'art & soul

Passions of the body and soul

Wordy definitions of shringara do not suffice, and it is only through usage that all three — passion, love and adornment—seem somehow to intertwine, writes B. N. Goswamy

Lovers in conversation. From the Amarushataka ms. by the Master of Sharanakula; early 19th century
Lovers in conversation. From the Amarushataka ms. by the Master of Sharanakula; early 19th century

"Rarely has any art (other than Indian) combined so little fear with so much tenderness, so much delight with such complete renunciation. If the Chinese have taught us best how to understand the life of Nature manifest in waters and in mountains, Indian art at least can teach us how not to misunderstand desire, for we are constantly reminded here, that the soul of sweet delight can never be defiled."

—Ananda Coomaraswamy

The context in which the above words—taken from that classic 1916 work on Rajput Painting—were written is that of shringara: Sanskrit word, left untranslated there by Coomaraswamy, evidently because of the complexities involved. For the term means many things and can lead one’s thoughts in many directions. The word stands thus for bodily passions or desires; in our aesthetic theory a prominent rasa carries that name; it refers also to bodily adornment.

Clearly wordy definitions of the term do not suffice, and it is only through usage that the contours of shringara start becoming somewhat clear. And in that usage all three—passion, and the sentiment of love, and adornment—seem somehow to intertwine.

When shringara is rendered simply as erotic love, or eroticism, however, the first thought that would come to most minds is of a text like the Kamasutra: staple diet for many tourists in India, judging from the range of books on the theme—replete with lurid illustrations and dubious text—that fill hotel gift shops. But there is other, mostly Sanskrit, literature on the subject: some of it exquisite in its delicacy, some profound and moving.

It is of this kind that Coomaraswamy was writing when he spoke of being amazed at finding in it the combination "of such intimate knowledge of the passions of the body and soul with the will to codify and classify". Several titles come to mind, among them two celebrated ones, each consisting interestingly, of one hundred verses, mellifluous and delicate and ‘filigreed’, as it were: Bhartrihari’s Shringara-shataka, and the 8th century Amarushataka, ascribed to the poet Amaru.

Several copies, some of them versions, of both works have survived. But it is only one of them that one can see also through the eyes of a painter: the Amarushataka, of which a few illustrated sets or manuscripts have come down. For some time now, one has known at least three series of paintings, mostly in the style associated with 17th century Malwa, based upon the text. But it is to a late manuscript from Orissaand illustrated early in the 19th century by an anonymous master from the small township of Sharanakula, not far from Puri—to which my attention was drawn by a splendid new publication from Zurich, home to the Rietberg Museum to which the manuscript belongs.

Elegant and thoughtful at the same time, and most meticulous in terms of design, the work— Amorous Delight it is titled — is the result of yet another fruitful collaboration between two authors that one knows well: Eberhard Fischer and Dinanath Pathy.

Defining their task clearly as not that of writing on the poetry of Amaru— that is taken for granted as a classic in its own genrebut that of concentrating on the illustrations of it by the unnamed Sharanakula Master, the authors take us at their own considered pace through the manuscript, folio by brilliant folio. The stage is carefully set, however, for the first part of the book speaks of the poet and the poems; it then goes on to describe physically the palm-leaf manuscript, detailing the script, the variations in the verses, the colophon, and the possible date of its execution; attention is drawn to illustrations of the Amarushataka by other master artists.

Then comes a detailed, very detailed, examination of the illustrations in the manuscript at hand. Here, having steeped themselves in the work, Fischer and Pathy enter, innovatively and almost as an aside, upon a reconstruction of the drawing process of the Master painter, working out carefully how the leaves of palm were cut and bored, from where, in his drawing of figures, the artist must have started, what conventions did he develop and what types did he establish, how he drew, down to how many times, probably, he must have lifted his stylus from the leaf before a figure was completed. But all this is done not drily, or without a point.

As one goes through the work, one gets acquainted with the soul of the text, the anima that runs through these small but wonderfully crisp illustrations.

The verses of the Amarushataka—redolent of the ‘delights and deprivations’ of love, and the ‘dark anguish of union-separation’ — stand proudly on their own. Consider descriptions like these: "the young beloved of slender body and bewitching face" with "enchantingly dishevelled tresses, the vermilion on the forehead smudged", "tiny beads of sweat shining as the earrings swing in playful rhythm". Or this tender moment between lovers: " ‘Look at the sky, see the splendour of clouds and you, my lover, want to set off on a journey?’ This much she uttered with effort, her eyes brimming with tears. And then she clung to my garment and scratched words on the floor, which was all she could do when her voice broke."

To find visual parallels to rich descriptions such as these could not have been easy for the painter, and yet the master, working with a simple iron stylus on tiny leaves, seems to have risen to the task with elan. Sure-footedly, as if he belonged to it himself, he takes us into the intimate world of the lovers, making us aware of every little thing, every little sound, with his articulation of fine detail: the forms and patterns of the rich pavilions, the gestures and the stances, the avid looks, the downward inclined head, the shy glance.

As quiet passion surges through the lovers’ bodies, one takes in also the careful delineation of patterned textiles, the elaborate jewellery, the variety introduced in the elegantly loose hairdos, the fine treatment of the limbs. The fragrance of longing continues to hover in the air.