Illustration 1: Nabagunjara Patachitra painting by Shri Kalu Charan Barik. Photo credit: Abhimanyu Barik
The Patachitra traditions of Odisha are replete with artistic, cultural, and symbolic connotations. The stories from the eighteen Mahapuranas, Upa-puranas, Mahābhārata, and other epics are the core of the Patachitra lineage in Odisha. These tales from the oral or the verbal classical and folk traditions when translated into the visual medium through art, become richer and highly emblematic. Imaginative terrains associated with these artistic mediums have storytelling as their central motif. There have been several discursive papers, books, and reflection articles that narrate the stories that are depicted in Patachitras, and of late there is a renewed interest in the Puranic stories especially those concerning animals and their interpretations in paintings and other new mediums. This article focuses on one such aspect of the Patachitra’s storytelling tradition which is a recurrent motif in several paintings made in this style from the ancient times to its contemporary expressions – the story of the Nabagunajara (in colloquial Odia) or the Navagunjara besa (form/attire). Over the past decade, there has been a massive interest in understanding the story of the Nabagunjara. Devdutt Pattanaik created popular interest in the word Nabagunjara with a brief mention of the tale in his book Indian Mythology: Tales, Symbols, and Rituals from the Heart of the Subcontinent (2003). There has been a persistent interest in the Internet world to narrate the symbolic as well as the artistic meanings concealed within the story of the Nabagunajara. Stray articles with limited research have been circulating on the Internet with half-baked reflections on the Nabagunjara.
The Nabagunjara primarily is an original contribution of Odisha’s Adikabi (earliest poet) Sarala Das’s magnum opus retelling in the fifteenth century of the epic poem Mahābhārata. Sarala’s retelling is popularly known today as the Sarala Mahābhārata. In this version of the Mahābhārata, the Nabagunjara is a form that Kṛṣṇa had taken in order to appear as a manifest being in front of Arjuna all of a sudden (see Illustration 1). In the known and popular versions of the story, the allusion is towards a sudden manifestation of a magnificent not-seen-so-far creature that appears in front of Arjuna on the Manibhadra mountain in the Madhyaparva of Sarala’s Mahābhārata. The form is not categorized as an Avatar or incarnation of Vishnu, owing to its unique presence in only certain stories and probably because of its highly localized characteristic in Odisha’s art cultures. There have been theories in certain articles (including Quora articles) regarding the Nabagunjara as being a part of Bhagavad Gita, often equated with the Viswaroopa-darshana (Chapter XI) mentioned in the Gītā (see Cesarone “Pata-chitras of Orissa”) that Kṛṣṇa had undertaken in order to explain the essence of life/work/duty to Arjuna. However, such a theory poses challenges because there is no such word as Nabagunjara/ Navagunjara in the Bhagavad Gita. The Viswaroopa is attributed to the form of a divine being that symbolically creates a super-human kind of image in the mind of the reader-listener. It still has a human-like imaginative quality. However, Nabagunjara, as Sarala describes the form and as portrayed by several generations of Patachitra artists, is an extraordinary form, categorically having a multi-species imaginative spread, combining totemic and animal-like qualities with deep visual characteristics. Scholars (see Smita Das “Nabagunjara”) have an opinion that the Nabagunjara is Sarala Das’s original creation and his source might be based on oral narratives and folklore from Odisha and may have their origin in the totemic stories of the Munda tribes found in adjoining regions of Eastern India (see Hoffman, et al. Encyclopedia Mundarica).
The Nabagunjara is basically an extraordinary imaginative portrayal of the supreme life-force that combines the three significant categories of “beings” (gunjara): (a) the animals/birds; (b) the human; (c) the divine or god-like being. There are nine species in one body (naba referring to nine, and gunjara referring to “beings” in Odia). In the Patachitra tradition, the body parts of each of the nine species of animals spectacularly conjoin and are depicted through the use of traditional colours and unique brushstrokes (see Illustration 2): (i) the head of a rooster; (ii) throat that of a peacock bird; (iii) the body as the hunch of a bull; (iv) waist of a lion; (v) hand of a human/ divine being; (vi) one leg that of a tiger; (vii) one leg and hoof of a horse/deer; (viii) one leg of an elephant; (ix) the tail is made of a snake.
Illustration 2: This patachitra is an interpretation and a close-up of just the Nabagunjara form. Patachitra painting by Shri kalu Charan Barik. Photo credit: Abhimanyu Barik.
The story of Nabagunjara has shades of thoughtful eco-consciousness combined with totemic and spiritual significance. The animal inspires awe and fear within Arjuna. While Arjuna at first thinks that this animal is some kind of a demon, eventually he comes to realize that it can be only the manifestation of supreme divinity. The story of the Nabagunjara begins with Arjuna breaking a vow that existed between the five brothers that they will never view each other’s intimate moments with Draupadi. Arjuna had to break this vow due to the orders given by the fire god, Agni who in the disguise of a Brahmin priest comes and tells Arjuna that he needed to urgently meet Yudhisthira. When Arjuna denies permission to Agni for meeting Yudhisthira because his elder brother was with Draupadi at that hour, Agni threatens to burn the entire land if denied the meeting. Arjuna is afraid of Agni and fears that the land is in danger, thus he goes to Yudhisthira and by chance he views Yudhisthira in his intimate moments with Draupadi. For repentance, Arjuna travels to Manibhadra mountains and lives in the mountain doing penance for his sin, until Kṛṣṇa appears in front of him in this chimeric form of the Nabagunjara that is extraordinary in its imaginative proportions. Arjuna is invited back by Kṛṣṇa in this form and the latter confirms the success of Arjuna’s penitence. However, one lost piece in the puzzle of this story is — can the divine acquire such a splendid fable-like vision to “please” a single human being? Can such a larger than life chimeric form manifest in front of Arjuna, just for helping him complete his penitence?
In a recent Odia television debate show (telecasted on July 23rd 2019 on Prarthana TV) entitled Tarke Bahu Doora, two scholars presented a unique ecologically sensitive interpretation associated with the Nabagunjara tale. Their interpretation provided an ecological turn to the story. The scholars argued that actually Arjuna was clearing the forest Khandavaprastha by the orders of Agni, the fire-god and feeding all the herbs, the trees, animals, birds, shrubs, plants, etc. to Agni in order to satisfy the fire god’s insatiable hunger. When the entire Khandavaprastha was being aggressively destroyed by Arjuna, the birds and animals, due to a fear of extinction ran for shelter to Kṛṣṇa. They expressed their deep anguish regarding the danger of extinction of species because of human aggression and bid to destroy a forest in order to propitiate just one being’s ambition/hunger. In order to prevent Arjuna from destroying the entire Khandavaprastha and in order to protect the other species, Kṛṣṇa acquired this chimerical form showing extraordinary prowess and symbolizing the role of a protector for “other” species not limited to human beings. When Arjuna was confronted by such an extraordinary creature, his blind destructive binge of the forest resources and its animals immediately came to a halt, and he surrendered to a will that was greater than his own and that of Agni’s hunger – the will of an unseen supreme power who had the hands of divinity and the form of nine powerful animals that included reptiles and birds.
The story of the Nabagunjara brings ecological sensitivity and the contemporary nature of the tale into perspective. In the times of extraordinary forest fires in Amazon basin, melting glaciers, vanishing bees and birds, endangered ocean surfaces, and while there is a relentless search for ways to minimize climate-related changes and gross industrialization, these stories acquire significance. They may highlight the repetitive form of unbridled human ambitions that have led to the destruction of Nature and natural resources from the very start of the world and from the beginning of storytelling traditions. They also provide a sense of comfort with the thought that if these events of massive annihilation of species had occurred in the past and the earth had survived, then maybe the earth will re-programme once again with a little bit of human will, support, scientific temperament and compassion, and survive future onslaught and the threat of mass extinction of species.
The Patachitra artists from Raghurajpur, while they were sharing the pictures of the Nabagunjara, confided that the massive destruction wrought by Cyclone Fani in Odisha during the month of May 2019, created fear and a sense of awe for the supernatural force and the massive destructive power latent in Nature, when it decides to counter human aggression and greed with its own fury. Raghurajpur as of now is slowly recuperating from the deep wounds left by Cyclone Fani. Several among the fine old Patachitras that the senior artists had preserved in the attics of their hamlets in Raghurajpur, are now forever lost to memory. However, their spirit of artistic representation through storytelling is undaunted, though shaken by the sound and fury of Fani.
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Das, Smita. “Nabagunjara”, Studies in Humanities and Social Science (Winter). Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Vol 13 No 2 (2006).
Hoffman, S.J. (ed), (In collaboration with Arthur Van Emelen). Encyclopaedia Mundrarica, Patna: Superintendent, Govt. of Printing, 1950-52.
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Walker, Robert. “The Worst Fires in the Amazon are Still Likely to Come, and May Burn Out of Control”, Science Alert. https://www.sciencealert.com/the-worst-of-the-amazon-rainforest-s-fires-are-likely-still-to-come , 10 September 2019
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