A TALE WOVEN AROUND HISTORY OF TERRACOTTA TEMPLES - II

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Manomoy Acharya

It was early morning at Bishnupur. Mid- September,1640 AD.

Manomay Acharya has finished his prayer and pranayam. He stared at the cloudy sky from his prayer romm .Krsna has cleared his mind about the task ahead.He walked out and stood in front of the model of Pancharatna temple Bishnudas has created with folded hands and murmured "Jai Nanda-Nandan Krsna, Jai Radhe".

He was in a big dilemma for last three days. His mind is clear now. He would take a step to create the temple the King dreamed about and he,Krsna willing,would deliver.It will be his ultimate gift to the Lord and to the dynasty.

The Pancharatna temple King got built for Vrindabanchandra developed cracks twice since its completion in 1638 AD. Ramesh Sutradhar convinced the court , mainly the Prince, that his design would be stronger yet economical than that of Bishnudas Sutradhar and he would get the temple ready in less than 2 years Bishnudas was humble and firm ...he said : he would take no chance with the 1st Pancharatrna temple of the kingdom, he would do his best, but he promised no time schedule till he would complete the arches.

Ramesh was confident, but, Swarup Bhatta was not so sure that the temple construction would be smooth.Well, his apprehension came correct.The rear wall developed crack before it reached roof level,fault being with quality of firing of bricks. The central dome was ugly. The King forced Ramesh to revise his plan. During the monsoon of 1639 AD , the roof started leaking so badly that Vrindabanchandra had to be shifted.During Rasa festival that, the King openly criticised Ramesh and asked Swarup Bhatta to start a second Pancharatna temple with Bishnudas in charge.

Ramesh left Bishnupur . At a crucial time, Swarup Bhatta and Manomay discovered that three of the brickfield workers and two skilled masons would leave Bishnupur.

Swarup Bhatta and Bishnudas could eventually coax them to stay with promises of better wages and some land for their families . The key mason of their team wanted to marry the sister of his perennially sick wife. Since her family dodged him , he was planning to settle in another place and enjoy marital life with a healthy woman. Swarup intervened and persuaded the girl's family to agree to this mason's demand.

But, the second issue was more complex and had no quick-fix remedy.

The few terra cotta panels local 'boy' Chandu and Laxman from Bihar and other craftsmen created for the Vrindabanchandra temple had problems.

The problem started from the beginning. Chandu was to create six panels - two on Krsna's childhood and four on Radha-Krsna . Laxman was to make mural on the battle scenes of the Ramayana. Chandu's artwork was good and attracted a lot of praise ,but Laxman's mural did not capture the momentum of the battle. But, the major problem was stability of these panels after baking. Repeated cracking left the team frustrated.Eventually, a few small panels with floral designs were put up .The King was very unhappy. Throughout the citation of Srimadbhagabat, he sat with a frown. In the evening, he called the Prince, Swarup Bhatta and Manomay Acharaya to the temple after Sandhyarati (evening prayer) was over and advised them to get the best craftsman of Bengal to overcome the problem of firing. The implication was clear - Lord Krsna would expect them to rise above the narrow arc of religion.

The solution was to invite one of the three Muslims who had the reputation in this field. Through a survey, Manomay and Swarup found Aalam was free and would respond to an invitation of commission, if his terms be met.

Manomay decided to advise Swarup to reach out to Aalam.He would convince his religious community later.He prayed to Krsna and Chaitanyadev to give him strength to look beyond the boundary of convention.

This September morning of 1640 AD would change the darkness which enveloped Aalam's life since his father expired 16 years ago.

Aalam

Aalam was only son of his father, the 2nd brother of a family of artists with North Indian origin, settled in Bengal - in one of the settlements in outskirts of Pandua. His mother was a lower caste Hindu who got converted to Muslim faith when she was 4 months pregnant and had 'nikah' with Aalam's father. Aalam was very much attached to his fatherwho was an artist associated with building work. Aalam was illiterate till he was seventeen. He picked up alphabets when he was under commission in a Vaishnab landlord's family in Rajshahi. An intelligent and hardworking person, he learnt to read Bengali and Pharsi in two years time but not write.

Aalam's father first came to fame with his work on the Atrya's Mosque at Tangail. He worked for a while at Bara Sona Mosque too. He also became quite well known for his maintenance work of the Mosques built during 13th and 14th centuries in and around Pandua. He was respected for his skill and temperament.The patrons who commissioned him expected him to not only restore the damaged walls and terra cotta panels , but also create a few beautiful ones of his own to replace the worn-out mediocre work. Though an otherwise open person, he was cautious about not sharing his knowledge of intricacies of terra cotta work with outsiders. Through generations, it stayed among the members of this migrant family from North India who came to Bengal at the time of Sultan Sikandar Shah who commissioned a large contingent of craftsmen for Adina Masjid around middle of 1360s.

Aalam's father appreciated his son's interest,his deft fingers and took him more than once to short commissions he worked upon. The child's arabesque was wonderful.

Aalam's apprenticeship under his father was cut short at 11 when he fell down from scaffolding while working and returned home paralytic.

Aalam never got a chance to have hands-on training from his father on the techniques of firing and preservation of terra cotta. Aalam's father's health decayed fast and he realised his life was coming to an end. He imparted whatever knowledge he could verbally to Aalam and decided to request his younger brother to take Aalam under his wings and complete the training in the family's specialities.Dark days of Aalam's life was about to begin.

The uncle was a superb technician ... his firing technique could handle all sorts of soil characteristics. His additives did wonders to the life of terra cotta work. But, his nature was crooked and he was no great artist.His arabesques and flowers were average . He traveled relentlessly and earned good money.But, he was mean, fought with his eldest brother for cash who looked after the cultivable land of the family and was thick with the money extortionist of the locality.

A man without any feelings about others and family values, he would often pass lewd remarks aimed at his sisters-in-law whenever the elder brothers were not home and he was free to sneak in . Aalam's father was often away from the village and he took full advantage of the situation to allure Aalam's mother to his bed whenever he would have an urge. Aalam gradually started to guess what was happening during his father's absence. Later, he shared the humiliation his injured father silently swallowed during his wait for death while his uncle , during a break from his outstation work, would sleep with his mother under the same roof .

During this phase, he assisted his father's elder brother in the field or took up assistant's job with local masons. A couple of weeks before his death, Aalam's father called both the brothers near his bed and whispered his last requests : he asked his younger brother, in the name of Allah, to marry his widow after he would die and take Aalam as his apprentice and share with him the family's knowledge about terra cotta work.

The younger brother kept both these words. His half brother Kamal was born before he was twelve.He paid heavy price as his uncle abused him physically as well as psychologically till he was 17 years old.

He would surprise Manomay Acharya with his Krsna-Rama-Chaitanya 'collage' which was used much later in Ananta Vasudeva Temple at Bansberia and replicated here at Madanmohan Temple too . He would create remarkable social panels for Jor-Bangla and later at Ananta Basudeva Temple of Bansberia. I often wonder if history was kinder to Aalam, he would have received the fame Sahibdin of Mewar received during his lifetime and also a place in the history of art of India alongside Sahibdin.

We shall learn about the animals in Aalam's darkness later in these Tales.

NOTES :

1. All photos in this Blog are taken by me.

2.Except for Aalam's picture which I created , based on an internet source.

Inscription on the centre of the Arch : regd. the opening of the Temple
Inscription on the centre of the Arch : regd. the opening of the Temple
The text of the inscription in Bengali
The text of the inscription in Bengali
Arabesque by Aamal
Arabesque by Aamal
Strange animals.Panel by Aalam ,used in Jor-Bangla Temple
Strange animals.Panel by Aalam ,used in Jor-Bangla Temple

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