Storyteller’s Scroll

Storyteller’s Scroll

Storyteller’s scroll depicting the life of Vaishnava saint Chaitanya or Nimai, as well as the various punishments in hell. Water-based pigments on paper; 435 cm x 52 cm. West Bengal. c. early 20th century. 84/6788.

Among the numerous religious patas, or scroll paintings, made by the itinerant patuas or painters of Bengal, this particular scroll depicts the life of the neo-Vaishnava saint Chaitanya or Nimai who lived from A.D. 1486-1533.

The scroll is painted in a sequence of nine panels of which only the last one is presented here. The first one shows an incarnation of Krishna standing under a tree. His six hands are due to his being a composite of Narayana, Krishna and Nimai. The two upper hands, holding a bow and arrow, belong to Narayana, the central two, playing the flute, belong to Krishna, while the lower hands belong to Nimai.

The second panel depicts three figures: the female figure to the left is Nimai’s mother, Shantimata, the central one is Nimai himself, while the one on the right depicts an elderly rishi or ascetic.

The third panel portrays the scene where Nimai renounces the world by leaving his sleeping wife Bishnupiya (Vishnupriya), late in the night, while his deceased father, in the form of a bhuta or spirit, depicted as a dark black figure, looks on.

The fourth scene depicts Nimai as a saint walking in the forest. The fifth scene shows women including Shantimata, Nimai’s mother, and Bishnupiya, his wife, mourning his renunciation.

The sixth panel shows the tonsure ceremony for Nimai’s initiation into sainthood. The scene is of the Kantoyar Ghat, a river bank, with Nimai sitting under a neem tree while his hair is being shaved off by a barber. The Bengali inscription under the tree reads: “Kantoyar (Kantuar) Ghat, Nim talc,” which means: Kantuar river bank under the neem tree.

The seventh panel depicts a number of old men celebrating Nimai’s sanyas or renunciation. The eighth panel portrays an incarnation of Krishna as half Nimai and half-Krishna, painted half yellow and half dark-blue.

The ninth and last panel shows various tortures inflicted in hell by Yama the god of death and his attendants. Since Chaitanya’s lifespan is at the end of the Tretayuga and the beginning of Kalayuga, where vice and evil characters inhabit the world, the last panel in every Chaitanya scroll necessarily depicts the punishments in hell.

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