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Rachel Parikh. Shiva Riding a Composite Bull: Comprehending Indian Composite Illustrations

The recent discovery of an illustration at the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF), which the present author has titled Shiva riding a composite bull, reveals new insight towards understanding the production of composite paintings in India. In the West, 16th century Milanese artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s (1527-93) distinct portrait busts are the epitome of this artistic genre, in which the entities depicted comprise multiple whole components. However, relatively unknown are the non-Western counterparts to these paintings, which were created in Persia but developed and flourished in India. The notion of a possible link between Arcimboldo and Indian composites has been suggested in multiple sources, but not thoroughly investigated. While these composites have thus far eluded an in-depth analysis, there is material dedicated to them, albeit sparse. In ‘Indian Composite Paintings: A Playful Art’, Robert J. Del Bontà bases his argument – a broad one – on a collection of Indian composite paintings from the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco (Del Bontà, 1996). He believes that the depictions of composite animals made up of humans stems from an acrobatic and dance tradition in India, and that the earliest forms of these images are from the Devsanopado Kalpasutra, a 15th century Jain manuscript on the biographies of religious figures. But most significantly, Del Bontà makes particular note of a type of Indian composite that involves a human rider mounted on an animal comprised of human figures. Del Bontà identifies the riders either as the Hindu cow-herder deity Krishna or the god of love Kama, and proclaims that they are the only two deities associated with this enigmatic and calculated art form. However, Shiva riding a composite bull confirms that this is not the case, and demonstrates that this distinct type of imagery has an intrinsic connection to Hinduism, rather than simply being an exhibition of artistic virtuosity.

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