Beetle Carapaces in Basohli Miniature Paintings (ca. 1660–1700)

In his fourteenth-century treatise on gemology, the Rajasthani scientist Ṭhakkura Pherū tracks the origins of precious stones back to a trip taken by the demon Bala to the heavens:

He was requested by the gods: “Become the beast in our sacrifice.” [Thus] propitiated, he replied: “[So] I shall become. You do your task.” . . . The parts of his body became precious gems; [they were truly] the abodes of the goddess of wealth, dear to the gods and beautiful.

Pherū ascribes to precious stones not merely incredible beauty but magical powers. “If one endowed with truth and good moral conduct wears on his limbs these gems belonging to the nine planets”, he explains, “the planets do not harm him”. Flawed gems, by contrast, “destroy money, sons, and prosperity”. According to the tale, Bala’s bile is what gave the world emeralds, in whose trade Pherū’s fellow Jains would long specialize in their capacity as sought-after court jewelers across India. And it is in the service of depicting emeralds — believed by Pherū to guard against the effects of poison and attract riches to their wearers — that a school of painters in what is now Jammu and Kashmir hit upon a particularly ingenious method: cutting and applying the iridescent carapaces of beetles to the page.

Rising to prominence in the seventeenth century, the Basohli School is particularly known for its vibrant use of color and inventive textural elements. The glimmer of iridescent beetle fragments as they catch the light captures something of the supernatural quality attributed to jewels, giving these paintings an unparalleled sense of vibrancy and presence. (In addition to their trick for simulating emeralds, Basohli artists often used raised dots of shell lime to lend a three-dimensional effect to pearls.) Tear-shaped beetle-emeralds accentuate the peaked crown of the fearsome goddess Bhadrakali as she sits on a corpse or stands surrounded by a sun-like orb whose luster pales in comparison to that of her jewels. In another image, cut shards of beetlewing adorn the foreheads and blankets of two warring elephants. Kalki, the final avatar of Vishnu, holds a beetle-studded shield as he prepares to mount his characteristic white horse. Within the context of religious paintings, this sense of life — the way in which adornments on the gods’ bodies seem to actively respond to the viewer and their setting by now flashing and now growing dim — evokes darśan, the idea that one simultaneously sees and is seen by images of the divine.

The materiality of Indian miniatures has been relatively unstudied compared to that of painting traditions in the West, though new projects like Mapping Color in History have created publicly available pigment databases to allow for a deeper understanding of where, why, and to what effect South Asian artists used their materials. In contrast to the Mughals, the rajas of Basohli were Hindus, and the work of the artists they commissioned reflected this. An unknown Basohli School artist chose to depict Krishna as the wayward lover mentioned in one exceptional (and beetle-studded) scene from the Rasamanjari (or Bouquet of Delight), a collection of Sanskrit poetry on varieties of romance. Jewel imagery plays a key part in the emotional intensity of the lines that pair with the painting as well: “Seeing her beloved’s forehead red with the color of the paint from another woman’s feet, the radiance of the corner of the eyes of the sweet-eyed Nayika made the pearls in her ears red as rubies.” Whether in the form of emerald pendants, gold bracelets, flower garlands, or floating scarves, ornamentation (alankara in Sanskrit) is a ubiquitous element in Indian figural art, not just an extra frill but a requirement — so much so that a body unbeautified is interpreted as a sign of something amiss. When these images are looked at correctly, the art historian Vidya Dehejia argues, “the word ‘naked’ should have no place in the Indian artistic vocabulary”.

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