A Strange Painting
LONG ago, a prince of Rajasthan was very fond of art. His name was Jaya-simha. There was a famous artist at his court. The prince was thinking of having his portrait painted by the state artist when unexpectedly, the artist died. Since then, his chair in court has remained vacant.
A particular artist named Hema-Chandra, who belonged to the Himalayas region, arrived in Rajasthan. He was a poor artist seeking a livelihood. He learned that the court artist Jaya-Simha had died and that his seat was still vacant. With the hope of getting engaged by the prince, Hema-Chandra journeyed across the desert on his mule for three days without food and water and arrived at the palace almost dead with fatigue and hunger.
The guards would not at first let him enter the palace. But Hema-Chandra told them that he would see the prince with his paintings and that he was an artist and thus managed to enter the court.
The prince saw Hema-chan- dra’s work and liked it very much. He was surprised that such a good artist had to come from the Himalayas to seek a livelihood.
“I like your paintings,” the prince said. “What will you take for them?”
“Sire,” said the artist, “I am hungry. Give me food first. Then, I hear that a specific seat is vacant at your court. Please permit me to sit upon it. That is all I want.
The prince agreed. He sent the artist to the dining hall, where Hema-Chandra had a delicious repast. His mule was accommodated in the royal stables. Hema-Chandra became the state artist.
Now that he had a state artist, the prince thought that he could have his portrait painted for the ancestral gallery. He said to the artist, “On the palace walls hang the portraits of all my ancestors. Paint my portrait, so future generations will know what I used to look like.”
“Very good, my lord,” said the artist. “I shall not paint you alone. I shall paint Her Majesty by your side. I shall include your ministers, commanders, and all the rest of your court.”
“Good!” said the prince, “I permit you to do a painting of the entire court.”
Among the courtiers, there were several ugly types. Some had large tummies, one had a hump, and another had a squint. These persons approached Hema-Chandra and said, “Paint me slim. Paint me without deformities. Give me a pair of normal eyes,” and so forth. These were no requests. The people threatened to have the artist beaten and even put to death if he painted them with defects.
This thing reached the ears of the prince. He called the state artist and said to him, “I want you to paint each one of the courtiers exactly as he is. If I find the slightest alteration in anyone, I shall order you to be hanged!”
The artist was in a fix. Whatever he might do, death looked imminent. He did not know how to escape. He thought and thought until he decided how to run danger.
A particular wall was selected for the painting. The artist put up a curtain in front of the wall so that he could work behind it without anyone molesting him. He got three men to help him with his job. He then began to spend his time eating and drinking with his assistants.
A month went by. The prince asked the artist how he was proceeding with the painting of the picture.
“My lord,” said the artist, “I am at it. It will be soon finished.”
After that, the prince asked the artist weekly whether the picture was completed. And each time, Hema-Chandra replied that it was almost finished.
Three months went by, and the picture was still not finished. The prince got angry. “Finish the picture within a week,” he said to the artist, “or you will be severely punished.”
“But, my lord,” said the artist, “the picture has been finished. I hope that you will come and witness it tomorrow.”
The prince was glad to hear that the picture was finished at last. He informed the court that the concept would be unveiled the next day.
At the appointed time, the prince, his queen and the courtiers arrived to see the picture. The artist stood before the curtain and said: “I have painted all of you in this picture. Let each one identify himself. But before I draw the curtain, I must warn you my painting will be visible only to those of you who are of noble birth. The rest will see nothing.”
Then he pulled the curtain aside. There was no picture at all on the wall. But the prince hesitated to say that he saw nothing on the wall. Each one of the spectators thought he alone saw a blank wall while the others could see the picture.
At last, the court jester blurted out, “How vile must have been my birth! I see no painting on the wall!” Then the others came out, saying they saw no picture on the wall.
The wily painter had tried to fool the whole court. The prince ground his teeth in rage and said. “Base villain, how dare you trick us! You shall pay for it by hanging by the noose! “
Hema-Chandra was not perturbed. “My lord,” he said humbly, “hang me by all means. I knew that I was sure to die in any case. But, sire, do not hang me by a rope of gold because the goddess of wealth has so much aversion to me that the rope of gold may crumble to bits if you try to hang me by it!”
The prince could not help smiling when he heard these words. He gave the unfortunate artist some gold and sent him away on his mule.