Who is King Mahabali?

‘Vamana’ by Raja Ravi Varma  

An attractive strapping young man offers his head to Lord Vishnu. In this print, titled Vamana, King Mahabali is unrecognisable to today’s audience, used to the familiar rotund, moustachioed, garishly dressed and bejewelled depiction of this popular Asura king.

“We have the oleograph or chromolithograph in our collection but no documentation,” says Archana Shenoy of the Raja Ravi Varma Foundation (RRVF). She explains that the painting, possibly created in 1890, may not be an original made by the artist-king but a print made by his students.

“In 1903, Ravi Varma and his brother, C Raja Raja Varma, sold their press at Malavil near Lonavala to a German printing technician Fritz Schleicher with rights to reproduce 100 images. But this was not adhered to and 1000s of Ravi Varma’s works were reproduced and made by less talented artists. Hence we cannot categorically state that this work was made by him. But it is in our archives,” says Archana.

Manu Pillai, author of The Ivory Throne, which is a history of the Travancore Royal Family, points out that the print does bear Ravi Varma’s signature at the bottom right. “So it does seem likely that this was produced at his press under his instructions,” he says.

Manu points out that, while in Kerala, Mahabali is the hero (even a wronged one), the emphasis here is on Vamana. The story and the way each character is presented depends on the teller:

Mural artist Sadanandan PK, who painted the legend as part of a larger narrative of Kerala’s art and culture at The Imperial Hotel in New Delhi in 1998, says, “The brief was to recreate the mythology and culture of Kerala, so there was not much scope for individualism.” His massive 6ft x 20ft work depicts an almost life-size Mahabali with Vamana foregrounding the Vishwaroopam. “Mahabali in this work is not the pot-bellied king of pop culture. He’s not a komali or clown. Even in that prostrate form, he looks regal. We kept to the strict discipline required in mural art,” says Sadanandan.

Sadanandan P K’s mural at The Imperial, New Delhi

Sadanandan P K’s mural at The Imperial, New Delhi   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Veteran artist Namboothiri, a prolific literary illustrators, has made several sketches of Mahabali for Onam-related events, but not a specific work on the subject, says son Deven, on behalf of his 94-year-old father. “the makers of calendar art have distorted the look by making Mahabali a comic character with a pot-bellied and clownish look.”

Senior artist T Kaladharan recalls sketching the king for an on-the-spot drawing competition. Works related to Onam use yellow generously and “it’s used to paint him too,” he says.

Lord Mahabali is represented as Onapottan, a folk character common in North Malabar and a symbol of prosperity.

Artist C Bhagyanath, who has painted this version of Mahabali, as part of a bigger work in his early years. “I like this folk version of King Mahabali but there are slight differences. The Onapottan is a performing artiste too,” he says.

“The comical-looking Mahabali is a recent construct,” says writer Anand Neelakantan, who has written several books inspired by Indian mythology. “According to the Puranas, King Mahabali was a great warrior and could never have been obese and buffoon-like.”

The image makeover, he feels, could have been an outcome of modern folk art like mimicry and inspired by songs like ‘Onathappa kudavayara’, which refers to Mahabali as pot-bellied. Comparing him to a cultural icon like Santa Claus, Anand says that the current look is not more than two decades old. Citing the analogy of the Laughing Buddha, a symbol of good luck, Anand says, “Lord Buddha has an austere and peaceful look but the Laughing Buddha is pot-bellied and signifies good luck. Similarly the pop-Mahabali is a symbol of prosperity and hence healthy looking. A fat man is also supposedly prosperous,” he says.

Cartoonist and graphic artist Gokul Gopalakrishnan reasons Mahabali’s transformed look to narrating the myth in comic books. “It was to take the story to children and hence he was imagined as a plump person who is seemingly affable, approachable. From the Puranas we know that Mahabali is middle aged, righteous, active and judicious king and not a neighbourhood uncle. The illustrators now cast him in the image of Santa Claus who, like him, returns annually.”

Cave sculptures at Badami (Karnataka) and Mahabalipuram (Tamil Nadu) also portray Mahabali. Historian Chitra Madhavan says the belief that Mahabalipuram was named after the king is not correct. “It is possibly a corruption of Mammallapuram, the original name of the seaside town, possibly during colonial times.” The Mahabalipuram sculptures were made during the reign of the Pallava king Narasimhavarman I in the 7th century,

The sculpture at Mahabalipuram can be seen in the Varaha cave temple as part of the Trivikrama panel. “There are multiple interpretations and claims around the sculpture, which supposedly shows Vishnu, with a figure on the right with his head lowered being Mahabali. It is a popular sculpture with a tale told even by tour guides,” says Manu.

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Printable version | Jun 19, 2021 8:34:24 AM |

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