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Battle scene from the epic Mahabharata (The Great Chronicle of the Bharata Dynasty), 1875–1900

Battle scene from the epic Mahabharata (The Great Chronicle of the Bharata Dynasty), 1875–1900

Battle scene from the epic Mahabharata (The Great Chronicle of the Bharata Dynasty), 1875–1900. Indonesia; Kamasan, Bali. Ink and colors on cotton. Gift of Dr. Stephen A. Sherwin and Merrill Randol Sherwin, 2004.96.

Long painted cloths known as langse were hung around the sides of shrines, facing the interior, in Balinese temples on ceremonial occasions.

The episode painted here is a climactic battle scene from the Mahabharata, the Indian epic story of the dynastic rivalry between the Kauravas and their cousins, the Pandavas. Several of the Pandava brothers, along with Krishna, can be seen fighting their half-brother Karna and the Kauravas. As is typical with Balinese paintings, the heroes’ jester-servants accompany them. The bottom border is painted with stylized undulating hills indicating the outdoor setting of the scene.

The panel can be read from the right, beginning with the entrance of Karna, shown with a rounded red headdress. Using continuous narration, the artist depicts Karna once again, this time closer to the center of the painting, with his charioteer below him. (The chariot itself is not depicted.) In the center of the panel, with dark skin and black-and-white-checked sarong, is the Pandava brother Bhima, who raises a pronged mace in his right hand and threatens his enemy. The prominence of the mace may foreshadow its role in the final battle of the epic.

On the upper left of the panel is Arjuna, another of the Pandava brothers. He, too, is in an invisible chariot, with his charioteer, the divine Krishna, below him and to the right. Arjuna holds his bow in front of him, and arrows can be seen flying through the air toward Karna, who will eventually be killed by one of them. On elephant-back facing Arjuna is the eldest Kaurava brother, Duryodhana. Duryodhana survives this battle but is eventually killed by Bhima’s mace.

The traditional painting of Bali has many stylistic conventions. The depiction of figures is very similar to that of shadow puppets. The figures are almost always shown in three-quarter profile and there is no indication of depth of field. As in shadow puppetry, the heroes are often shown on the left side and the antagonists on the right. A striking aspect of this style of painting is the busyness of the composition. Small horizontal teardrop-shaped forms, said to symbolize wind and clouds, fill in every blank area of the painting.