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A Page from Supernatural Love

Collaboration often leads to unanticipated discoveries
Sonya Rhie Mace, George P. Bickford Curator of Indian and Southeast Asian Art
June 7, 2019
A Prince Performs Austerities (recto); Shiva and His Followers Return to Mount Kailash (verso), from a Romance of Chandrabhanu and Lavanyavati of Upendra Bhanja (1670–1740), 1700s. Eastern India, Odisha (formerly Orissa). 2018.175

Tucked in a corner of gallery 242B is the first folio from a manuscript of an 18th-century romance. The diminutive images were skillfully etched into cured palm leaf and blackened by applying charcoal powder and wiping it off; finally, select ele-ments were painted. When complete, this manuscript had hundreds of such folios, stacked to create a narrow horizontal book, bound by a single string through a hole in the center.

When the museum acquired this work, the scenes and the manuscript from which it came were unidentified. Phyllis Granoff, Lee Hixon Professor of Religious Studies at Yale University, deciphered the tiny inscriptions written in the eastern Indian language of Odiya. She discovered that this folio depicts episodes from the preamble to the romance of Chandrabhanu and Lavanyavati. Granoff then recognized that another folio in the museum’s collection (1979.21) also belongs to this manuscript. The current display in gallery 242B is themed Supernatural Love, and this romance begins with an origin story. A prince performed extreme acts of yoga and worshiped the Hindu god Shiva to obtain a divine woman. When his request was granted, he touched her and she died. He then committed suicide. They were reborn as Chandrabhanu and Lavanyavati, the protagonists of the story.

The verso side of the folio is now on view and shows Shiva riding his bull Nandi, preceded by his devotee Bhringi, a yogi with four arms and three legs; an attendant carrying a bottle of wine and a fan follows. Having granted the prince’s wish, Shiva returns to his seat on the sacred Mount Kailash, depicted here as a pavilion at the summit of multicolored stylized rocks in a forest.  

Cleveland Art, July/August 2019