‘The Rasikapriya is a fabulous epic of love, longing, jealousy and bitter regret’

‘The Rasikapriya is a fabulous epic of love, longing, jealousy and bitter regret’

Specialist Behnaz Atighi Moghaddam admires six Pahari paintings that recount a story of undying love — offered in Arts of India, 4-26 June, Online

‘The Rasikapriya  is a fabulous epic of love, longing, jealousy and bitter regret,’ says Christie’s Indian and Islamic Art specialist Behnaz Atighi Moghaddam. The poem was written by the medieval Indian court poet Keshavdas (1555–1617) in 1591 and explores passion in all its turbulent and myriad forms.

Today, this lyrical work is considered one of the greatest love poems of classical Indian literature. It has, over the years, inspired many artists and writers, most notably the Pahari painters of the Punjab hills, whose central theme was erotic sentiment.

Pahari painting emerged in northern India in the 17th century, and it became the dominant style of painting in the region for the next 200 years.

These artists illustrated Keshavdas’ poem with images of the popular Hindu figures Radha and Krishna, whose tempestuous love affair encompasses the full breadth of human emotion.

‘Krishna has countless affairs with other women, but he always returns to Radha,’ explains Atighi Moghaddam. ‘Their relationship is often considered to be the manifestation of a pure and eternal love.’

‘The relationship between Radha and Krishna is often considered to be the manifestation of a pure and eternal love’

Six early 19th-century Pahari paintings illustrating the Rasikapriya  will be offered online in Arts of India: Heavenly Gods and Earthly Pleasures (4-26 June).

According to the specialist, the illustrations for sale are part of a much larger series once owned by the Royal Mandi Library in Himachal Pradesh. A stamp on the back of each artwork attests to their provenance, indicating that the paintings were possibly commissioned for the ruling Raja at the time.

‘We don’t know exactly who painted them,’ says Atighi Moghaddam, ‘as very little evidence survives to illuminate the lives of these artists.’

This is something the Indian historian Brijinder Nath Goswamy sought to rectify with The Spirit of Indian Painting (2014). After five decades of painstaking detective work, Goswamy succeeded in reconstructing whole dynasties of previously forgotten artists, restoring their names and identities. At the time of writing, he described the experience as looking down the wrong end of a telescope and entering ‘a world of silence in which one has to strain very hard to pick up whispers from the past’.

Some of the greatest artists Goswamy featured came from the Punjab hills. ‘Pahari paintings have very distinct characteristics,’ says Atighi Moghaddam. ‘Most images depict beautiful hilly backgrounds and the scenes are framed as if we are looking through a window to the past.’ The figures also have certain stylistic idiosyncrasies: faces are soft and refined with delicate features.

Today, these Pahari painters are celebrated for their exceptional ability to convey emotional depth through physical appearance.

In Radha Seated with a Confidant in a Pavilion (above left), one of the six illustrations offered at Christie’s, Radha’s distress at being separated from Krishna is reflected in her downcast eyes and the slope of her shoulders. She is depicted in a similar pose in Krishna and Radha at a Jarokha Window (above right), when she discovers the scratches of another woman’s nails on Krishna’s body.

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The novelist Margaret Drabble once wrote that ‘the best love poems are written by the most faithless lovers’. Perhaps the best love paintings depict scenes of unfaithfulness and forgiveness, too.