Illustration from the Nala-Damayanti: Snake Hunters

Circa 1820-1830
Opaque watercolor heightened with gold on paper
13 7/8 by 9¾ in. (35.2 by 24.8 cm.)

Xavier Guerrand-Hermes, Paris

In Hindu mythology, Nala and Damayanti were lovers who overcame various obstacles to marry and live happily. Their story appears in the Hindu epic the Mahabharata and in the Naiadhiyacarita, a poem written by the poet Shriharsha.

The scene depicted in the present example is a moment from the following section of the story: “That night while Damayanti slept Nala decided to leave her, as he hoped she would return to her home after he pretended to desert her.  He tore off an end from her sari, just sufficient to cover the bare minimum, and quietly stole away.  Soon he saw that a snake was trapped in a burning bush.  He doused the fire and freed the snake.  As soon it was freed, the snake bit him and turned into a celestial being.”

A painting from the same series, depicting Damayanti searching for Nala and encountering snake hunters (one of whom becomes engulfed in flames painted in a similar fashion to those in the present example), was formerly in the Carter Burden Collection (Sotheby’s, New York, March 27, 1991, no. 71) and then in the Paul F. Walter Collection (Sotheby’s, New York, November 14, 2002, no. 90).

Additional paintings from the series are published in: Sotheby’s, London, April 24, 1996, no. 76; Sotheby’s, London, July 17, 1978, no. 141, and Sotheby’s, London, April 4, 1978, no. 296.  Also see Poster, A., Realms of Heroism: Indian Paintings at The Brooklyn Museum, 1994, p. 251, no. 203, for another painting almost certainly from the same series.  

See also Galloway, Pahari Paintings from the Eva and Konrad Seitz Collection, no. 26.  Galloway notes that the pages from this series are all similar, with very open landscapes dotted with trees fading in aerial perspective, and that such a landscape convention, so alien to the art traditions of the hills, can only have been learned from European examples.