The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, March 16, 2003
'Art and Soul

The axis of Eros
B. N. Goswamy

Radha and Krishna on the river bank, Pahari, early 19th century
Radha and Krishna on the river bank,
 Pahari, early 19th century

Fearing the moon, she dares not
view her own reflection,
frightened of the cuckoo's call,
she utters not a word.
How strange, then, that
swearing enmity to Kama
who furnishes such fires,
the artless maiden's love,
oh handsome one,
grows ever more for you.

— Subhashitaratnakosha

LONG 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".

Subversive and restless
March 2, 2003
Should cultural property be returned?
February 9, 2003
Art in the times of war
January 12, 2003
The world of art sales
December 29, 2002
Caught in a time warp
December 15, 2002
Crafts and craftspersons
December 1, 2002
Of ‘golden pens’ and others
November 17, 2002
Portraying the Parsis’ past
November 3, 2002
Of girdles, sashes & patkas
October 20, 2002
Celebrating with the Lion Dance
October 6, 2002

An elegy to a bygone era
August 25, 2002
Those seductive jades
August 11, 2002
Gifts from an ambassador
July 28, 2002
Enigma of the Iron Pillar
July 14, 2002
Having a keen eye
June 30, 2002
Zen and the art of archery
June 16, 2002
Art from the south seas
June 2, 2002
To collect and then to donate
May 19, 2002
An estate of the mind
May 5, 2002

I recall going through Walter's book with great pleasure then, but what stands out in my mind even today is the sheer plenitude of visual material in it: Rajasthani rasamandalas jostling with Rubens' bucolic couples, Blake's vision of 'The Sun at His Eastern Gate' with the nimbus behind the head of the Dancing Shiva, Picasso's 'Crucifixion' with Madhubani paintings of Kali trampling a corpse. But again and again, I also recall, he returned in his pages to erotic imagery, and verses, for it is through responses to these, he seemed to suggest, that one could perhaps understand what separates the western mind from the eastern. "The world of India", he said, "curious as it may seem to parts of the world beyond, "does not properly fit within the Freudian schema …."

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

Kadamba tree,

For there I shall find my love.

Why the Kadamba? That is the tree under which Krishna stands and plays his flute. Forever.

This feature was published on March 9, 2003