Examining Barahmasa Miniatures That Capture The Romance Of Changing Seasons
When poetry meets art
In Ritu Sanhara or Assemblage of Seasons, Satyam Jayati’s translation of Sanskrit poet Kalidasa’s opulent ode to the six Indian seasons, Ritusamhara, he interprets the opening lines which speak of summer:
Now is the time of heat! A raging sun
Burns through the day, till pleasant night
Cool and refreshing spreads its sable veil.
The sleeping surface of the limpid pools
Is oft disturbed by plunging bathers, faint
With heat, with amorous dalliance tired.
The cycle of seasons has always held great sway over literary imaginations, and the paintings of Barahmasa — ‘barah’ meaning 12 and ‘masa’ meaning ‘month’ — capture this rich tradition in stunning miniature art.
The tradition of Barahmasa has been long accepted as a genre of poetry — essentially romantic and overflowing with emotion. It typically speaks of viraha, or separation from one’s beloved, and how changes in nature can affect a lovelorn heart.
This is the poetic genre of ritu varnan (portrayal of the seasons — summer, monsoon, autumn, pre-winter, winter, spring), and poets ranging from Kalidasa and Keshavdas to Bulleh Shah have resorted to it. Their stunning verses have inspired some of the most brilliant Barahmasa paintings in miniature art.
Some of the earliest Barahmasa paintings are Mughal miniatures dating back to the 16 th century. Artist Balbinder Kangri elucidates, “The Mughals were great patrons of art and their studios have left an indelible impression on Indian art. You can find the Barahmasa series in Rajasthani, Deccani and Pahari styles.”
The Rajasthani or Rajput style flourished in the royal courts of Rajputana, which included present-day Rajasthan as well as parts of Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. Deccani art evolved under the Deccan sultanates in south-western India, while the Pahari style originated in the Himalayan kingdoms of North India.
Visiting rulers and chieftains from all these territories often spent several days in the courts of the Mughals and were introduced to the aesthetic richness of their art, which they carried back with them. However, subtle differences were introduced into the art form as it perpetuated even after Mughal rule declined. It became more ornamental and religious symbolism was introduced, and the portraits now typically depicted the love between the divine cowherd, Krishna and his mortal consort, Radha. Krishna eventually left his beloved in Gokul and moved to Vrindavan, making this a tale of love that lends itself effortlessly to the Barahmasa paintings, where romance is tinged with separation, sorrow and selflessness.
An old tradition
The Chitrasutra — an ancient Indian treatise on art — contains detailed guidelines for representing the different seasons; it instructs artists to capture their distinctions through the form and appearance of flora and fauna, and the moods and lives of people. For instance, portraits of the rainy season could depict dark clouds, flashes of lightning, rows of white storks flying in the sky, animals sheltered in caves and dancing peacocks.
However, the Barahmasa series is unique in its poetic inspiration and sequential seasonal order, and several paintings are accompanied by text in the Devanagiri script either on or behind the canvas.
“I’m from Kangra and follow the Pahari style. Most Barahmasa series in our region take after Keshavdas’ anthology of poems, Rasikapriya. The descriptions of the seasons in Barahmasa poetry are so distinctive and vibrate with such an intensity that one can easily visualise the moment,” says Kangri.
Displays of affection
Love lies at the core of the human experience, and from it spring myriad other emotions. The Barahmasa paintings are essentially reflections on the state of lovers with each passing month. All the portraits are composed around a couple — the nayak (hero) and nayika (heroine) — and resonate with graceful sensuality, colour and the music of their love; their urges and pains are shared by the animals, trees, birds and the blossoms. In most Indian styles, the nayak is Krishna, easily identifiable by his distinctive blue complexion and his nayika is Radha.
“To truly understand the Barahmasa series, one must go through every portrait and witness the gentle transformation in the landscape and the behaviour of the lovers. Reticence, camaraderie, passion, argument, longing — every shade of love finds expression, as the lovers are tied into a thread of romance through the seasons in nature,” elaborates Kangri.
India is the land of six seasons and the Barahmasa portraits depict each of the two months that comprise their advents and departures.
Relevance in the modern world
In Ritu Sanhara or Assemblage of Seasons, the cycle of seasons and the changing demeanour of lovers are showcased beautifully in the Barahmasa paintings. “They are an example of classical Indian art in the miniature style, and like most paintings of this genre, the presence of natural beauty is hard to miss. The artists who drew these paintings originally lived and worked in nature. So, they developed an instinctive eye for flora and fauna — the touch of sunshine, the boom of lightning, the patter of rainfall, the gushing winds and water…. Today, our natural environment is no longer the same. Many artists simply replicate old images because environmental degradation has dulled their surroundings. For many of us, the seasons no longer follow the old order, as portrayed in the Barahmasa series. Freak weather, like unusual rainfall patterns, long summers or short winters, has impacted our lives and the flora and fauna around us. Many trees don’t flower in time, and some migratory birds have stopped visiting our shores. Human emotions have changed too,” says Kangri.
Love, as we see it in Barahmasa art, has become old school today. The relationships portrayed in these paintings belong to a time when people were more than just themselves. They were in communion with and depended on each other, society and the natural world — and every change in that larger world had an impact on their lives.
A lack of rainfall or a scorching summer could affect an individual directly because they didn’t have bottled water to quench their thirst or air conditioners to cool themselves.
“Our emotions are not deep and varied anymore, and we don’t feel as keenly. The world we live in is not the world of the Barahmasa, with its gentle seasonal transformations and rich flora and fauna. It is barren and metallic. Today, relationships often mean restraint because people are unable to see their emotional richness. Love is just not enough when the ambition to rise overtakes everything else,” contemplates Kangri.
Perhaps, then, the secret to redeeming our lives and the natural world lies in loving and feeling intensely and developing a generous spirit towards nature and people because even though it may be painful, it is also beautiful and richly rewarding.
The Barahmasa series typically follows the Hindu lunar calendar, which begins in March, heralding the arrival of spring. This is the month of Chaitra, and it signifies the blooming of new love. Kama, the god of love, is said to wage war on the human heart, making people feel desire and longing and then torment through separation.
The nayak and nayika sit on a white floor, slightly apart from each other, but rapt in conversation. The nayak is in enthusiastic agreement with his nayika — the eagerness to impress evident on his face and through the placement of his hand, which is on his heart. Behind them, one can see flowering creepers and several pairs of birds, including parrots and nightingales. They are surrounded by bright red flowers. A large waterbody, carrying a boat filled with people, can be seen in the backdrop.
Chaitra sets the scene — the romance between the nayak and nayika is not aloof. Just like love is blossoming between the couple, so is it between the birds behind them and they too can be found in twos. Nature is celebrating their new union even as life goes on around them.
For a lot of people, especially in North India, Vaisakh resonates with the harvest festival of Vaisakhi or Baisakhi. For the Sikh community, it marks the day when Guru Gobind Singh founded the Khalsa tradition. Even in the world of the lovers depicted in the Barahmasa portrait of Vaisakh, attractive blooms lace the landscape.
The distance between the lovers has reduced, and they sit close to each other on a carpet below the shade of a tree. The beauty of their love is so blinding that no birds, animals or common people can bear to witness it.
But, new love is never easy; there are questions and doubts. The nayika is pleading, as is evident from the gesture of her hands. But the nayak is no longer in eager agreement. He wants a dialogue. Spring is slowly melting into summer and soon there will be a sizzle in nature and in this burgeoning affair.
A blistering summer has arrived. Dried trees dot the landscape. Elephants quench their thirst in a small pool of water. A solitary snake seeks shelter in its hole. At a distance, a woman offers water to parched sages.
The nayak is dressed regally. His posture now indicates authority and a desire to dominate, just like the hot air that takes over the land. The nayika is in a relatively simple garb — no longer compelled to leave an impression. She is still trying to reason with her lover even as consternation threatens to take over.
The heat of summer is gradually receding, and gusts of wind are swaying the trees. Branches are laden with ripe mangoes, and birds seek shelter among the leaves.
The nayak and nayika too are cooling off on an elevated platform, next to a fountain. Devotion is in the air and, at a distance, a few women are standing outside a temple. The nayak is listening attentively to his nayika and is in the mood to appease her. For many, Ashadha is the calm before the turbulence of monsoon….
The sky is ablaze with lightning. The sound of the thundering clouds pushes an unnerved nayika into the arms of her nayak…. The monsoon is often the setting for passionate romance, and its Barahmasa portrait does not disappoint. One can also see a peacock and, within the foliage, a cuckoo — birds that are associated with the onset of the rainy season.
A flock of white storks rages into the storm, with its leader virtually cutting through the clouds. Yet, there is one among them flying to its own tune. Kangri says that, like humans, even nature has its own rhythm. In this portrait, the evocative stance of the nayak and nayika can be contrasted with the lone peacock, the lone cuckoo and another lone nayika, all waiting for their mates.
“In India, rainfall is celebrated because it supports agriculture. Literature and art also often depict this sentiment. But it’s not the same for everyone. In this portrait, one can see passion as well as the longing for it.”
The clouds are still dark, but the rain has abated. A sense of calm and balance is returning to the lovers’ relationship and within nature. The white storks are flying in harmony, the peacock has found its mate, a tiny cuckoo rests on a flowering creeper and water gushes through the land.
The pacified and comforted nayika speaks assuredly to her nayak, her hand resting firmly on her folded knee. The nayak too is contented as he listens to what his beloved is saying. A quietness prevails over the land and none except the birds and the lovers experience it.
A coolness begins to build and strong winds dash through the trees, making them reel. Only lions and elephants dare to be outside in such weather — but even a pair of lions begins to retreat into a cave.
The nayika is wrapped in a shawl and gently points to the changing landscape. The nayak looks on attentively. After the raging passion of the monsoon, there is a sense of inhibition between the lovers, even though their faces are glowing.
Karva Chauth, Dhanteras, Diwali… this month marks the commencement of several festivals, and many Hindus consider it especially auspicious.
The nayak and nayika are dressed in festive colours — bright yellow and red. The nayak holds his beloved lovingly and is opening up his heart to her, as suggested by his body language. She looks on coyly. Behind them, the waters are sprinkled with lotuses and people are celebrating — the commoners congregate on the temple lawn and the rich on the roofs of their homes.
After the sweet whispers of Kartik, the lovers need to part in Margashirsha. The nayak has wrapped his shawl around him, and he has come to take leave of his beloved, as evident in his stance. The nayika wonders what business draws him away. She wants to stop him but realises that she can’t. Behind them, the waters and the sky are swarming with birdlife — swans, ducks and storks. The migratory birds are flying back to their homes, much like the nayak who needs to leave the comfort of his nayika’s company.
“Nothing in nature is permanent. Things change all the time — much like the lovers, who are together in one canvas and need to depart in the other. But life goes on and even if a season is dreary, the promise of spring is always in the air. It will come,” reflects Kangri.
Winter has finally set in. Fires warm the hearth and hearts of the lovers. The nayak and nayika are seated on a red carpet, wrapped together in a blanket, with coal burning in the rectangular heater beside them. At a distance is another nayika, huddled in front of the fireplace in her quarters by herself. And outside, a lone antelope rests, looking up hopefully at the sky.
“There is a languidness to winter. People and animals seek shelter from the cold and prefer to rest instead of remaining active. Life seeks out warmth, the touch of sunshine,” says Kangri.
He also draws attention to the colours, especially the bright red carpet, explaining, “Colours are reflective of human emotions, and the redness of the rug suggests the raw passion in the hearts of the lovers.”
The festive flavour of Kartik continues into Magh, with the celebration of festivals like Makar Sankranti. The trees are lush again and foliage, replete with chirping pairs of birds, fills the canvas.
Further out one can see people celebrating on a rooftop and two women in bright red robes frolicking outside. Playful banter ensues between the lovers, with the nayak suggesting that he should leave and the nayika folding her hands to stop him. There is a nip in the air, as indicated by the drapes on the nayak and nayika.
The month brings with it the festival of colours in India. People can be seen playing Holi, throwing colours in the air with abandon. Many people also call it the festival of love because on this day people smear colour on each other, forget their resentments and unite with love.
In the foreground, the nayak and nayika are in each other’s arms — bound by their love, which is reflected in the communal celebrations and flowering tree behind them.