The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, September 7, 2003
'Art and Soul

The rains in poetry and painting
B.N. Goswamy

THE rains have all but ended now, at least for this year. Those clouds, "trumpeting like haughty tuskers", are gradually withdrawing from the skies; the "banners of lightning" no longer light up the vault of heavens. But, somehow, memories of rain do not go away all that easily, for, they are etched upon our awareness. And in any case our poetry and paintings continue to remind us of them, rushing images and sounds into our minds. It is just not possible, for instance, to think of the papeeha, or chatak, without recalling that this little bird – throat parched, beak open, panting in the heat – keeps waiting for the rains, for, as the myth has it, it drinks no water other than the first drop of rain as it falls from the skies. And then, when it has drunk that, it breaks into the sweetest, most seductive of songs.

In Kalidasa’s great classic, Kumarasambhava, occurs one of the most celebrated passages of Sanskrit literature, in which the poet traces the journey of the first drops of rain as they fall upon Parvati. The Goddess, as a young maiden mortifying herself to be able to win the hand of her chosen lord, Shiva, remained seated, the poet says, out in the open, in scorching heat, meditating, as always: eyes closed, legs crossed, nearly bare of body. In the course of this long penance, summer approached its end, and clouds started gathering in the sky above, rumbling and beginning to become dark and dense with each passing moment. And then the rain began to fall. Its first drops, the poet says, "lingered a little as they fell upon her eyelashes, trickled down the ridge of her nose, descended to her lower lip, trembled there for a moment, and then, falling upon her firm breasts, broke into countless pieces that, re-grouping, wended their way slowly through the fine folds on her stomach, and came to rest at last in the pit of her navel".

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Sensuous, and intensely poetic, as it is, the passage is as much about the onset of rains as it is about the supple grace of Parvati’s body. For, woven into Kalidasa’s description, with great subtlety, are so many of the lakshanas or signs of classical female beauty: large eyes with long eyelashes, sharply ridged nose, a soft and full lower lip, breasts high and firm, three light folds – the trivali – on the stomach, deep, really deep, navel. There are connections here – between nature and man, or woman – that are hard to miss.

It is not as if there are no straightforward descriptions, or renderings, of rain in Indian poetry or painting: there are. There is, for instance, that genre of poetry called the Baramasa, ‘Twelve Months of the Year’, in which nature is the theme, and the beauty of each month, or season, as it commences, is recounted. The late-16th century poet, Keshavadasa’s Baramasa is among the most famous of these, and his verses have a touch of brilliance. "Ghorata ghana chahun ore, ghosha nirghoshahin mandahin", the description of the month of Bhadrapada (August-September) opens; "Dhaaraa dhara dhara dharani musaladhaarana jala chhandahin..., and so on. The beauty of the verses lies not in the fact that they speak of the sky, devoid of all sound, suddenly reverberating with the thunder of clouds, or of sheets of rain falling ceaselessly upon the earth below. It is in the sound-patterns that the poet weaves, aspirates like "gha", "dha", "jha" following each other in rapid, alliterative fashion, echoing the sounds that fill the air in this month. Interestingly, however, the broad context of nearly all Baramasa compositions is a conversation between lover and beloved, the beloved always citing the beauties of the month as a reason for her asking the lover not to set out on a journey in that month. Come the next month, she would invoke the beauty of that month, for like reasons. In more than one ways, even this goes back to Kalidasa whose paean to the seasons, the Ritusamhara, also places nature firmly in a human context: "Gleaming with rainbows, /filigreed with the lightning’s glitter, /life-giving clouds, pendant, packed with water _ /and women dazzling in gem-set earrings/and girdles festooned with bells - / both work together to steal/ the hearts of men journeying abroad." Love always seems to hang in the air, looming over all that there is.

Much the same happens in Indian painting. One knows that there is very little ‘nature painting’ in India in general. And it is truly rare to find a work with rain as its theme in itself – a painting from the Bellak collection, now in the Philadelphia Museum, comes to mind – with no human presence in it. But other images remain engraved upon the mind, images in which, almost always, rain appears as providing a setting, a context, against which human action unfolds. A nayika – maiden in love – cannot gaze at the clouds gathering in the sky without thinking achingly of her absent lover. Another one sets out in the middle of the night, through a dark and dense forest, to keep her rendezvous with the lover, even as rain falls, peals of thunder are heard, and serpents hiss about. In other paintings, lovers stand on marble terraces clinging to each other and pointing tenderly towards the clouds that come rolling into the skies. Perhaps, described prosaically like this, it all sounds a little trite, ordinary. But one has only to see those stunning paintings, and read - more than read, hear - those seductive, sound-rich verses that India has such a wealth of, to sense the impact that these images are capable of making.

Calmer settings

Quieter images also come to mind: thus, a work by the great 18th century painter from the hills, Nainsukh. In this little miniature on paper, all that one sees at first is an imposing marble fa`E7ade of a palace. The white of the outer walls all but fills the painting. Till one’s eye discerns a tiny little figure of a prince atop the palace, standing on the roof, all by himself, gazing at the sky where dark clouds have gathered and lightning is darting through them. A one-line inscription placed at the back of the painting states simply: "His Highness is seen enjoying the coming of rains." Very fine streams of water, all but invisible, are seen falling from the skies. The prince, Balwant Singh, whom one knows from other paintings, had more than his share of worldly troubles. But here all other thoughts are banished from the mind. It is not a work about any event, or occurrence: it is simply about the magic that the rains weave.