When two artists met

A sculptor and a writer exchange ideas and imagine a world beyond them. It gives them insight into their own lives.

Outskirts of Mandapapattu Village, Vizhuppuram District, Thamizh Nadu

Day 2, Month of Kaarthigai (corresponds to October-November), 621 CE

The evening was beautiful.

The sun was sinking behind the low hills, dimly lighting a rough, uneven terrain of wild vegetation. A sort of sadness hung in the air though. Perhaps that was just the effect of dusk, Emperor Harshavardhana mused, as he stepped carefully down the roughly hewn steps of a hillock, but he did feel its weight dragging him low.

But there was beauty here as well. The sky was painted in lovely shades of pink and lavender; birds twittered noisily as they flew homewards; bonfires crackled in the distance as sculptors and other workers relaxed; the clink of chiselling …

Wait — chiselling?

The Emperor turned in the direction of a small cave literally being hewn out of bare rock. He paused as the magnitude of the work hit him. In this tour of south India, travelling disguised as a merchant, he had seen many strange things, but this one certainly took his breath away.

Surprise

Illustration: Satheesh Vellinezhi

Illustration: Satheesh Vellinezhi
 

He didn’t realise that he’d spoken the words aloud until a man wearing a turban, a simple tunic and lower garments, with a chisel in hand, answered him. “In terms of madness, do you mean?”

Harsha raised a delicate eyebrow at this flippant question. “I only meant that to conceive of and execute a work of art such as this would require great sensitivity.”

The sculptor smiled. “Then, I thank you. Sometimes, as a sculptor, I encounter doubts from people about the point of such things, so I wondered if you were one of them.” He subjected Harsha to a pointed stare. “You dress like a southerner, but your speech and body language indicate that you are not from these parts.”

“Your observation does you credit.” He paused, as a ring on the sculptor’s finger caught his eye. “I come from Kannauj, to tell the truth.”

The sculptor inclined his head. “From the great land of the Vardhanas. Your Emperor has an excellent reputation. Courageous, popular…”

“But deeply unhappy.” Harsha could have bitten his tongue at the unguarded words but the deep, gnawing pit of sorrow within him had just — opened for a second and revealed the truth.

The sculptor hesitated. “I believe I know why. There has been a lot of tragedy in his personal life. His parents, brother…”

“Yes,” Harsha interjected swiftly. “It was…terrible.”

Illustration: Satheesh Vellinezhi

Illustration: Satheesh Vellinezhi
 

Around them, dusk had deepened. Stars began twinkling in the night sky, above the dark silhouettes of trees and mountains, while groups of men and women began to arrange lamps in niches on the walls of homes; on top of walls, around tiny roadside shrines, and even in crevices in the half-finished rock-cut cave.

“It’s the eve of Deepavali,” the sculptor murmured. “The festival of lights.”

“But my heart sinks in darkness,” Harsha murmured, as he dropped down to a boulder. “I wonder if…if your emperor Mahendra Pallavar feels thus sometimes? Or perhaps, he’s just fortunate enough to have never seen misfortune.”

There was a long moment of silence.

“I am nothing but a lowly artisan,” began the sculptor. “But I can certainly say that I…our emperor has seen his fair share of sorrow. Fate spares no man.”

“So … how does he live from day to day? How does he pick himself up, each time life knocks him down?”

“With this.” The sculptor pointed to the cave, with his chisel. “He envisions. He imagines. He draws. Sometimes he even chisels. He creates. Thus, he can forget his own worries and cares…but he also leaves something of himself behind. Like this cave, built without brick, timber, metal or mortar. You see, empires may come and go, but art lives on. What does Emperor Harshavardhana create?”

“He writes,” Harsha replied instantly. “He has always been fond of writing verse. Writing lightens his heart.”

“Then he must pursue that in earnest. No, I do not mean that he must do it to the exclusion of everything else, but he must create, for, that is the greatest gift a man can have. The future may forget him and his reign but some reader, perhaps generations later, may discover him. And through him, his family.” The sculptor continued softly. “In his words, his parents and brother will live on.”

Night had fallen completely and the lamps were now glowing bright, competing with the stars in the sky. Mandapapattu looked like fairyland.

Harsha rose. “I thank you for your wisdom.”

The sculptor rose. “I can only hope that my feeble insight helped.”

“More than you know.” Harsha smiled. “And perhaps, Your Majesty, someday, when I visit your famed capital of Kanchi, you will tell me more of your adventures in art.”

Emperor Mahendra Pallavar looked down at his signet ring ruefully. “I knew I should have taken it off, but my love of sculpting overcame my caution,” he smiled. “Your Majesty.”

“You know me too, I see.”

“My spies are extremely efficient.”

The two Emperors — perhaps two of the greatest to ever rule India — smiled at each other.

“Greetings, writer,” Mahendra Pallavar raised a hand.

“Greetings, sculptor. Like you, I too will leave something behind of myself that is not just a name.”

“In that case,” the Pallava Emperor chuckled. “This is a true Deepavali — for this is a festival about banishing darkness both inside and out.”

As the two men turned and gazed towards the hills, the bonfires crackled and roared in celebration.

Historical Note: True to his word Emperor Harshavardhana (590 – 647 CE) produced literary works such as Ratnavali, Nagananda and Priyadarshika, while Emperor Mahendra Pallavar (571 – 630 CE) created a sculptural wonderland in his kingdom of Thondai Mandalam. Though both are revered as great rulers in India, their fame has spread far and wide, chiefly because of their artistic and literary talent.

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