O Kesava ! In the form of Fish, holding the Vedas like a vessel, and without deflecting in the deluge from the course to preserve the knowledge of Vedas, You incarnated as Fish! Praise be to Thee Jagdish! Lord of the universe!
This excellent miniature, rendered using classical Basohli idiom of Pahari art prevalent around 1730 A. D., represents Lord Vishnu in his incarnation as Matsya or sacred fish. Matsyavatara is Vishnu's first incarnation. Matsyavatara has been variedly narrated in different texts. The Shatpath Brahmana and the Bhagavata Purana relate it to Manu, the Padma Purana to demon Shankhasura, and the Matsya Purana to demon Hayagriva. The artist here has followed the Padma Purana version of it. According to the Padma Purana, Vishnu incarnated as the sacred fish to secure Vedas from the demon Makara or Shankhasura who had taken them away to his abode in netherworld. Makara, the demon son of Diti by sage Kashyapa, once stole the Vedas from Brahma. The absence of the Vedas, which had been guiding mankind to the path of righteousness, caused an outbreak of all kinds of sins and vices and pervaded all aspects of human life. Then, Brahma requested Vishnu to secure the Vedas from Shankhasura and thereby the path of righteousness. Shankhasura was hiding with the Vedas into deep waters inside a conch named Panchajana. Vishnu hence incarnated as Matsya, killed Shankhasura, and recovered the lost Vedas. Vishnu since then carried the Panchajana conch as one of his attributes, and as Krishna blew it to announce the commencement of the Mahabharata, the Great War.
In this painting, artist has quite dramatised his canvas, as also the story of the Matsyavatara. Lord Vishnu is portrayed as half-human and half-fish, rising above deep oceanic waters. The fish has been formed of two colour stripes ? yellow and green, consisting of tree-leaf pattern, the same using which the tree on the extreme right has been rendered. Around the mid-eighteenth century, use of such leaf patterns for rendering costumes, headdresses, and even human anatomy, was quite in vogue in the art of the entire hill region ? Mandi, Basohli, and Chamba. At Sangri, an entire Ramayana set was rendered using tree-leaf pattern, exactly similar as has been used in rendering the fish. The artist has balanced with his strong magenta-red not only the human part of Vishnu's figure but also the fish part. Opposite to him is ferocious Shankhasura emerging from the Panchajana conch. The conch has been shaped like a beautifully designed inlaid ivory boat. The same magenta-red of his loincloth breaks not only the monotony of his dark green form but also of the black ocean. Many paintings, depicting Matsyavatara theme, represent Shankhasura as lying dead with blood spreading around. The artist here preferred a desperate Shankhasura charging unarmed at Lord Vishnu, and Vishnu ready to strike with his mace, and, if need be, with his disc. In his iconography, conch adds after he has killed Shankhasura. Here he has conch even before killing him.
Waters are black, but pinkish-white lotuses break their monotony. The plain monochromic green background has been judiciously dramatised by variedly modeled and coloured trees. This tree-type emerged in indigenous Indian art in 15th-16th centuries in the paintings of Chaurapanchasika group. Later, Basohli artists made magnificent use of them. On a small piece of canvas, these few trees reveal nature's entire palette and foliage-types, besides providing the most apt setting for a human drama.
This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr. Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of literature and is the author of numerous books on Indian art and culture. Dr. Daljeet is the curator of the Miniature Painting Gallery, National Museum, New Delhi. They have both collaborated together on a number of books.