The Art of Shubharay Maharaj
1980 marks the 200th year of the establishment of the Shubharay Math at Solapur, in South Maharashtra. Shubharay Maharaj, its founder (1750-1820), was Tipu Sultan’s Deputy Prime Minister before he took sanyas. In the Math is housed a collection – 500 of Shubharayji’s paintings – perhaps the biggest art treasure of a single artist in India.
By MOHAN NADKARNI
The Illustrated Weekly of India, September 21, 1980
VEDIC scholar, linguist poet, humanist, social reformer, connoisseur, patron of music and dance and sensitive painter – that about sums up the multi-splendoured genius of Shubharay Maharaj, who was Tipu Sultan’s Deputy Prime Minister.
Of Andhra stock, Subha Rao (as he was originally known) was born at Malur, in Karnataka, in 1750. His extraordinary qualities attracted the attention of Tipu Sultan who made him his Deputy Prime Minister although he was still under 30.
Before long, however, Subha Rao relinquished his post after a tiff with the Sultan. He took to spiritual life and left Srirangapatnam for Solapur in south Maharashtra. He changed his name to Shubharay Maharaj and established a math (monastery) in 1780. From there he carried on his missionary work until his mahasamadhi in 1820.
A visionary who lived far ahead of his times, Shubharay Maharaj championed the cause of the downtrodden, especially the Harijans, braving social boycott. Great musicians and dancers visited his monastery to perform before him. The outer wall of the monastery was built by Chima Bai, a noted singer, as a mark of her devotion to the Maharaj.
Besides Telugu, which was his mother tongue, Shubharay Maharaj was a master of Sanskrit. Tamil, Kannada, Urdu and Marathi. His Marathi bhaktigeets have earned him acclaim from several eminent literatures, past and present.
It is only in recent years that Shubharayji’s genius as a painter has came to light. The credit for the discovery of his paintings, numbering nearly 500, which were rescued from family “trunks”, goes to P. J. Buwa, a fifth-generation descendent of the Maharaj, who manages the affairs of the math.
A representative selection of these paintings has been displayed at exhibitions organized recently by the Information Directorate of the Maharashtra Government at Delhi, Bombay and Panaji. The exhibition will shortly move to Bangalore.
The paintings are significant for many reasons. Apart from the fact that they are the handiwork of a statesman-turned-sanyasin, they are executed on ordinary ledger paper in water colour made from natural vegetable dyes. That is probably why the colours look so remarkably fresh even after 200 years.
The themes are drawn from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Needless to say, these are all evocative of spiritual love and devotion for God in the true Hindu tradition.
Shubharayji’s depiction of his subjects is vigorous without being pretentious. The viewer is struck by his distinctive style. The delineation of the male and female figures shows delightful design, linear grace and rhythmic elegance accentuated by decorative flair and the uncanny use of appropriate colours and shades.
One can also see themes with marked, even amusing, deviations from mythology. For instance, in the painting, gopi-vastraharan, milk-maids are shown climbing up a tree in a frantic bid to retrieve their clothes from Sri Krishna who is seated atop, merrily playing his flute. In another painting Sri Rama is depicted with a dark complexion, (in the Ramayana, he is described as very fair).
This year marks the second centenary of the establishment of the Shubharay Math. A committee under the chairmanship of the Mayor of Solapur has been formed to commemorate the event and to set up an art gallery to preserve the precious art treasure, an exhibition hall and a guest house.