Looking back from the threshold of the twenty-first century, we may be amazed at the quaint and archaic form of palm-leaf manuscripts. It comes as a surprise to learn that a pile of palmyra folios laboriously engraved by hand and strung together between boards was the standard type of book used in some parts of India less than a hundred years ago. In Orissa, some remain in use today, although the production of manuscripts is almost at an end. Such relics of the past are bound to change. Traditionally the palm-leaf manuscript was recopied and immersed in water after a hundred years. Today it merely crumbles into dust unless carefully preserved. It is therefore time for us to scrutinize what still survives, documenting what we can and retrieving from this a picture of the past. The illustrated palm-leaf manuscripts of Orissa record not only what existed when they were made but also what interested people, their stories, ideals, and sense of humour. If we examine the pictures carefully, we see no longer a blur of uniform style but rather a wide range of concerns and of artistic quality. Out of the too-prevalent stereotype of the anonymous Indian artisan, the makers of these illustrations emerge as real individuals.
This is precisely where the present study began. We had enjoyed looking at several manuscripts that were accessible from publications--a ragamala known as the Sangita Damodara, and a courtly poetic romance, the Lavanyavati. We realized that both were illustrated by the same hand, even though at that point the published evidence suggested that the first was produced early in the eighteenth century, while the present owners of the second work said that it had been made only three generations ago. This puzzle led us into obscure arguments about chronology and the reading of colophons; other information ultimately confirmed the more recent date. In the process of comparing these with various illustrated palm-leaf manuscripts, we were delighted to find that more works by the same hand were preserved, unrecognized, in collections all over the world.
We also made a total of five visits to the town where this artist had lived, discovering by the end three additional works of his still preserved there. The owners of these works came to trust us and in 1987 kindly allowed photography of the masterpiece, the Lavanyavati, for the first time. While the details of Mundamarai must have changed in the past century, we had some sense of entering into the world in which these manuscripts were made. The scribe/illustrator grew from a name into an artist, a story-teller, and a personality. Our admiration for his work increased. This short study is therefore dedicated to that skillful, witty, yet humble individual, Raghunath Prusti, son of an oil-man from the village Mundamarai in southern Orissa.
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