India Through the Eyes of Europe, Part 4

BY: SUN STAFF - 24.3 2023


A series on Western art expressions of traditional Vedic spiritual content.

Today, we will compare three examples of work: engravings and illustrations of Lord Nrsimhadev. Viewing them side-by-side, we see a fascinating progression of transcendental imagery that was borrowed from India by a European artist, re-drawn 70 years later by another European, then rendered once again by an Indian who borrowed from his European predecessors.

The image at the top of this page is a beautiful copper plate engraving by Bernard Picart, done in 1723. While the quality of the scan is rather poor, we can see enough detail to understand the lay of the land, placement of the personalities in the lila event, and the expression, posture and paraphernalia of Lord Nrsimha.

The image at center page is a reproduction of Picart's work by Barlow, circa 1790. While Barlow closely followed Picart's work in most regards, there are certain elements that are significantly different.

Finally, the image below is an illustration done by Sourindro Mohun Tagore in 1880. The work was created for a book entitled Avataras of the Hindus, printed in Calcutta. Raja Sir Sourindro Mohun Tagore (1840-1914) was the founder of the Bengal Music School and Bengal Academy of Music; and published various books of his own writing and illustrating.

While Indian himself, Tagore was heavily influenced by the European artists whose work preceded him. The influence was due, in part, to his location in Calcutta, which was fully infiltrated by the Anglos. In this case, Tagore also drew on the European style because he was illustrating the Dasavatara, a series that had been done repeatedly, and popularly, by European artists in the century before him.

In the Picart engraving, we see a bit of the typical European mood in the countryside, which comprises the background of the picture. Picart has included a few palm trees, which give the scene more of an India mood.

Standing on either side of Lord Nrsimha are two personalities, whom we can presume to be Prahlad Maharaj and Laksmi devi. Both are offering obeisances while at the same time holding books (Vedas).

Hiranyakasipu is held on the Lord's lap, being disinterred by Nrsimhadev's fierce claws. The demon holds a mace, and his shawl is dropping to the ground. Hiranyakasipu's intestines are coiled about, and placed around the Lord's neck like garlands. The Lord's head is very lion-like, with a furrowed brow and no ruffed mane.

In the later reproduction by Barlow, the scene is very similar, but with a few marked differences. First, the topography of the background is a close match, with the placement of trees, hills and bushes being an obvious copy. The Lord is again flanked by Prahlad and Laksmi. Barlow has taken some creative license with the pillars, which are more prominent and defined in his engraving.

Hiranyakasipu lies in exactly the same posture, limbs askance and intestines pulled out in coils. It appears that Barlow has created more definition than we see in the Picart version, but that is really due to the poor image by Picart, which is actually a highly detailed work.

The most significant departure Barlow made was in the rendering of Lord Nrsimha's head, which has a large lion's mane. Barlow has also created an interesting circular shape on the Lord's face, likely intended as a transformation element (half man-half lion).

Finally, we have the more recent Tagore piece, which followed Barlow's work by some ninety years. The countryside is gone, replaced with the more universal image of temple columns, though Tagore's split pillar is very similar to Barlow's.

Only Prahlad is shown in this imagine, and Tagore has interestingly reverted to more of a European look with Prahlad's headgear, etc.

The demon's position on the Lord's lap is again nearly identical. Hiranyakasipu's mace is gone, replaced by his fallen sword and shield.

Another marked difference is Lord Nrsimhadev's head, upon which Tagore has placed a tilak mark.

The mark of Europe's vision of India is particularly prominent in these three images, and even more so when they are compared in the broader context of traditional Indian images of the Nrsimha Avatar's lila pastimes.