Cotsen’s Covert Collections: An 18th-century Illuminated Manuscript from Rajasthan

 

Full page spread, Cotsen 46721

Full page spread (second text), Cotsen 46721

For this edition of “Cotsen’s Covert Collections” I’d like to post about another item I know very little about: an 18th-century manuscript from Rajasthan, India. But the manuscript is such an unusual item that I thought it was definitely worth advertising!

Here’s what we do know: The manuscript was written in the Braj Bhasa language in Devanagari script probably around 1780 in the Mewar region of the Indian state of Rajasthan. It contains 3 distinct works: the text Avatara-carinthr, which describes the different reincarnations of the Hindu god Vishnu; the text Shri Ramcandra-carinthr manas, which describes the life of Rama and Sita (from the Ramayana epic); and the tenth book of Bhagavata Purana, which is the holiest book for worshipers of the Hindu god Vishnu. Though the middle text appears to be the bulk of the manuscript, it’s hard to designate the sections (for me anyway) because the manuscript is unpaginated.

Physically, the manuscript is really beautiful and honestly kind of daunting. The folio-sized manuscript, which measures about 16 inches high, is massive! It’s over 500 pages long and contains around 1600 illuminated and hand-painted miniatures. When talking about Western medieval manuscripts, “illuminated” means that gold (or silver) foil is used in the decoration of the artwork; and  “miniatures” are not necessarily minute in size, but is a specialized meaning of the term to denote those paintings within a manuscript.

yup

A page from the first text, the Avatara-carinthir.

another

A spread from the second text, Shri Ramacandra-carinthir.

fromlasttext

Miniatures from the last text, the Bhavata Purana, Book 10.

Another fascinating feature of this manuscript is the folded binding–a one-of-a-kind example in our collection.

Bottom edge of the book

Bottom edge of the book

This means that 24-inch-long sheets, painted and calligraphed on both sides, were pierced and folded over each other and then tied to the outer housing through the center of the fold (though our current housing is definitely later than the book). Since all the sheets were folded together we are left with a distinct peak in the center of the manuscript which recedes in a teardrop shape as the folded sheets increase in number. This is very different from familiar Western style binding where small groups or quires of sheets are folded together and then the ends of the full book block are cut for uniform edges.

The marroon folded housing

The maroon folded housing

Decorative centerfold with ties

Decorative centerfold with ties

As you can see above, while perusing the manuscript for interesting images, I came across another very surprising feature of the book. Many of the illuminated miniatures in the second section are unfinished.

proof proof2The incompleteness of the images affords us insight into the process of this manuscript’s creation.

I hope that showcasing this beautiful object will bring it to the attention of someone more knowledgeable than I, who can help us discover more about this wonderful (and under-described) manuscript.  Cotsen has such a diverse range of unusual or unexpected artifacts, books, and objects. As always, this blog series is supposed to inspire researchers to see what else they can find in our collection.

Tiger tailpiece!

Tiger tailpiece!

The Spirit of 1776: An American Copy Book Older than This Country (Slightly)

34370frontwrapper

34370, front wrapper with an engraving illustrating a fable.

Since we are inaugurating a long weekend celebrating Independence Day today (huzzah for a holiday on Monday!), I thought it might be appropriate to share an equally important contemporaneous manuscript to the Declaration of Independence from the Cotsen collection.

The above image is the front wrapper of Samuel Holbrook’s copy book. Composed between June and September 1776 in  Hartford, Connecticut and Boston, Massachusetts, this copy book is a rare written artifact that has survived from the time of the founding of this country. A copy book (or copybook) is an educational practice book in which a pupil practices penmanship and the basics of reading (and often arithmetic) by copying as closely as possible passages from an engraved instruction manual. So of course, they often contained alphabets of Roman and italic letters, upper and lower case to copy.

page [8]

page [8]

Sam Holbrook’s copy book happens to have an entry that is a day earlier than a very auspicious date for this country:

34370page[1]

page [1]. Notice that Sam is using red ink for the headings and black for the precepts.

As you might have guessed, besides learning the rudiments of penmanship, copy books were often meant to be morally instructive  by providing life advice. These kinds of proverbial couplets pictured above, and other aphorisms, are typical  fodder for copy books and other forms of moral instruction throughout the  eighteenth century (think of the various kinds of “sayings” from the wildly popular Poor Richard’s Almanac).

page [11]

page [11]. Notice that Sam used red, blue, and black ink on this page.

 Either Samuel Holbrook hadn’t heard the recent news about independence or had (Gasp!) Tory sympathies. In the image below, Sam has copied out an extensive praise of British merchants and their far-reaching benefits:

page [13]

page [13]. Sam was probably using a British copy book, which might also explain all the pro-English sentiments.

 If you want to read more about how this Cotsen copy book has been featured in our public outreach program, Cotsen in the Classroom, check out this blog post by Dr. Dana on her blog: Pop Goes the Page.

Happy Fourth of July, everyone!