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Themes of Romance

Posted by Art Of Legend India [dot] Com On 3:23 AM
Themes of Romance
Perhaps the most persistent theme in all of Indian art and literature is that of love, both secular and divine. Numerous texts and myriad images are devoted to it, including a number of the paintings in the Green collection. The divine lovers Radha and Krishna served as the primary literary and artistic impetus. Their popularity was such that the imagery of their romance was even borrowed for personifying the various types of lovers long codified in Indian literature. 

The symbolic role of love achieved its greatest prominence during the tenth through eighteenth centuries with the widespread efflorescence of the cult of bhakti, "literally 'participation' (of the soul in the divine)". Loving devotion to a personal deity, especially Krishna, was considered to be the ultimate form of religious pursuit and expression. Devotional poets and sectarian teachers appropriated the imagery of the married cowherdess Radha's pining for her divine paramour Krishna to express the yearning of the soul for godhead. The romance of the divine couple was described and depicted in a wide range of emotional situations and activities, including impassioned intercourse.

One of the earliest and most important of the literary works on love that is represented in the Green collection is the Gitagovinda (Song of the herdsman), the devotional text par excellence of the Krishna cult. Composed in Sanskrit by the poet Jayadeva, the lyric, erotic poem describes the initial passion of Radha and Krishna, their temporary estrangement because of Radha's jealousy over Krishna's sharing of his love with other cowherdesses, and their ecstatic reconciliation in Krishna's nocturnal bower of delight. Although ostensibly a secular work, the Gitagovinda must also be regarded as a religious text owing to its intensely devout character, its metaphorical devotional symbolism, and its extensive adoption by Krishna devotees. Indeed, the Gitagovinda is considered a classic example of the widespread coalescence of the sacred and the secular within traditional Indian culture.

King Love with QueenRadha makes her debut as Krishna's chief consort in the Gitagovinda. Previously she was known only from sporadic literary and epigraphical references, beginning in the seventh century. Radha is absent from the major early texts in which the life of Krishna is related: the Bhagavatapurana, Harivamsa,and Vishnupurana. In these earlier texts, Krishna dallies with an anonymous group of cowherdesses (gopis) rather than a favorite lover. As a result of the exclusive emphasis accorded Radha in the Gitagovinda, her fame and popularity grew so powerful that one sect, the Radhavallabhis founded in the sixteenth century at Brindavan near Mathura, regarded her as supreme over Krishna and to be the cosmic source of his divine energy.

The devotional literature and poetry composed after the Gitagovinda continued to stress the theme of worldly love as a metaphor for the soul's search for divinity. The romance and imagery of Krishna and Radha remained paramount and, perhaps most significantly, became pictorially and textually interwoven with an established literary tradition that classified generic female lovers, translated as "heroines" or "ladies") and male lovers (nayakas, translated as "heroes" or "lords") by romantic situation and emotional charge. Ideal lovers had long been described in classical Sanskrit texts on dance and eroticism, but it was not until the late sixteenth century in the Rasikapriya (Connoisseurs' delights) of Kcsavadas (c. 1554-c. i600) that Radha and Krishna were explicitly identified as a nayika and a nayaka.

There are eight types of female lovers classified by Kesavadas in the Rasikapriya: she whose beloved is subject to her, she who is alone and yearning, she who waits by the bed, she who is separated from her beloved by a quarrel, she who is offended, she whose beloved has gone abroad, she who has made an appointment and is disappointed, she who goes out to meet her beloved. The poet further subdivides each category according to various physical differences, mental attitudes, and environmental situations. Kesavadas's correlation of Radha and Krishna with the tradition of ideal lovers was both innovative and inspired, and it certainly contributed to the immense popularity of the text.

Another key distinguishing characteristic of the Rasikapriya is that it was written in the vernacular Hindi rather than the Sanskrit of the courts, as was the Gitagovinda. Texts classifying lovers continued to be written in Sanskrit, but it was in Hindi that the romance of Radha and Krishna and their personifications as ideal lovers achieved the greatest appeal. Hindi devotional literature is exceedingly rich, and countless love poems were written after the Rasikapriya, such as the Satsai of Bihari Lal, that are equally passionate in their descriptions of the love of Radha and Krishna. The imagery of the divine lovers was also adopted and used symbolically in contexts as diverse as the Baramasa (The twelve months), a collection of poems celebrating the months of the year and the emotional states associated with each month or climatic season.

intimate love
Numerous other lovers were also portrayed and glorified in the art and/or the oral and literary traditions of northern India. This was especially true in the Panjab, an area renowned for its association with lovers. Perhaps the best known such couple was Sohni and Mahinwal, two ill-fated lovers whose tragic tale captured the imagination of artists and poets throughout northern India in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Other celebrated lovers include Baz Bahadur and Rupmati, Dhola and Marti, Sassi and Punnu, Hir and Ranjha, and the Iranian lovers Layla and Majnun. Some may have been fictional, or at least had their romances considerably embellished. Others were historical figures who were portrayed in the celestial guise of Radha and Krishna, such as the eighteenth-century ruler of Kishangarh Savant Singh and his favorite mistress, Bani Thani.

Savant Singh was an enlightened ruler and a great devotee of Krishna. As well as being a renowned warrior in the grand Rajput tradition, he was a painter, musician, and accomplished poet. Besides his love of Krishna, Savant Singh was enamored of a beautiful courtesan and singer whose real name is unknown but who is popularly known in the court records and Savant Singh's poems as Bani Thani, "she who is smart and well-dressed." So great was Savant Singh's love of both Krishna and Bani Thani that in 1757 he abdicated his throne to move with his beloved to Brindavan, the pastoral home of Krishna, in order to devote himself to Krishna's worship and dwell in his lord's domain. Savant Singh and Bani Thani lived in idyllic bliss at Brindavan until his death in 1764 and hers the following year. The passionate love of Savant Singh for both Krishna and Bani Thani inspired the artists of Kishangarh to create a phenomenal series of paintings portraying the king and his consort as the divine couple Krishna and Radha.

Moreover, apart from representations of divine or ideal lovers, the theme of love is suggested implicitly in certain landscape painting conventions. Pairs of birds and animals are used as metaphors for loving couples or the act of love. The moon and secluded forest groves suggest sensual trysts in the night. Similarly, dramatic lightening and deep, rich colors, particularly brown or blue-black, are symbolic of ardent passion. These compositional elements all contribute to the emotional flavor (rasa) of the paintings (Goswamy 1986a). Like the legends of the lovers they portray, Indian paintings on the theme of romance are evocative and capable of producing the same intense emotional response as the inspired poetry they so eloquently illume.

Writer – Stephen Markel 


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