The axis of Eros
Fearing the moon, she dares not
years ago, a friend of mine - and of India, I might add, the art
historian, Walter Spink (whose name evokes only images of Ajanta in most
minds), wrote a delightful little book, titled The Axis of Eros. With
his usual diffidence, he used to speak of it simply as a picture book,
filled as it was with images taken from the East and the West, and with
short but delectable passages from poetry and philosophical works. But
the book was much more than that, for it was an exploration of "how
man, over the ages and in two disparate cultures, has focused his
expectations, his aspirations and his fears into a revealing
imagery". A deceptively simple mosaic of icons and words, it
invoked the sights and sounds that belong to the rich and different
experiences of two worlds: at once "a picture book, a book of
spells, and a chant of exorcism".
It is difficult to exactly know why, but my mind went instinctively back to The Axis of Eros when I came upon - recently - Harsha Dehejia's new book, The Flute and the Lotus. Perhaps because it dealt not only with 'Romantic Moments in Indian Poetry and Painting', but also with minds and mindsets. There are no references here to the West, or to the western mind, and the focus remains firmly on Indian images and Indian thought. But there is in it a deep sense of engagement with what has moved the Indian mind over long periods of time, and in that the rasa of shringara, the erotic sentiment, stands out, as Dr Dehejia points out. The book is rich in illustration, a wide range of paintings being drawn upon, from folk to classical, from early Gujarati and Malwa to Rajasthani and Pahari. As one goes through the book, however, and contemplates some of the work, one realises how much richer the viewing of paintings becomes when one brings in one's awareness of the poetry that, sap-like, courses through them. One is in a world of allusions and metaphors, gentle wit and resonant reminders. It is, in fact, even difficult to get the sense of what is going on in a painting if one has not attuned oneself already to the mind of the poets whose verses the paintings insistently draw upon or allude to. For, exactly as Coomaraswamy said years ago, "Rajput painting is the counterpart of the vernacular literature of Hindustan".
Perhaps only two examples shall suffice to make the point, the bhava of the work, not its quality, being the consideration. There is an 18th century painting from Mewar showing, in the upper register, a nayika - Radha perhaps - seated on a chauki with maids and companions ministering to her needs as she sets about bedecking herself. There is in the scene an air of unhurried luxuriance, and of excitement, for obviously a meeting with the lover is in the offing. One maid brings in some perfumes on a tray, another garlands of flowers; yet another holds up a circular mirror in which nothing at the moment is reflected, for the nayika is looking away from it, her head turned to ask a question of a companion. In the lower half of the painting, the nayika appears again, this time all by herself, in a grove, evidently the place where the lover is meant to come. As a last minute check on her appearance, she begins to regard herself in the same circular mirror, and sees reflected in it not only her own face, but that of her lover. Confused and excited, she seems to ask herself -in the poet's words - if she has truly lost her mind: so much is he a part of her thoughts now that she is unable to see herself alone in a mirror any more. Only the viewer knows that the lover has in fact sneaked in, from the back, and it is indeed his reflection that she is seeing in the mirror.
In another painting, from the Pahari region, Radha and Krishna appear, standing together, on the bank of a stream, at a distance from their village, and thus away from prying eyes. But then, suddenly, one also sees a sakhi, Radha's companion, looking at the twosome with wonderment, a question in her eyes and in her gesture. While Radha turns to look at her, one notices that the sakhi has an empty water pot dangling from one hand. Nothing is stated; no text or inscription appears on the painting. And yet one can almost be certain of what the painter had in his mind. 'Here you are', the sakhi seems to say to Radha. 'Was it to fetch water from the river that you came down from the village, or to steal some moments of togetherness with this lover of yours? Was carrying the water pot to the bank just another ruse?' she asks with mild reproach.
There are hidden delights here. And this is the way it goes in so much of Indian painting.
That tree alone
A Maithili folk song, cited by Harsha Dehejia, runs:
What use do I have of the parijata tree?
Why should I seek the kalpavriksha?
The mango and the ashoka bear no fruit that I long for.
But I shall wait under the
For there I shall find my love.
Why the Kadamba? That is the tree under which Krishna stands and plays his flute. Forever.
feature was published on March 9, 2003