It has been the most challenging occupation of Indian artists and thinkers to try to confine the Formless into a form. The result is the creation of a gamut of fantastic forms, the most spectacular of which is Vishvarupa - the Universal or Cosmic Being, described in many Sanskrit treatises including the Bhagavat Gita, which has made Vishvarupa a household word. In the Gita, Vishvarupa is a vision, an experience of the Cosmic Consciousness, bestowed on Arjuna by Shri Krishna, not something that he sees with his naked eye.
Though generally perceived as a manifestation of Vishnu in his avatara as Shri Krishna, Shiva and the Goddess are also known to have manifested Vishvarupa, as revealed by the author. After a brief introduction to the subject giving an overview of the developmental aspects of the Vishvarupa concept and form, the author focuses on Vishvarupa as expounded in the Gita, as it is the main source of inspiration behind the Vishvarupa paintings. She also identifies in detail some of the common features of these illustrations with multitudes of figures.
The author has brought out some amazing representations of Vishvarupa. This catalogue of 63 paintings is divided into three sections. The section on Rajasthani, Kashmiri, and Pahari works comprising 41 paintings, is the core collection and exhibits a range of imageries. It opens with a very interesting 16th-century Razmnama folio, depicting the Vishvarupa as a gigantic and rather ferocious human being, resembling the visualization of the demon in early Mughal art. He has enveloped within him gods and humans, animals and genii alike, to convey the idea of His omnipresence. Rajasthani and Pahari artists of the 18th--19th centuries have not only been prolific but have also experimented with some interesting variations on the theme. A remarkable painting from Bikaner (p. 50), published earlier by B.N. Goswamy, depicts Vishvarupa as a multi-armed human being with a magnified head enclosing the universe with gods, humans, and others in it. The artist is probably using the imagery of the void of the inner space - the chidakash in which the universe is supposed to be reflected. An artist from Rajasthan has imagined the Vishvarupa as an all-encompassing principle or a being who enfolds within Him all the other mini-worlds - of gods (including Brahma, Vishnu, and Mahesha), goddesses, brahmins, yogis, the earth with its islands and oceans, and even the primordial waters represented by the coils of a serpent. Each one is distinct, within its own independent circle. Another artist from Rajasthan (p. 70) has employed the Mughal technique of depicting composite figures, later known as narikunjara to illustrate the all-encompassing Vishvarupa.
Pahari artists have accepted a more consistent form of a human figure with multiple heads, hands, and legs -reminding one of the Vedic concept of the Purushasukta, the Rigvedic hymn to the Cosmic Being: "With Uncounted heads, Uncounted eyes, and Uncounted feet, He moves, as all of Creation Verily is He, Sahasra shirsha purushah"
The Pahari rendering of the Vishvarupa form with conjoined multiple legs and arms is quite theatrical and reminds one of the performances by dancers lined up one behind the other, positioning their legs and arms so as to create an appearance of a fantastic form like this. It is interesting that several Pahari paintings depict Lakshmi-Narayana in the centre of the Vishvarupa form, indicating the point of commencement of this world.
Illustrations from Kashmir are part of the typical Bhagavat Gita manuscripts where the depiction is more suggestive than narrative--a human figure with randomly arranged multiple heads.
The second section rounds up examples from Orissa, Maharashtra, Karnataka, and the Deccan. For whatever reason, the Deccan artist seems to emphasize the fierceness of the form, whereas it is placid and static in the Karnataka paintings.
The last section apprises us of recent expressions of the theme in calendars, oleographs, patas and so on.
Two very distinct conceptual variations are visible in the rendering of this extraordinary theme, both inspired by Shri Krishna's exposition of Vishvarupa in the 11th adhyaya of the Gita. Some artists perceive the Cosmic Being as this universe--"I am the creator facing everywhere at once." Others perceive the universe only as a part of the Cosmic Being - "I stand sustaining this entire world with a fragment of my being."
One never imagined that Vishvarupa paintings were so varied and meaningful as in this compilation from various museums, private collections, and temples made by Dr Neena Ranjan. Much has been written on the narrative contents of Indian painting; this is a courageous effort to understand and interpret the rendering of a purely abstract form. This beautifully produced book deserves the attention of scholars and art lovers alike.