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Articles on Indian contemporary art by Swapna Vora

Saraswati's son
by Swapna Vora

Janurary 11, 2008

(click on the small image for full screen image with captions.)

Padmaputra Ashok Shah.


Ashok Shah always liked painting. However, undecided about his future career; he went to 'the science side' in college. He started painting tentatively, part time, and later full time after receiving a sadhu's blessing rather mysteriously. Today he paints religious paintings partially in the Rajput miniature tradition and more so in the Jain temple heritage style, the mother lode of western Indian art. He paints old stories of righteousness and has received the rare, coveted title, 'Padmaputra' which means Padmavati's (Saraswati's) son, i.e. someone whose art emanates from the goddess herself. Today Padmaputra paints, designs marble icons, and prepares wonderful miniatures of well-loved Jain temples.

Padmaputra Ashokbhai dreamed a sadhu was going to bless him. Unknown to Ashokbhai, a sadhu (holy man) traveling to Ahmedabad, changed his plans and arrived in Kagal, near Kolhapur. And so Ashokbhai met Vikramsurishwarji. The revered sadhu, deeply impressed with Ashokbhai's very traditional 'Gruhlakshmi' and a miniature model of Kolhapur's beloved Mahalakshmi Temple, took the painter's hand, blessed him and called him Padmaputra.

Vikramsurishwarji sought an artist to undertake the prestigious painting project on Bhaktamar, the celebrated Jain shloke (hymn). Seeing Ashokbhai's entry in the national competition, the committee selected him for this important project. This was his first major religious assignment. He painted 48 paintings depicting 48 shlokes (hymns), went on to create 108 paintings for Palitana and major artwork for a temple in Bengaluru.

Today Padmaputra Ashokbhai's paintings are well known and photos of his work are on permanent display. The originals are preserved in temple vaults where Jains store old texts, paintings and treasured artifacts.

"I never learnt painting, this is a gift", he says quietly. One wonders if he had been a builder of temples or a court painter in his past life because Indians believe such gifts come from effort and devotion in past lives.

"I was painting, then met Maharajsahib, (as holy monks are called affectionately by Jains) and received his blessings. I then started painting full time. Maharajsahib invited me to Ahmedabad with its vast repository of ancient reference books and libraries." Padmaputra continued, "Maharajsahib had said I need not worry about anything anymore, I should simply continue painting. Everything would follow."

"And it has", adds his wife Prarthana quietly.

Ashok Shah's paintings



This painting attracted Vikramsurishwarji's attention and brought Ashokbhai blessings. The concept of Gruhlakshmi is a favorite topic. Gruhlakshmi, every housewife, is the house goddess, someone who provides nourishment and protection to a household, and is verily Lakshmi (abundance) herself. She teaches sanskars, (values), and guides her children, showing them how to live. A housewife brings prosperity to a household. Here, a breeze moves her silky anchal (sari) slightly away from her face. The evening diya (lamp) shimmers through her fingers, she protects it and will not let it be extinguished.

Shloke 11: Megrath Raja


Kalyan Mandir is a famous Jain shloke (hymn). This painting is from a collection of 44 paintings on 44 shlokes done for Acharyashri Sthulabhadra Maharaj Sahib. In Kalyan Mandir, a soldier sees a monk asleep in a Shiva temple and whips him. When the King, Vikramaditya of Ujjain, asks the monk to prove his holiness, the monk, Siddhasen Diwakar, composes hymns extempore and starts singing. During the thirteenth hymn, an icon of Parshwanath emerges from the holy Shivling. This symbolic story about the soldier, the king, the Shivling, monk Diwakar and the bull, Nandi, is in the horizontal panel, dividing the painting into two. The symbolic top part matches the shloke, and the realistic bottom part depicts a Jain historical story. In the top, each figure has its symbolic meaning. Radha and Krishna, Brahma and Tilottama, Shiva and Parvati are swayed by emotions, and hence subject to Cupid's arrows; whereas a Tirthankar is liberated and unmoved by mere infatuation. Madan's bow and arrows are rendered useless, showing his ability to burn oceans of desires. The circles symbolize the journey from mohini (attraction) to the siddha state as nearby a Siddha quenches the fire of existence. This style is loved in Jain temples for the devout know and appreciate the symbols and their meanings at many levels. In the lower part, we see Meghrath Raja, (Lord Shantinath's fifth life), devoted entirely to meditation, while seeking Moksh (liberation from birth and death). Women try to arouse him, but temptations prove useless, so finally they too bow to him.


Shloke 27: Samavsaran

Samavasaran shows three gadhs, (forts) one of silver, one of gold and one bejeweled. The lowest tier is a parking lot for vehicles and vimans (aeroplanes). The second is for tiryanchas (animals, meaning those still bound by passion) and the first is for gods, sadhus, sadhvis, humans and twelve types of beings. Jains, like Hindus, accept that humans are not unique but one life-form among many.

This fabulous painting brings great joy and something new time after time. Surely a part of heaven resembles it! In a painting or a frieze, the Tirthankar, a perfect human being who has reached the highest level of reality and knowledge, is traditionally placed facing the east. Here Lord Indra arrives from heaven and makes the Tirthankar's face into four, so he faces all directions simultaneously. In other words, this detail represents his omniscience. The Tirthankar has three silver umbrellas over his head and sits, following tradition, under an Ashok tree [Saraca Indica]. He speaks in his own language but has this glorious ability that whatever he says is understood by everyone, including all animals. Elephants, tigers and cattle sit peacefully near each other, listening. The artist has lovingly placed the Tirthankar's dwelling place on the right and shown his skin as blue, (neel varnam). Traditionally this indicates infinity, the color of deep space. The abha or prabhamandal (yellow circle of light around his head) is radiant. Yellow usually symbolizes our plane, the earth, and hence this is a picture of infinite knowledge appearing in human or earthly form. The silver umbrellas symbolize this third tier. The Indra dhwaja (flag) is fluttering. At the bottom, people arrive on elephants and in chariots, with gay apparel, waving bright flags, singing and dancing for the presence of a Tirthankar is such a truly magnificent occasion. Attaining Kewal Dnyan, becoming a Tirthankar, is so rare that the gods themselves offer drumbeats and shower flowers from heaven. Although the flowers tumble anyhow when thrown, they reach him correctly, with their stems downwards, for they too are in a Tirthankar's presence. The very stars come down to bow.

The Tirthankar for our age is Lord Mahavir, This shloke is about the earlier Tirthankar, Lord Parshwanath, (Lord of the universe). His symbol is a snake, which often represents the fully awakened kundalini shakti. The bottom panel shows Lord Parshwanath after he emerges from the Shivling: an event that occurs after the thirteenth shloke. Jain viewers are well acquainted with this story.

Padmaputra uses simple poster paints on paper and labors over all the minute details himself. He worked from '93 to 2001 to complete these paintings.A particular joy is the varied expression on each face. He said this paint can fade. Perhaps he should use acid free paper and acrylic paint with its good long-lasting, luminous qualities.

These paintings represent very involved, deeply committed work. Padmaputra first decides on a story, then researches it thoroughly in several ancient and modern languages, understands it at many levels, knows its minute details, before depicting its meaning, its spirit and implication. He needs to know the trends and beliefs of that time well and their relationship to Jain scriptures. After deciding the main theme, he prepares a detailed mock-up. After carefully tracing this on to paper, he slowly, lovingly, paints its infinite details. Padmaputra paints the background first and then starts on the actual figures, with lucid expressions on each individual miniature face. He often works twelve to sixteen hours a day, blissfully thinking of deities and holy people, and wondering at their discipline and austerities as they went on this heroic journey of going beyond the body's need for comfort and on to Moksh, the real, worthwhile goal of a human being.

Shloke 28: Sthulabhadra


If you can see reality, then all desires disappear, for you realize their futility. The common theme in Jain dharma is that there is far, far more to life, far more than simply existing and spending time catering to the body's feelings and fancies. This is viewed as a terrible waste of this precious, rare opportunity, this chance of a human birth.

Sthulabhadra, a high palace official's son, was living with Koshya, a courtesan. He was so enamored that he had spent Rs.12 crores of gold on pleasing her. When his father dies, the royal court invites him to be the next minister. Seeing his dead father, he says he needs to ponder this invitation, wondering if these jewels and pomp are really worthwhile. His thoughts lead him to question if he actually wants this honor, what life is really about. After much soul searching, he decides life's real goal is infinite bliss, not something illusionary and fleeting. He refuses to become a minister for all this wealth, jewelry and splendor are temporary, essentially empty. He decides to renounce all temporal pleasure as fundamentally worthless, unfulfilling, and takes diksha (religious initiation), becoming a Jain monk. However, since his life had been so dissolute, so full of karma, his penance and tapascharya are particular hard. He goes and stays with Koshya for four months and remains immune to her loveliness. He returns triumphant because he has gone to a joy far beyond desire. There is great jubilation for Sthulabhadra has now become a Tirthankar.

Sthulabhadra will be remembered for 84 eons of time because of the immense intensity of his discipline and his conquest of desire. Today we know just three aspects of time: past, present and future and few facts are remembered as time goes by. However when these unimaginable eons of time roll by, when 84 times universes have evolved and dissolved then too, Sthulabhadra's name and his difficult, complex tapascharya will be remembered. This then is his story.

Shloke 29

If you take refuge in Bhagwan, the Lord, then you too can traverse life, this bhavsagar, these ocean depths of emotion. He is a lifesaving float, even though he is aloof from this world. Bhagwan is karmaheen, free of karma. If you are full of bhakti, all your karma disappears. During diksha five fistfuls of his hair are removed but he remains dispassionate, indicating his indifference to temporal things like pleasure or pain. Lord Indra himself comes to receive this precious token of hair.

King Shrenik had a grand and beautiful art school but its archway kept crumbling and collapsing. The priests advised a sacrifice of a pure person, with 32 lakshan (signs of goodness). Little Amarkumar had these signs. His unfortunate parents were very poor and had seven more children. Amarkumar turns to his parents, his relatives and everyone to help him, to save him. However his parents had to obey the king's decree and were offered great gifts in return. The story goes, those who have no one to help them can always turn to the lord and he will arrive. When you really seek the savior, he'll arrive looking for you. While Amarkumar is preparing himself for this horrible sacrifice, he recites navkar, the Jain prayer that invokes and honors arihants, siddhas, acharyas, upadhyayas, sadhus, priests, and teachers. A yaksh (divine being) hears this plea and happily offers him protection. And puts him on the throne! The real king starts bleeding; the guards and soldiers become unconscious and are unaware of what is taking place. When his astonished parents see this miracle, all their mohurs (gold coins) become worthless to them and drop from their hands. Amarkumar, meaning 'Immortal Boy', has become a Siddha and a siddha's presence always brings great miracles. A particular delight in this painting is the expressive faces. This then is Amarkumar's story.


Shloke 34: Mandodari

Those who pray three times a day, even gods are happy with them: morning darshan, puja at noon, aarti at night. This scene shows the passage of time from morning to night.

The katha (story) shows Ravan and Mandodari offering puja at the Ashtapad Temple. She dances with myriad movements, reminiscient of modern animation. The taar (string) on his musical instrument breaks but he does not want to stop her ecstatic dance and break her devotion. And so he plucks out his own vein, uses it as a string and continues the music. Seeing this, Lord Dharnendra arrives, depicting the deep belief that seeing human devotion, god himself arrives to bless and assist those on the path.

The Ashtapad (Eight Steps) temple is believed to be in the Himalayas, hidden among layers of snow but maybe one day it will be visible. Ravan too will become a Tirthankar one day and be called Padmanabh for no matter your sins, with devotion and effort, there is every hope. The Jain religion is a guide to overcoming the traps of illusions, understanding the real nature of total knowledge and reaching the exalted, joyful siddha state. When Ravan becomes Padmanabh, devotees will come with offerings and prayers. Jains tie scarves on their mouths while performing holy work or reading scriptures to avoid spraying them with spittle..

These stories depict our human quest, explore the mystery of human birth and its splendid goal; they speak about why we are here, where we are going and our highest potential. How do we reach it? The siddhas, the teachers and scriptures can guide us.

The paintings are gorgeous, planned with devotion and executed very painstakingly. However one wonders at the rather virulent approach to women, seeing them essentially as thorns on the path, as temptation most foul rather than as half the highly prized, rare experience of being born human, or as half of humanity. Not accepting the female, does it imply rejection of half of every human, of the perfection of Ardhnareshwar? Aren't males or females simply minor differences, just unimportant variations in matter that is itself in a perpetual state of flux? The only acceptable role seems to be as someone's wife or mother, not in a glorious life lived on its own, capable of reaching wisdom and liberation with or without a man. This attitude and the acceptance of culturally acquired Hindu deities, I am told, is a later development. Jain do not support caste distinctions, converting anyone to Jainism was never a goal and all human births, male or female, are considered unimaginably valuable. Is this attitude then from the earliest scripture or acquired via Manu or simply representative of more recent thoughts? Many historical records prove Jainism is, arguably, a much older religion than Hinduism. Records about the Buddha mention Jain Tirthankars who lived before him. However one wonders about the major role that Hindu deities play in these stories. Were the Jain their original followers or are they simply culturally acquired?

These pictures indicate the tremendous influence Jains and Hindus have had on each other. Major Indian festivals like Diwali, the emphasis on vegetarian food, kindness towards all life, encouragement and acceptance of diverse, opposing opinions, emphasis on logic and reason even in spiritual matters are major, well-established pillars of Jainism.


Maharaj sahib (sometimes pronounced 'sab') is the reverent, affectionate title for monks and nuns.

Tirthankar is greater than a siddha for he establishes or resurrects Tirth (religion) and is depicted with symbols like three silver umbrellas and golden halos.

A Siddha is not god but a human being who has attained the stage of being god, one every Jain aspires to. Human birth is valued as a rare opportunity to aspire to a wonderful, blissful, everlasting state: all knowing, with eternal peace and joy, the state of Kewal Dnyan, total and complete knowledge.

Palitana, a wonderful town on a mountain in Gujarat, has many, many gorgeous Jain temples.

Tiryanch includes animals, birds, reptiles and aquatic creatures.

Barparshda: Twelve types of human beings assembled in the first gadh (fort) .

Most Jains trace their origins to Rajput royalty and the very word means 'conqueror', some one who conquers mundane existence and his/her body and mind to reach a glorious goal far beyond limited comprehension.

Biographical Notes:

Padmaputra Ashok Shah was born on Sep 24, 1949, and lives in Ahmedabad, Gujarat.

A self taught artist, he has a Master's degree in Physical Chemistry from Kolhapur University. His unique style has evolved after years of effort and experience and is fueled by intense devotion. He continues to study the Vishnu Dharmotar Puran, the Jain Bhagwati Sutra and the Jain Granth, known as Kuvalyamala, to learn the ancient canons of traditional art and feels this style is valid for all time and need not ever change. He has done 108 paintings on events in the lives of Jain personalities during the last 2500 years, i.e. after Lord Mahavir, the Tirthankar for our time. This has involved major, painstaking research in several languages.

Some of his paintings are now at Samavsaran Mahamandir, Palitana. Three more paintings were done for Khadtar Gachh. Another 44 paintings depicting 44 shlokes from Kalyan Mandir are at the Shri Nakhoda Parshwanath Temple in Bengaluru.

He has designed 180 designs for the Jain temple at Antwerp, Belgium, home of the Jain diamond merchants. Another wonderful achievement is designing yantras, the mystical diagrams used as vehicles to enter meditation and divine communion. These include the Shri Uvasaggaharam Yantra and the Shri Chintamani Parshwanath Mahamantra.

He has also designed and redone various old and new temples, both Jain and Hindu. He has designed a hundred year calendar and a set of playing cards on politics, suitable for corporations! Several books have been published on his paintings including 'The Glory of Jainism', (Dec 1998). A major ongoing project is on the Kalpasutra and the Bhav Prapanch Upmiti, a wonderful novel about Jainism. The work is endless and he sighs happily, 'One life is simply not enough!'

He has received medals and acclaim from Jain communities all over the world. He says Jain art is really the western Indian school of art and the mother of both Rajput and Mogul art. It is vitally important for Padmaputra that his work shows spiritual achievements and does not incite destruction or contribute to idle living. "As long as I am alive', he says, 'I hope my work inspires people to lead a great life, a good life and appreciation for the Jain principle, 'First harm no one'. This art has again found favor in our time." He says modestly, that even if a few souls accept the principles of Jain living, his life's work will have been worthwhile.

As they say joyfully, Jai Jinendra!

Articles on Indian contemporary art by Swapna Vora | articles