Finding Love at the Fitzwilliam

23 February 2008

Imma Ramos examines two Indian miniatures for love and spiritualism.


Indian miniature paintings of the Kangra School, with their amalgamation of Mughal technique and Rajput devotional sensibility, are exceptionally romantic. Although not currently on display, it is possible to see a selection of works in this style in the Graham Robertson Study Room at the Fitzwilliam Museum. Highlights include two paintings illustrating subjects from the 16th century collection of poetry, the Rasikapriya, by Keshavadasa. From the 18th century the text was illustrated by artists for the enjoyment of the Rajas of the Hill States of the Punjab. These highly lyrical works became not only objects of private devotion but also forms of escapism in what was a puritanical society. The Rasikapriya is essentially a categorization of emotional situations in which a hero (nayaka) and heroine (nayika) are represented by Radha and Krishna. Although it is considered secular in its analytical descriptions of the types of relationships between men and women, there is clearly a religious undercurrent as the author interprets them through these “ideal” lovers, whose union ultimately symbolises the relationship of the soul with God. The Vaishnava mystics made no distinction between sensuousness and spirituality.

“A lady (Radha) waiting for her lover on a stormy night” (c.1790), shows the nayika braving the elements in order to keep her rendezvous with her lover: “Serpents twine about her ankles, snakes are trampled underfoot, ghosts she sees on every hand. She takes no keep for pelting rain, nor hosts of locusts screaming amidst the roaring of the storm.” This type of heroine is called Abhisarika by Keshavadasa, the most popular of all the nayikas to be depicted in Pahari painting. Here Radha stands on a bed of leaves looking for Krishna, on the banks of the Jumna river. A tree shelters her, creepers entwined round its trunk, a visual motif used in Indian miniatures of the couple to symbolise their union or Samyoga as Keshavadasa describes it.

“Krishna and Radha walking by the Jumna by moonlight after having exchanged clothes” (c.1820) is an unusual and exquisitely rendered painting. Flowering trees suggest spring, the perennial season in the forests of Braj. In the Rasikapriya various kinds of hava or “external indications of love” are described, including Lila Hava in which the lovers imitate each other’s manners. Here they have exchanged clothes: Radha wears Krishna’s crown of peacock feathers and carries his flute, while Krishna wears her ghaghra and is draped in dupatthi. Behind this simple act is a complex concept in Vaisnava philosophy. In Krishna’s desire to become Radha there is an identification of the worshipper and the worshipped, so that Radha discovers her own ultimate divinity. The subject reflects the belief that Radha is not simply Krishna’s lover and consort, but is identical to him. Artists typically placed her to Krishna’s left; such consistency suggests an acknowledgment that she was fully half of him, sharing his divine essence. The Brahmavaivarta Purana text describes how she arose from his left half (“by his own will he assumed a twofold form/ From the left arose the form of a woman, the right half became a man”) and Radha is described as “the Goddess Primordial Nature”.

These miniatures are part of a wider collection of Indian paintings donated to the Fitzwilliam in 1948 by Percival Chater Manuk and Gertrude Mary Coles. Works such as these form part of the visual record of a culture enriched by the sensuous earthiness and ardent bhakti worship of Vaishnavism, which found expression in poetry and ultimately in painting.