It’s the month of Shravan, in the early 19th century. A Raja has taken a break from his courtly duties, and is on the terrace of his palace. The sky is overcast with rain-bearing clouds. He draws his beloved closer, and holds her tenderly while pointing to the cloud-saturated sky.
That’s the visual expression of Shravan or Saawan, the monsoon month corresponding to July-August of the Gregorian calendar, in a miniature court painting attributed to the school of Sajnu, the artist patronised by Raja Isvari Sen of Mandi (in present day Himachal Pradesh). This places the painting in the early 19th century, circa 1820s.
In another such miniature painting, the sky is leaden with thick, black monsoon clouds as Krishna has a tryst with his beloved in a pavilion in the foreground, while a sakhi keeps guard outside. This undated painting is an illustration of the month of Ashaadha, corresponding to June-July of the monsoon season in the subcontinent. Both these exquisite examples of miniature paintings represent a celebration of monsoon.
The rainy season in the Indian sub-continent is a time of special significance in the life of people, resulting in an effulgence of happiness through festivals, rituals, and literature. In fact, monsoon has often been accorded a higher position in culture than other seasons, because of the feeling of love, desire, and longing that it evokes, inspiring artists to create long-lasting works of art.
The art of creating odes to seasons in paintings is unique to medieval India and belongs to a special genre called the Baramasa paintings. As the name suggests, baramasa means “of the twelve months.”
Baramasa was born as a genre of poetry. It referred to poems composed on the theme of a woman longing for her beloved, her emotional state syncing with the season of the year. The poems usually progressed with one season of the Hindu lunar calendar following the other, with each describing a specific emotional state of the nayika (the heroine). However, the number of seasons could vary, depending on the depth of the poem. It’s difficult to conjecture the time frame when Baramasa as a genre of poetry spread across the subcontinent, getting incorporated into folk traditions in local languages.
Sanskrit scholar and Hindi poet Keshavdas Mishra (1555-1617), who lived in the Bundelkhand region in Madhya Pradesh, is, perhaps, one of the most popular scholars to have composed love ballads incorporating the baramasa theme. It was a matter of time before this genre extrapolated beyond the world of poetry into music, dance and painting as well.
It is widely believed that a group of ancient treatises, called Chitrasutra, laid down the rules for painting, including those of the depiction of seasons. In their defining book “An Early Document of Indian Art” (1976), B.N. Goswamy and A.L. Dahmen-Dallapiccola wrote, “Unfortunately, because of the Sanskrit original (of the early chitrasutras, called chitralakshana) having been lost, it is not possible to draw any conclusions regarding dating on the evidence of language and style. All things considered, however, we feel that the work may roughly be assigned to the early Gupta period…”
The Baramasa paintings came into their own much later, when the relative stability of the long Mughal rule in north India saw a great spurt in royal patronage to arts and letters. The genre reached an apogee during the 18th and 19th centuries in various schools of miniature paintings, such as Mandi, Kangra, Kota, Bikaner, and Bundi, among others.
Karl Khandalavala in his 1956 book, "Pahari Miniature Painting," wrote, “Miniatures depicting the twelve months (Baramasa) or six seasons (Khat-ritu) are also found in Pahari painting.” He goes on to describe seminal examples of Baramasa paintings, one of which depicts the month of Kartika (October-November), and features a verse by the renowned poet Keshavdas Mishra on the reverse.
Of all the months depicted in Baramasa paintings, it’s the months of Ashaadha and Shravana that are the most evocative—these paintings reach the zenith of expression in depicting the monsoon months, when the weather is redolent with a heightened sense of the feelings of tenderness and passion.
Besides depicting the emotional crests and troughs of lovers, the paintings are rich in other details, like the verdant countryside. A charming example of the depiction of the month of Bhadon or Bhadrpad—corresponding to August-September when the monsoon starts receding—came up for auction at Christie’s in London in June 2018. Attributed to Kangra school of miniature painting, Punjab Hills, circa 1820, it features Krishna and Radha taking refuge from rain under an elaborate umbrella, bent under the weight of the fierce wind. Measuring 11 ¼ x 9 ½ in. (28.5 x 24.4 cm.), this painting was sold for £8,750.
Chandigarh-based B. N. Goswamy, India’s foremost authority on medieval court paintings said, “While climate was a fundamental subject of these paintings, it was largely its cultural aspects that the artists tried to present. Though focused on a woman’s mood through the passing seasons in the absence of her beloved, the Baramasa paintings presented a wholesome picture of the environment of the times. There were representations of excessive heat and its impact on the immediate environment as well.” These paintings are now scattered all over the world in private and public collections. The National Museum, Delhi, has more than 100 Baramasa paintings, while many are now in museums abroad. The ones that are still in private hands appear in public auctions every once in a while.
This genre of paintings got consigned to history with the advent of colonial rule. However, they continue to remain a powerful work of art, and a compelling evidence of India’s rich and diverse weather before climate change turned the centuries’-old patterns of seasons on their head.
Archana Khare-Ghose is a New Delhi-based journalist. She blogs at www.archanakhareghose.com