian Art, Indian AestheticsThe story of Mahisasuramardini (which you can read here or here) is perhaps one of the best known in Hindu mythology, and its associated imagery is one of the most recognisable.

I was introduced to the story of Mahisasuramardini by my grandmothers, and also my mother’s recitation of the Mahisasuramardini Stotram. Like most children of the 1970s, I was introduced to the popular imagery of Mahisasuramardini through Amar Chitra Katha’s “Tales of Durga” (see picture on the left).

It was this image of Mahisasuramardini that stayed with me till 1997 when I visited Mahabalipuram. I saw Indian sculptural art in a ‘natural’ setting for the first time, including this depiction of Mahisasuramardini. That was when I realised the immensity, beauty and power of the narratives I had heard and read from the time I was a kid.

That visit also marked the beginning of my interest in Hindu mythology expanding to include its representation in classical Indian art. And Mahisasuramardini fascinated me like no other, which, thanks to my travels in India, I came across in Aihole, Ellora, Patan, Vadnagar and Nalla Sopara. Artiistically and stylistically, each one of the relief sculptures were very different, and yet unmistakably that of Mahisasuramardini.

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The painted towns of Shekhawati-6: Bissau

Ilay Cooper’s book on Shekhawati set me off on an extraordinary trip to that extraordinary place in January this year. I had to wait for nearly 6 months, though, before I felt ready to write about it — so overwhelming were my thoughts and emotions. This post on Bissau is the seventh of 8 posts in the series on “The Painted Towns of Shekhawati”. If you haven’t read the introduction to Shekhawati’s history (and the series), I recommend that you do so now, before proceeding further. If you have already done so, then dive straight into the post.


When I set out for Bissau on my third day of exploring the painted towns of Shekhawati, I had no idea of the surprises awaiting me.

The first was the drive to Bissau from Nawalgarh. Gone was the flat landscape (with an occasional hillock breaking the monotony) that I had seen on my previous days in the region. Instead, there were stretches of gentle, undulating sand dunes.

The second was Bissau itself or rather the state the town was in — it was clean with recently swept roads, no rubbish heaps or plastic bags lying around. After having seen filthy towns like Nawalgarh, Bissau came a pleasant and welcome surprise.

The next surprise was the first painted monument I visited in Bissau — the Sarkari Chhatri. It turned out to be a school, an open air school in fact, with the chhatris serving as classrooms for different grades. A PT class was in progress when I arrived and though I wanted to explore the monument, I baulked at disturbing the students. But the school teachers assured me that it was fine and I went ahead to the accompaniment of curious stares and many giggles from the students.

Bissau, Painted Towns of Shekhawati, Fresco, Art Gallery, Painting, Heritage, Travel, RajasthanAnd the last surprise were the frescoes themselves, at least some of them. But more about that later on in this post.

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The painted towns of Shekhawati-5: Fatehpur

Ilay Cooper’s book on Shekhawati set me off on an extraordinary trip to that extraordinary place in January this year. I had to wait for nearly 6 months, though, before I felt ready to write about it — so overwhelming were my thoughts and emotions. This post on Fatehpur is the sixth of 8 posts in the series on “The Painted Towns of Shekhawati”. If you haven’t read the introduction to Shekhawati’s history (and the series), I recommend that you do so now, before proceeding further. If you have already done so, then dive straight into the post.


Fatehpur, Painted Towns of Shekhawati, Fresco, Art Gallery, Painting, Heritage, Travel, RajasthanThe door to the haveli was shut. A signboard (in Hindi, English and French) requesting visitors to ring the bell if they wished to tour the haveli greeted me instead. I rang the bell and waited. And I waited and waited some more… Just as I was getting ready to ring the doorbell again, I heard footsteps approaching the door.

The door opened and I found myself face to face with a young man, a Westerner, who said in a distinctly French accent, “Hello ! Sorry I took so long to open the door. I was in another part of the haveli. Are you here to see it?

“Yes, please, ” I said.

“Great ! My name is Jonathan and I’m an art history student. I’ll take you around the haveli. Would you like the tour to be in Hindi, English or French?”

I gaped at Jonathan and said, “Umm… English please.”

“Wonderful,” beamed Jonathan. “Welcome to the Nadine Le Prince Haveli.”

And that’s how an art history student from France took me on a guided tour of a haveli in Fatehpur in the Shekhawati region of Rajasthan, India.

But more about that later, as I have to introduce you to Fatehpur and take you around some of the other havelis there first. :) Continue reading

The painted towns of Shekhawati: Past and present

Ilay Cooper’s book on Shekhawati set me off on an extraordinary trip to an extraordinary place, and I had to wait for nearly six months before I felt ready to write about it — so overwhelming were my thoughts and emotions.

Presenting the first of eight posts on the painted towns of Shekhawati. It is a brief account of the region’s history (an introduction to the series really), in order to understand the region’s past and present, in the context of the Shekhawati Series.


Shekhawati is one of the four regions of Rajasthan, the others being Mewar, Marwar and Hadoti). Spread over Sikar, Jhunjhunu and Churu districts of Rajasthan, it is best known for its grand and palatial havelis (mansions). It is also known for being home to many of India’s well-known business families — Birla, Poddar, Bajaj, Jhunjhunwala, Khaitan, Oswal, Piramal, Ruia, Singhania, and Goenka, among others are from this region.

One would think that this would automatically mean a lot of visibility and tourist footfall in the region, but this is not the case — compared to the other regions of Rajasthan, Shekhawati is less visible. Which, in my opinion, is really surprising as the history of the region is quite unique and distinct from the rest of the State (at least in the context of the series that I’m writing).

Take the famous painted havelis of Shekhawati, for example, and how they came to be built. Painted Towns of Shekhawati, Nawalgarh, Poddar Haveli, Continue reading

Roses and dancing girls

Have you ever seen a painting, a picture, a poster, a photograph… or any work of art and instantly felt a connection to it? Not the janam janam ka rishta type, but a connection where that piece of art is communicating with you? Talking only to you? And everything around just fades into the background and it’s just you and that work of art. This happens to me sometimes and it’s quite inexplicable, really, as to why I feel a connection that particular piece of art only !

This post is about one such connection. A connection forged while viewing it on a computer screen. It happened something like this…

It was a dull day at work. One of those days when everything moved sluggishly — papers,  people, the internet connection, thoughts …. The humid weather didn’t help and by the time tea break came around I was ready to go to sleep. Of course, I couldn’t being at work and all that. So I did the next best thing — armed with nice cup of Assam tea, some biscuits, and piano music in the background, I decided to do some blog surfing. And, serendipitiously, stumbled across this painting by Monishikha:

“Roses” by Monishika Roy-Choudhury. Watercolour on art paper

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Colour: A natural history of the palette

Sometimes, we miss the forest for the trees. And sometimes, we miss the trees for the forest. Let me give you an illustration. Take a look at the painting below (click on the picture to see a larger view).

Source: The National Gallery, London

The painting is called “Bacchus and Ariadne”. It was painted by Titian sometime between 1520 and 1523. It depicts a tale from Roman  mythology where Bacchus (the God of Wine) sees the mortal Ariadne and falls in love with her at first sight. He is so smitten that he jumps out of his cheetah-drawn chariot towards her. The painting has captured Bacchus in mid-leap as Ariadne shies away from him in alarm.

I saw this painting at London’s National Gallery in 2009. I duly noted the story that the painting conveyed, the various characters in it, the lovingly painted animals, Titian’s trademark use of bright colours… and moved on to the next artwork. It was a nice painting, but not particularly impressive. Or so I thought. Today, I bitterly regret at only looking at the painting, but not seeing it closely enough. In only looking at the painting, I had completely failed to see the colours themselves, particularly the brilliant blue of the sky — a blue which came from the ultramarine paint made from the semi-precious lapis lazuli mined hundreds of miles away in the Sar-e-Sang valley (in present day Afghanistan).

The lapis lazuli from these mines would have travelled through ancient trade routes to the colour maker in Italy, who then transformed it into the very expensive ultramarine paint through a laborious process. First, the lapis lazuli would have been finely powdered and kneaded into a dough along with resin, wax, gum and linseed oil for 3 days, after which it would have been put in a mixture of lye and water. This mixture would have been kneaded again, this time with sticks, to draw out the blue of the lapis lazuli into the liquid. The blue-coloured liquid would have been be collected in bowls and allowed to dry, leaving behind a powdery blue pigment, the ultramarine blue. The process would have been repeated with the “dough” to get different qualities and shades of blue (pg.290-291). These days making the ultramarine paint is not so laborious as it is made synthetically.

I read about all this and much more in Colour: A Natural History of the Palette (2004, Random House, pp.448) by Victoria Finlay. The book can be considered as a travelogue; it can also be considered as a book on art history. But for me, it is a book on the micro-history of colour as explored through an artist’s paintbox holding the colours of the rainbow and then some more — violet (or purple), indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange, red, ochre, white, black and brown.

In her attempt to trace and draw out the stories of how natural dyes, paints and colours were made for a European artist’s paintbox, Finlay travelled to Australia, England, China, Chile, Italy, India, Iran, Spain, Afghanistan and Lebanon. As each story, myth, legend of the colours come into life, we realise that:

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