Samudramanthana (Churning of the Ocean)

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Size: 19.7 x 25.6 inches (framed)
Medium: Reverse Glass Painting
Origin: Southern India
Publication: Page 71, Reverse Glass Painting in India (2017) by Prof. Anna L. Dallapiccola


This is a reverse glass painting from southern India. According to a description of the painting published on page 71 of the book ‘Reverse Glass Painting in India’ by Professor Anna L. Dallapiccola:
“At the centre of the composition is Mount Mandara, which emerges from an expanse of water dotted by lotus flowers. Vishnu, seen here as Kurma (the tortoise), supports the mountain, which is depicted as a pile of rocks on which dark squiggles suggest vegetation. The snake Vasuki is coiled around the mountain; the asuras hold him by his head, the gods by his tail.
The asuras, clad in short lower garments, are characterized by dishevelled hair, crooked or deformed noses, fangs, and occasionally, an animal head. Tripundra marks and vibhuti on their foreheads suggest their Shaiva affiliation. The gods, among whom only Brahma is clearly recognizable by his four heads, wear the usual dhoti, crowns and appropriate jewellery items. Among them is Vali, who, according to an incident narrated in the Kishkindha kanda of Kamban's Iramavataram was instrumental in saving the situation. Because of the friction during the churning process, Mount Mandara lost its shape and Vasuki spat fire. Vali, to whom Shiva gave superhuman strength, completed the churning single-handed (Kamba Ramayana, 2002: 167). An interesting detail is the broom and the basket at the bottom of the painting. These may refer to the Jyeshtha or Alakshmi, sister of Lakshmi and goddess of misfortune, who was among the creatures that emerged from the churning. The goddess is not shown, but her attributes are depicted.
The upper part of the painting depicts the events following the retrieval of the amrita: on the left sit the gods to whom Mohini distributes the nectar, on the right are the asuras waiting for their turn. A striking feature of this work is that all the precious objects retrieved during the churning process have not been shown. The soft palette informing this charming work is very unusual. There is some slight damage where the pigment has flaked.”
  • ABOUT Reverse Glass Paintings

    Reverse glass painting is a fascinating, yet comparatively unknown genre of Indian art. The origin of the reverse glass painting technique can be traced back to Italy, from where it spread across Europe in the 16th century. It was introduced into China by Jesuit missionaries in the 17th and early 18th century. By the second half of the 18th century, the technique was brought to India by way of the China Trade, and there flourished a brisk market for Chinese reverse glass paintings on the west coast of India. With the expansion of the British empire, the paintings found takers amongst wealthy Indian aristocrats who sought to mimic the colonial officers. And it was not long before Indian artists learnt the technique and began producing reverse glass paintings reflecting Indian tradition.

    In the late 18th and early 19th century, in southern India, art was rather decadent, with a high demand for religious paintings embellished with gems, pearls and cut glass. Reverse glass paintings came as a cheap alternative, soon growing in popularity not just amongst aristocrats, but reaching a far wider audience. In the small state of Thanjavur, this distinctive school of glass painting thrived for more than a hundred years. The technique spread across western and southern India and even to former provincial Mughal capitals of Oudh and Murshidabad, as well as Rajasthan and central India, to some extent.

    The term reverse glass painting describes both, how the painting is executed, and how, once completed, it is viewed. A laborious technique, it required an artist to have a good memory of the whole composition because its components were sequentially covered while he completed the work. Artists first began with placing a clear sheet of glass on their master drawing, then drew the finer lines and details. Any foil, paper or sequins, if used, were added at this stage. Then, the larger areas of opaque colour (usually tempera) were applied, and ‘shading’ was used to achieve gradation of colour. The painting was finally mounted with the unpainted side foremost.

    Scenes and characters from Indian mythology are recurrent in Indian reverse glass paintings, while secular themes such as portraits of kings, nobles, courtesans and musicians are also commonly depicted. The paintings are characterized by their bold style, rich colours and subjects portrayed in opulence.

    Imported from Europe via China, a distinctive feature of the reverse glass technique in India was its eclectic style - a fascinating mixture of Indian and Western elements. This style reflected the aesthetics and aspirations of the time. The popularity of theatre, for instance, can be seen in the elaborate curtains that frame most paintings. Elements drawn from colonial architecture, interior decoration, and fashion also permeated the repertoire of the artists, evident in the way they portrayed deities and mythological incidents.

    While reverse glass paintings flourished in India until the mid-19th century, eventually, lithographs, which were cheaper to produce and less fragile, replaced them forever.

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