How to read an Indian love story

How to read an Indian love story

From isolation in the wilderness to joy-filled reunions — specialist Romain Pingannaud reveals the stories behind 6 paintings from our Arts of India sale

  • 1
  • The God of Love

An illustration to the Sat Sai of Bihārī Tossing a flower. Garhwal, north India, circa 1790-1800. 9 34 x 7 in. (24.8 x 18 cm.). Estimate £10,000-20,000. This work is offered in Arts of India on 26 May at Christie’s in London
An illustration to the Sat Sai of Bihārī: Tossing a flower. Garhwal, north India, circa 1790-1800. 9 3/4 x 7 in. (24.8 x 18 cm.). Estimate: £10,000-20,000. This work is offered in Arts of India on 26 May at Christie’s in London

This work is from a famous series illustrating the Sat Sai, or Seven Hundred Verses — a poem by the Hindi poet Bihārī (1595-1663) which is perhaps the most famed and lyrical Indian celebration of love. 

It tells the love story of Radha and Krishna — the revered ‘God of Love’ — as well as focusing on aspects of religion and devotion. Central to the work is a description of the lovers’ reunion after a long period apart. This work shows the joyful encounter between Radha and Krishna in the palace courtyard, with a small white flower, just visible against the landscape, tossed into the air as a symbol of their happiness. In the background not far from the flower is a herd of cows, which are traditionally associated with Krishna.

Bihārī’s epic was itself believed to have been prompted by a love story. Legend states that a Rajasthani ruler was so enamoured with his youngest wife that he began to ignore matters of state — with catastrophic consequences. Gripped with panic, his older wife commissioned Bihārī to write verses, hiding each in the flower petals that were dispersed on the new wife’s bed each morning. 

Allegorical stanzas such as the one below warned the new wife of the dangers of such an intense love: 

There is no pollen, there is no sweet honey;
nor yet has the blossom opened.
If the bee is enamoured of the bud,
who can tell what will happen
when she is a full-blown flower.

When the ruler discovered these verses, far from being angry, he was so taken with them that he asked Bihārī to write for 700 days. 

  • 2
  • The dangers of elopement

An illustration to the Sat Sai of Bihārī Quest for the lover in moonlight. Garhwal, north India, circa 1790-1800. 9 34 x 7 in. (24.8 x 18 cm.). Estimate £10,000-20,000. This work is offered in Arts of India on 26 May at Christie’s in London
An illustration to the Sat Sai of Bihārī: Quest for the lover in moonlight. Garhwal, north India, circa 1790-1800. 9 3/4 x 7 in. (24.8 x 18 cm.). Estimate: £10,000-20,000. This work is offered in Arts of India on 26 May at Christie’s in London

In order to reach her lover Krishna, Radha flees her palace home under the cover of darkness. Here, she is shown with a concerned attendant (left), who warns her of the dangers that lie ahead. Subsequent paintings depict the lovelorn Radha on her journey — a lone woman crossing a dark forest, filled with snakes and monsters.

  • 3
  • A life punctuated by music

An illustration from a Ragamala series Dipak raga. Attributed to Faqirullah, provincial Mughal. Painting 6 78 x 4 18 in. (17.6 x 10.5 cm.); page 7 58 x 4 34 in. (19.4 x 12.3 cm.). Estimate £6,000-8,000. This work is offered in Arts of India on 26 May at Christie’s in London
An illustration from a Ragamala series: Dipak raga. Attributed to Faqirullah, provincial Mughal. Painting 6 7/8 x 4 1/8 in. (17.6 x 10.5 cm.); page 7 5/8 x 4 3/4 in. (19.4 x 12.3 cm.). Estimate: £6,000-8,000. This work is offered in Arts of India on 26 May at Christie’s in London

This painting represents a raga — a traditional composition of Indian classical music to be played at different times of the day or year. There are ragas for dusk, or the middle of the night, and others for the monsoon.

Candles in the foreground indicate that this represents ‘Dipak’, or ‘Lamp or Light’, raga. According to legend, this raga was last played by Tansen, the famous court musician of the Emperor Akbar, who set a palace alight with the mastery of his performance. Fearing a similar disaster, musicians have since refrained from playing the raga — a concern not shared by painters of the period, who were happy to represent Dipak in pictorial form.

At the centre of the painting, a princess sits in the company of two attendants. One draws her fingers to her lips — a gesture signifying that a significant piece of news has been shared. 

  • 4
  • Enjoying wine under a moonlit sky

Krishna and Radha. Kishangarh, north India, circa 1760. The painting 6 12 x 4 34 in. (16.5 x 12.2 cm.); page 13 38 x 10 in. (34 x 25.5 cm.). Estimate £7,000-10,000. This work is offered in Arts of India on 26 May at Christie’s in London
Krishna and Radha. Kishangarh, north India, circa 1760. The painting 6 1/2 x 4 3/4 in. (16.5 x 12.2 cm.); page 13 3/8 x 10 in. (34 x 25.5 cm.). Estimate: £7,000-10,000. This work is offered in Arts of India on 26 May at Christie’s in London

Krishna and Radha appear again in this painting from Rajasthan’s Kishangarh school — drinking together on a terrace, before a pavilion, as an attendant listens in. In his left hand Krishna holds a small green bottle with which he serves Radha wine.

From the mid-18th century Kishangarh artists began to paint figures with elegantly elongated features. Here, both Krishna — depicted with his traditional blue skin — and Radha have dramatically lined eyes, beautifully long necks and tiny waists. Around their heads green halos denote the holy couple’s status as divine beings. 

  • 5
  • Love in a cold climate

A raja enjoys a huqqa during a cold winter night. Pahari school, north India, circa 1825-50. 9 12 x 5 34 in. (24.2 x 14.6 cm.). Estimate £6,000-8,000. This work is offered in Arts of India on 26 May at Christie’s in London
A raja enjoys a huqqa during a cold winter night. Pahari school, north India, circa 1825-50. 9 1/2 x 5 3/4 in. (24.2 x 14.6 cm.). Estimate: £6,000-8,000. This work is offered in Arts of India on 26 May at Christie’s in London

In this beautiful scene a prince shrouds himself in blankets in a palace at the foothills of the Himalayas — at such a high altitude the cold can often be severe. His female companion, probably a favourite wife, attends to him. 

Images of a Raja and his wife wrapped up in a blanket during the winter are frequently found in the art of the region as an illustration of love and tenderness. Here, however, the Raja and his wife are depicted separately — the Raja’s wife replacing the tobacco in a huqqa he smokes. 

Floral textiles show clear European influences, right down to the small stretch of decorative fabric that emerges from beneath the Raja’s green shroud. In the background, Indian decorative columns rising from lotus bases encompass what might almost be a Victorian fireplace.  

The chaise longue and the chandelier also show European influences — European glass was imported to India throughout the 18th and 19th centuries often being reworked by local craftsmen.


  • 6
  • Comfort in the wilderness

Sultan Ibrahim Adham visted by angels. Provincial Mughal school, north India, circa 1730. Painting 8 18 x 5 38 in. (20.5 x 13.6 cm.); page 10 58 x 6 78 in. (27.1 x 17.6 cm.). Estimate £10,000-20,000. This work is offered in Arts of India on 26 May at Christie’s in London
Sultan Ibrahim Adham visted by angels. Provincial Mughal school, north India, circa 1730. Painting 8 1/8 x 5 3/8 in. (20.5 x 13.6 cm.); page 10 5/8 x 6 7/8 in. (27.1 x 17.6 cm.). Estimate: £10,000-20,000. This work is offered in Arts of India on 26 May at Christie’s in London

This painting depicts an 8th-century sultan who has fled to the wilderness, abandoning a wealthy existence in Afghanistan to devote his life to meditation, isolation and asceticism.

Similar themes were popular during the Mughal period, adapted from Persian literature — a renowned poem focuses on the doomed love story of Layla and Majnun, who flees to the desert after discovering that Layla has been promised to another. 

Here, a host of angels brings food to the former sultan, their dress reflecting the strong European influences in cities such as Lucknow, where this is thought to have been painted.