An outstanding work of art, the painting, a lyrical transform of the cult of independent deity shrines dedicated to Narasimha and Narsinghi, has reproduced, in its exactness, a timeless classic of Indian art, of about 1820-30 AD, from Kangra, a school of Pahari art, globally hailed for its gentle colour-tones, magic of its soft lines, cute men and women and incredibly beautiful nature and surroundings. It was the time when Kangra was ruled by Raja Sansara Chadra, one of the great patrons of art the world has ever seen; however under a treaty with Sikh Chief Maharaja Ranjit Singh his position was reduced to a mere tutelary of the Sikh power. This affected Kangra art too, and it becomes evident also from this painting which has blended in its stylistic body also the elements of Sikh art.
Narasimha has been the theme of many medieval miniatures, however, he has been painted almost invariably as killing Hiranyakashyapu, the father of Prahlad, in Prahlad-related legend, in his form as half-man-half-lion – Vishnu’s fourth incarnation, not in independent deity form as in this painting. Though a few medieval temples are dedicated independently to Narasimha, in sculptural art too, he appears more often in Vishnu’s Dashavatara panels. Though mostly as Vishnu’s incarnation, with the sculptors of South he is more popular, perhaps a little less than Rama and Krishna, Vishnu’s other popular incarnations.
As regards Lord Narasimha’s mythical position, the Puranas acclaim him as incarnating for eliminating Hiranyakashyapu, one of the two demon sons of Diti, sage Kashyapa’s wife. For their immoral deeds two subordinate gods Jaya and Vijay, exiled from Vaikuntha, were born on the earth as Hiranyakashyapu and Hiranyaksha, to Diti by sage Kashyapa. By their penance and extolment they pleased Brahma and won from him the boon of invincibility. It made them arrogant and atrocious so much so that Hiranyaksha stole away even from Brahma his Vedas as also the earth and carried them to ‘Patala’ – netherworld. For the redemption of the Vedas and the earth on Brahma’s prayer Vishnu incarnated as Varaha – the Great Boar, killed Hiranyaksha and restored the Vedas and the earth.
Deeply aggrieved Hiranyakashyapu decided to avenge his brother’s death by killing Lord Vishnu. As his first step he prohibited Vishnu's worship and proclaimed his rites as blasphemy and offence. Brahmins and those uttering Vishnu’s name were put to death and tormented. For adding to his power, he had another round of penance and sought from Brahma the boon of invincibility against any of gods, men, demons and animate and inanimate beings and also that he would be killed neither inside nor outside a house, neither during day nor during night and neither on earth, nor in water or sky, nor by any armament. When Hiranyakashyapu was out for penance, his wife was pregnant. During her pregnancy sage Narada, a regular visitor to her, used to elaborate the glory of Vishnu. The impact on the child in her womb, named Prahlad after his birth, was very deep. His teacher too was a Vishnu's devotion. His influence was as much profound. Thus, on his return, Hiranyakashyapu found his own son performing Vishnu's rituals.
When efforts to dissuade Prahlad failed and neither fear nor love prevailed, Hiranyakashyapu made attempts to kill him but every time he had a miraculous escape, which deepened more and more his faith in Lord Vishnu. One evening Hiranyakashyapu encountered his son just outside his bed-chamber. Pointing out his chamber-door he asked Prahlad with sarcasm if his Vishnu, whom he called omnipresent, existed in that door-frame too. Before Prahlad said anything, the door-column burst and from it emerged a divine figure : the half-man-half-lion, charged at Hiranyakashyapu, lifted him in his lap, cleft his abdomen with his nails and killed him. Tradition identifies this form as Lord Vishnu’s Narasimha incarnation – the fourth.
Deviating from this tradition the Kangra artist, and this contemporary artist while reproducing this Kangra masterpiece, has sought to represent a completely different form of Narasimha. It represents him as the supreme deity enshrining the sanctum, a votive image seated on a hexagonal chowki laid under a pillared pavilion made of gold and studded with jewels revealing unique lustre. In the background it has a lush green garden with flowering plants, and a distant snow-covered hill range. On Narasimha’s right stand Brahma, Surya, Vishnu and the Great Bird Garuda, and on his left, Shiva and Chandra. Chandra has in his hands the pot of nectar.
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.