’Art & soul
Yoginis from the Deccan
B. N. Goswamy

Portraits of young women ascetics with princess-like appearance were created by Deccan painters who saw them as evolved beings

B. N. Goswamy

As we speak of the paintings of India, the Deccan does come in for a mention, but not so readily to the tongue as Mughal and Rajput painting. And yet, come to think of it, there are magnificent works that were produced there. A part of the inspiration might have come from Iran and Iranian works — for there were direct connections, both cultural and political, between the Sultanates of the Deccan and Irani centres of power — and there certainly were influences from the great Mughal court of the North. But Deccani work has a flavour of its own. Cultivated rulers — from Bijapur, Golconda, Ahmednagar, and so on — had obvious access to uncommon talent at their courts and their painters often saw things with different eyes.

A remarkable manuscript like the Tarif-i Hussain Shahi, those superb portraits of Ibrahim Adil Shah of Bijapur, now holding court, now standing with a pair of kartaals — wooden clappers — as if about to break into music, flamboyant Ragamala paintings with the windswept dupattas of raginis swirling in the air so to speak, all have a character of their own. It is not possible here to go into Deccani painting at any length, for the work has to be seen from close and in detail, before one can engage with the range of Deccani styles. But one has to remind oneself that there are great riches there.

Here, I wish simply to draw attention to works, the likes of which are not easily to be seen elsewhere in India: ‘portraits’ of young women recluses generally referred to as Yoginis. Ordinarily, the term raises visions of those Buddhist semi-divines, who figure so prominently in Tibetan or Nepalese art, or of women who are seen as casters of spells. In the Deccan, however, it describes only such women as have left their homes and wander about, most often alone and most often carrying a stringed instrument. Occasionally, one might see them approaching a faqir or a darwesh, but there is no suggestion of permanent attachment, no belonging to a group. They seem to be free spirits, presumably of religious inclination, but in essence free. One could, perhaps, call them sanyasins too, but these maidens, as Yoginis, seem to have a different aura, an uncommon persona as it were.

Consider, for instance, the elegantly attired young woman from the Mittal collection in Hyderabad, carrying a string instrument, a double-gourded veena, which she rests on her shoulder, standing all by herself in a lush floral setting. Everything about her has the aspect of a princess — the aloof bearing, the finery she wears, the aigrette that adorns her hair — but she seems to have moved away from all habitation, and stands here lost in her thoughts. There are no companions, no maids ministering to her needs in this wilderness, no sign of a palace setting. Who knows, she might even be strumming to herself, head slightly tilted upwards as we see her. Is she someone who was once in love, but is now disconsolate in her passion and seeking to free herself from all snares?

Yogini holding a bird, Deccani, from Bijapur; early 17th century, Chester Beatty Library, Dublin Left: A Yogini with a Veena; Deccani; ca. 1600; Collection: Jagdish and Kamla Mittal Museum, Hyderabad

Folk songs often sing of women unrequited in love ‘taking jog’, turning to yoga, and it is this state, perhaps, that the painter is hinting at. This young maiden may not be ‘disciplining herself in solitude for the sake of love’, but certainly a longing does seem to inform her being as she wanders about through hill and dale, making sad music. There are no outward marks of her belonging to a given sect or faith, but one knows from other Deccani paintings that the Yoginis one sees there dress like no other recluses, and carry on their persons a high-born air, the riches of their minds indicated by the regal bearing of their appearance. It is not easy to reconcile the outer and inner aspects but, perhaps, this is how the painter sees them: belonging to an aristocracy of the mind and, hence, princess like in appearance.

When one turns to another, and more famous, Yogini — the one who is often referred to as the Chester Beatty Yogini, for the painting is in the famed Chester Beatty collection in Dublin — one is a bit puzzled again, in fact, truly intrigued.

For she appears, at once, as an ascetic — ash-coloured skin, coarse hair tied in a top knot — and a siren. There are opposing moods, conflicting aspects in her svelte form. As Cary Welch, who put her on the cover of his book, India, Art and Culture, said: “…like many ascetics, she suffers worldliness”. The golden dupatta, the elegantly cut peshwaz, the profusion of jewellery on her form, the elaborate golden pin that holds her top-knot together, all hint at her coming from a princely setting. Even the meaningfully brought in palace-like structure far in the distance makes a suggestion of her having turned away from all that was hers.

But then, the ash-besmeared body, the dreamy look in the eye, force the mind of the viewer in another direction. Till, of course, the pet myna on her finger that flirtatiously gazes at her ruby-red lips reminds one that it is the bird alone that knows perhaps something of the secret of her mysterious smile. What adds to the enigma is the fact that the painting as we see it is surrounded by elaborate poetic texts on all sides. Verse after verse speaks of the beauty of a maiden. Thus, for instance: “… the beloved’s curly black hair, dishevelled by the morning breeze, is like hyacinths that perfume the air while, because tangled, it lends confusion.”

It is possible that the verses, taken from some poetic anthology and cut and pasted here, have nothing to do with the painting. Or do they? Could it be possible that it is these that hold a clue? For one of them reads: “Those of spiritual insight dream of drinking from the fountain of the beloved’s lips; and the ailing heart of the lover is never without the (Persian) letters alif and daal, because the beloved’s stature is straight as the former, her tresses curved like the latter.”