Mahamuni Shukadeva was the son of sage Vyasa who wrote the Bhagavata Purana. When sage Vyasa was yet awaiting his son Shukadeva to attain the age of ‘yajnopavit’ for performing necessary rituals, he one day found that deserting him his son had left home and had taken to penance. No persuasions worked and in little time, when yet in his early years, Shukadeva was a sage with rare aura revered by sages of all sects. They called him Mahamuni, the great sage. Sage Vyasa had composed the great Bhagavata Purana, but highly secretive and mystical, it was confined to the family or a few. Apart, it was composed in Shuktas requiring further elaboration. Shukadeva not only learnt it by family tradition but the first thing he did was to elaborate it to a fuller length elevating it to the status of Mahapurana. As the body of the text of the Bhagavata Purana has it, the Bhagavata Purana, as we now have it, is what Mahamuni Shukadeva revealed to Raja Parikshata. The revelation took a long time and meanwhile the fame of the tale and Mahamuni had reached far and wide attracting sages of other lines to join its sessions.
This masterpiece, a painting with rare artistic merit, represents this context of the Bhagavata Purana most effectively and with a spiritual theme’s serenity. Otherwise than portrayed in profile, Mahamuni Shukadeva is seated on a golden seat with an ivory top facing the entire assembly. In complete command of his senses he has been represented as unclad, perhaps giving him the epithet ‘Mahamuni’. Sometimes considered as one of Vishnu’s incarnations he is invariably portrayed as blue-bodied. Facing him is seated on the ground Raja Parikshata. The artist has inscribed the names of most of those in the assembly; however, in respect to his own king and to suggest that Mahamuni is narrating the story to his king, he preferred mentioning him only as Raja, not as Raja Parikshata. Among others the painting also portrays Parashurama, perhaps not one of Vishnu’s incarnations but in place of his father, the great sage Jamadagni endowed with the celestial cow Surabhi for which Sahastra-bahu had killed him.
The assembly is divided into two parts; on the Mahamuni’s left is seated sage Parashara with other sages, young and old, in his line. On his right, in the painting, facing him, just on the right of king Parikshata is seated sage Narada with his stringed instrument in hand, and behind the king, sage Atria. On sage Atria back is seated sage Vashishtha, and behind him, with a few sages in between, sage Bhragu and sage Agastya. Agastya is known for subduing mountain Vindhyachala and for popularizing Aryan culture in South, and Bhragu, for angrily hitting Vishnu on his chest and compelling a humiliated Lakshmi to desert Vishnu. Close to Agastya are seated sages Chyavana, Saradavana, Kanva, Urva among others. In between the two groups are seated Sanakadika, the four spiritual sons of Brahma.
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.