Nari-Kunjar a remarkably unique art genre which started trending amongst the Indian artists, starting early 17th century was a result of the influence of an art-style from Persia. The main composition of the artform is a framework of a Kunjar, a Sanskrit word, which means, the Elephant, within the shell, figures of women, nari, are artistically intertwined and seated in a creative manner. The figures are generally dancers, musicians or just a jubilant group of women. The creativity of the artist lies in the acrobatic postures used for the figures, their adjustment within the composition and their voluptuous form.
Illustration by Baani Sekhon (myartpoint.com)
Shown below is a Persian (Left) and an Indian painting (right) of Composite elephant. Its evident, how much the Indo-Islamic artform influenced the Indian artstyle. The difference is the Persian painting is a Pashu-Kunjar (composite elephant made of animals) and the Indian style is Nari-Kunjar (composite made of women).
Composite Elephant, Persian painting, 1600 (circa)
Victoria and Albert Museum, 1800 (circa)
The composition typically followed a set pattern of nine women dressed ostentatiously. Four of the figures formed the beasts’s legs. The plait of one of the woman played the role of the elephant’s tail. The figure which served as the trunk, took the most difficult acrobatic posture. The tusks were generally formed by a figure carrying two similar items like swords or fans, depending on the subject of the painting. The deity riding the elephant mostly carried an ankusha (elephant goad). The remaining female figures formed the back and the belly, one of whom would typically be playing an instrument called mridanga (double-headed drum).
Shown below is a Nari-kunjar painting from Rajasthan School, Sitting astride the elephant is Krishna, the gopi’s intertwined bodies form legs, body, and tusks of the elephant. The composition depicts the spiritual union of the gopi’s with their lord.
19th Century , The British Museum
These charmingly unusual compositions were a metaphorical depiction of different theories and philosophies. Paintings from Rajasthan school were mostly creative manifestations of the devotion and love of the gopi’s for their Lord Krishna. Mughal paintings depicted the splendor and flamboyance of the royal courts. The series created in South India depicted God of love Kama with his flashy attendants serving as a kunjar (Elephant), symbolizing the passion and romance associated with him.
Shown below is a Mughal painting, it illustrates a kingly figure riding an elephant formed by dancers and musicians, he is shown to control the beast with an elephant goad, and a woman behind him holds a fan over him. The painting is a symbolic demonstration of the pomp and show of the royal court.
Early 17th century, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Nari-kunjar shown below is delightfully intriguing and diverse from the rest, a cobra coiled around the legs of the dancer interestingly makes the trunk more comprehensive. Ducks are cleverly used by the artist to appear as shoes for the dancers serving as the legs of the elephant.
circa 1750, Sothebys collection
Lord Vishnu riding an elephant composed of female orchestra and acrobatic dancing girls.
1800 (circa), The British Museum
Manmatha or Kama Dev, the God of Love, mounted on an Elephant composed of nine women
1820 – 1825, Victoria and Albert Museum
Composite elephant made of beautiful Apsaras at a Vishnu temple in Tamil Nadu