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Chaurapanchasika: The Birth of Rajput Painting

Chaurapanchasika: The Love Poem that Paved the Way for a New Style of Painting

If you knew that today was the last day you saw someone you loved, what would you say to them? Would you recount your time together or lament the time you did not get to spend with them? What would you say when time was running out? This question is probably what caused the Chaurapanchasika, a short poem on love and separation, to become so beloved by Indian artists.

What is the Chaurapanchasika?

Caura means thief (it can be likened to the Hindi word ‘chor’) and Chaurapanchasika means love poems of a thief. In some versions, the protagonist is literally a thief, and after he is executed, the poet Bilhana pens down his account and shares it with the world. In other versions ‘thief’ refers to a thief of the heart, and the poet is the one who falls in love.

The Chaurapanchasika has 50 verses, which means that although it isn’t technically ‘short’, it is shorter than many love poems (for eg: the Rasikapriya). Each verse consists of four lines (quatrain) and begins with the refrain ‘adyapi’. The poet uses extremely sensual language to describe his beloved, and laments the pain of being separated from her. The poem is filled with erotic euphemisms and suggestive imagery.

The Story of the Chaurapanchasika

One version from the south claims that the young Brahmin Chaura was employed as a tutor to Vidya, the daughter of King Sundava of Kanchipuram. Since they were both young, the king feared that they might grow to develop feelings for each other. In order to prevent such a situation, he lied to both parties; to Chaura, he stated that his daughter was blind, and to Vidya, he said that Chaura was a leper. It did not take long for the two to discover this elaborate (but not very sound) ruse, and they subsequently fell in love.

When the king found out, he had Chaura thrown in prison. Chaura then composed what we now know as the ‘Chaurapancasika’. Before his execution, when he was asked if he had anything he wished to say, he recited all 50 verses of the poem, and before each verse, he recited, ‘I still remember her’.

The king was so moved by this poem that he allowed the two lovers to be reunited, and married them to each other. A popular north-Indian version recorded in volume 13 of the Kavyamala as Bilhana-Panchasika contains the same events, but the characters have different names. In many (mostly north-Indian) versions, the fate of the poet remains ambiguous.

Variations of the Legend

This tale has many versions, some south Indian, some eastern, and some from the north. Due to the poem being transmitted orally, re-written, and re-transmitted, there is no one version that is ‘correct’, the names of the protagonist, the princess, and even the king change from one version to the other.

The Chaurapanchasika’s Relevance in Miniature Painting

The most famous Chaurapanchasika series, and the one this blog refers to, is a set of eighteen plates, or separate unbound paintings dating back to 16th century Mewar. The verses are written in black ink on a bright yellow background. The protagonists are labelled as ‘Bilhana’ and ‘Champavati’ respectively in yellow ink, which is the name of the protagonists in the version that is inscribed on the paintings of this series. All inscriptions are written in Sanskrit, in the Devnagiri script.

So, what do we mean by the ‘Chaurapanchasika style’? This style is actually associated with a group of paintings and isn’t limited to just the Chaurapanchasika series. Some of the features of these paintings are vibrant colours, transparent drapery, and angular and strong drawings.

The following paintings are included in the Chaurapanchasika Group: the Chaurapanchasika series, a Devi Mahatmya, Aranyaka Parvan of the Mahabharata, the Laur Chanda series and a Ragini Bhairavi folio from the Bhagavata Purana series. They are classified as the ‘Kulhadar Group’, mainly due to the conical caps called ‘Kulha’ that the human figures in these paintings wear.

The Style of the Mewar Chaurapanchasika series

Every single piece of furniture or plant or piece of clothing in these paintings alludes to a particular emotion or metaphor. For example, in the above painting, the fire of intense passion (check verse translation) manifests itself physically in the form of a Chāmara hanging between the curtains of the bedchamber.

The highly-stylised human figures represent the idealised beauty standards of the past. The men are broad-chested with a narrow waist, whereas the women have round breasts, small waists and wide hips. They have pointed noses and are painted in the profile view. Blue wavy lines represent water, whereas clouds are shown by patches of blue with a white border.

Body language in these miniatures is of the utmost importance. The characters use simple gestures and facial expressions to portray emotions and set the mood of the painting. A single finger held up (either by Bilhana or Champavati) symbolises that she is the most beautiful of all women; her beauty is unique and exceptional.

A bed is present in almost all of the paintings, which gives them an erotic undertone.

Clothing In the Chaurapanchasika

As we see in the above painting, Bilhana wears a transparent ahgarkha or a Jama with four sharply cut ends (chakdar), which features a front closure and tight sleeves. We also see this type of clothing in the Laur-Chanda and Gita Govinda paintings, which suggests that they belong to the same stylistic period.

The atpati turban is another major characteristic of these paintings, sometimes with the kulha caps in the centre. These kulha caps are long and resemble those that appear in the Kulhadar group; other Chaurapanchasikas feature short kulha caps.

The women wear fitted cholis that sit slightly above the navel and a scarf of a different colour wrapped over the skirt. Their blouses have elbow-length sleeves and they wear heavy jewellery like necklaces, bangles and earrings. They have long braided hair, often adorned with jewellery or flowers.

How Old Is This Chaurapanchasika Series?

So, how do we know that this set belongs to the 16th century? Well, when a painting doesn’t have a date written on it, art historians examine the clothing, subjects and style of the painting to place it into a particular historical period. They also use preexisting historical records to try and find its place of creation and the name of the artist.

The first Rajasthani school was the Mewar school, which dates back to 1605, when the Chawand Ragamala was created. The Chawand Ragmala shares several visual similarities to the Chaurapanchasika paintings, such as the bold colour palette, strong lines, and symbolism.

The Birth of Early Rajput Painting

The Chaurapanchasika contains a traditional Miniature painting style, reminiscent of the Chawand Ragamala, but not quite the same. It is categorised as the West Indian School of Native Painting, or simply the Mewar school as it is now called. It does not show any Mughal or Persian influences.

These paintings feature a two-dimensional perspective, flat planes and human figures in profile. They show a strong resemblance to the Mewar and even the Malwa Schools, with some similarities to the Gujarati painting style and the Jain manuscript illustrations like the Jain Kalpasutras.

‘Rajput painting’ refers to the Rajasthani and Pahari Schools grouped under one category. It is a term that is rarely used today, as, with the advancement of historical research, the two schools have been grouped into separate and distinctive categories.

Nevertheless, the Chaurapanchasika paintings show what we may refer to as the early Rajput style of painting, with its floral patterns, primary colours, and in-set eyes in the profile view.

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By Melissa D’Mello

Image credits: All images taken from ‘Chaurapañchāśikā : A Sanskrit Love Lyric’ by Leela Shiveshwarkar

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