Panchatantra Inspired Visual Iconography as the Major Exemplar of an Ethical Treatise: Israeli Art Historian Simona Cohen

Panchatantra Inspired Visual Iconography as the Major Exemplar of an Ethical Treatise: Israeli Art Historian Simona Cohen

In her paper with her co-author, From Panchatantra to La Fontaine: Migrations of Didactic Animal Illustrations from India to the West, Israeli art historiann Professor Simona Cohen, writes that the Sanskrit Panchatantra, a collection of Indian animal tales, originating in India in literary form around the third century CE, is “one of the most widely diffused and translated literary compositions,” a point emphasised by an earlier study which mentions that there are atleast 200 versions of the tales, in over 50 languages.

The paper says that visual aspects of the Panchatantra tradition, which have a parallel history as that of the translations were neglected until the 1990s until Channabasappa S. Patil, undertook a study of sculptures illustrating episodes from the Panchatantra in twenty-eight temples of Karnataka.

Depictions of the tale of “The Monkey and the Crocodile” are among the earliest Panchatantra illustrations in monumental sculpture in India and Indonesia. Twenty-one reliefs of this Panchatantra story were identified by Patil in temples of the Chalukya, Rashtrakuta, Ganga, and Hoysala dynasties of Karnataka, executed between the seventh and twelfth centuries.

Professor Cohen, Department of Art History, Faculty of Arts, Tel-Aviv University, began her academic career as a Renaissance art-historian and published widely on animal symbolism in Western art. After embracing Indian art studies as her second field of research and teaching, she became curious about animal symbolism in traditional Indian art and “thus I discovered the Panchatantra”.

She says she is greatly indebted to Professor David Shulman (Hebrew University, Jerusalem), who guided her first steps into Indian and Sanskrit culture, and first introduced her to the Panchatantra. “Professor Shulman is an extraordinary scholar of international prestige and an inspiring teacher who founded the study of Indian history and culture in Israel and promoted the continuity of Indian scholarship here,” adds Professor Cohen.

In this interview with CSP, she talks about how the Panchatantra illustrations have spread from India to the rest of the world

How does studying the illustrations add to the understanding of the literature?

The complex history of the textual transformations and translations has been widely researched, initially in the context of comparative literature, fables and folklore that was fashionable among scholars in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and subsequently in studies focused either on Islamic or western translations or the migration of the textual descendants and revisions of the animal tales as they were diffused under different names.

Scholars have concentrated their studies primarily on literary and philological aspects of the Panchatantra fables, charting their textual diffusions and translations in an attempt to establish the lost original Sankrit text. While achievements in these fields have been extraordinary, visual aspects of the Panchatantra tradition, which have a parallel history originating from ancient India, were neglected. Little effort was made to establish the relationship between these precedents and the rich visual tradition of illustrations, diffused for centuries under the titles of Kalila wa Dimna, the Bidpai Tales and other titles. Some scholars who studied the Moslem illuminations were entirely unaware of the existence of Indian and Javanese sculptural depictions of the Panchatantra tales that preceded those in manuscripts.

Kopeshver Temple, Khidrapur, 11th -12th c., shows the tale of the Tortoise and Birds as depicted in the Kalila wa Dimna illustration (1357) below

My study has demonstrated that in some cases visual formulas associated with the earliest images of the animal tales exhibited a continuity and survived for centuries, despite linguistic and thematic transformations of texts, modified definitions, and recycling of visual materials in different cultural contexts. Nevertheless, the fact that images of these fables were ubiquitous, and were continually readopted over centuries, promotes questions of interchange and transmission in the context of cultural diversity. I have attempted to demonstrate how varied illustrations reflect differences in socio-political, religious and ethical values, and revealed means that were adopted to convey messages in manners that would be both legible and engaging to the relevant public.

How have these illustrations influenced art forms in South East Asia and Europe?

Due to the rich variety of Persian and Arabic Kalila wa Dimna illuminations, relations between the text and illuminations have been studied in the light of cultural and political contexts, as formulated in their westward migration, through Persia and Bagdad, to the Mediterranean area. Many of the manuscripts contain large numbers of amazing and original images, but it has also been shown that wholesale copying, reuse of stock compositions and imitations of predecessor's work were common practices during the same period.

Professor Simona Cohen at Pushkar

What primary sources could you access to conduct your research?
My primary sources were primarily visual depictions of the tales in Indian temple Sculpture, followed by Muslim manuscript illustrations, and European prints. Comparative studies of translated texts and their illustrations revealed relevant transformations.

How would describe this art vis a vis similar folktales around the world?
The Panchatantra tales were moralistic allegories that utilized animals to depict human traits, primarily in narratives and satires of a negative nature. Medieval bestiaries and western folktales shared this approach, where animals were not perceived in their own right but aimed to reflect human nature.

It is well known that many story traditions have borrowed from the Panchatantra tales. Over what periods of time did this occur?

Throughout the history of its geographical transmission, the Panchatantra inspired literary structures and visual iconography as it remained the major exemplar of an ethical treatise.

I have focused on particular fable illustrations, from their earliest known artistic origins in the art of India and Indonesia, through their Islamic transformations in Asia, until the late medieval and Renaissance renditions in Europe. The first translation from the original Sanskrit text was that of a Persian court physician named Borzui into Pahlavi in the sixth century. His translation, which he named Karataka and Damanaka, was lost but is known through its descendants and offshoots. The oldest extant versions of Borzui's story are preserved in Syriac and Arabic translations of this lost Middle Persian version, and originate from the 6th and 8th century. The fables ascribed to Aesop, with the earliest known fragments of the Kalila wa Dimna in Greek, and the Physiologus, were already combined in an illustrated Greek manuscript from southern Italy, dated to the late 10th or early 11th century.

Are there any reflections of the Panchatantra in Israeli Literature or Art?
There is no reflection of the Panchatantra theme in Israeli literature or art. But my study discusses the influence of Jewish scholars in Toledo who translated the eighth century Arabic version by Ibn-al Muqaffa into Hebrew. Their important twelfth century Hebrew translations were the basis for John of Capua’s Latin translation, which in turn promoted versions in European vernaculars.

Have you done research on any aspect of Indian Iconography?

I have worked on The Scorpion Apsarās at Khajuraho; Migrations of a Symbol (Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bombay, 2000). Depictions of the apsarā with a scorpion on her thigh (scorpion apsarā) on the temples of Khajuraho have been noted or reproduced in most publications of this monumental art, but critical inquiry into its meaning is conspicuously lacking.

I have tried to elucidate the specific iconographic significance and function of the scorpion apsarās on the temple. Following a brief review of the apsarā and the scorpion as separate motifs, an attempt was made to analyze various visual precedents and iconographic connotations of the symbolic scorpion in its historical and geographical migrations and to identify sources for the apsaras/scorpion combination. My interpretation takes into consideration the implications suggested by the broader context of erotic temple iconography.

As the world is reeling from the Coronavirus, what are the lessons we can draw from these stories which depict man's interaction with the animal world.

I do not think that the Panchatantra tales and their derivatives depict man's interaction with the animal world. Quite the contrary - they are typical demonstrations of man's insensitivity to animals and the animal world.

(Cover pic: Professor Simona Cohen with her two Indo-Portuguese statues purchased in Goa)