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Interpretations of Poetry in Malwa Miniature Paintings

Romance and Poetry in Malwa Miniature Paintings

Be it the sweet verses of Amir Khusrow, the brilliance of Tulsidas, the witty couplets of Kabir, or the ghazals of Mirza Ghalib, the poetry of India is as diverse, vibrant, and expressive as its paintings. The divergent schools of Indian miniature painting adopted different themes and styles and derived inspiration from varied sources. Just as Mughal Miniatures are well known for their depictions of royal life, Malwa Miniature paintings illustrate themes from popular poetic and literary works.

Rasikapriya, Amaru Sataka, and Gita Govinda are some of the poetic themes of Malwa paintings. Let’s explore these themes in detail.

The Poetic Themes and Styles of Malwa Miniature Paintings

Malwa Miniature Paintings
Setmalar Ragini, ca. 1630-40 (image source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Hindu myths and legends were the primary themes of Rajasthani Malwa paintings. This school of miniature painting features vibrant and contrasting colours, refined drawings and simplified human figures, and elegant depictions of plants and animals.

These paintings feature compartmentalised compositions and an elegant flair that Malwa artists probably acquired through observation of the Mughal style. Malwa Miniature paintings feature women wearing striped skirts with black tassels, a style of clothing not present in any other art of that period. Unlike other schools like Kota and Bundi, Malwa School was conservative and did not progress much in terms of stylistic evolution.

Raasikapriya

The Raasikapriya paintings of Malwa Miniature Paintings fall under the broader theme of Nayak-Nayika Bheda. These paintings explore different types of heroes and heroines and illustrate them in different scenarios. The famous Orchha poet Keshavadas composed this poem in 1591. Along with being one of the first written works on the Nayak-Nayika, it was also the first to portray Radha and Krishna as archetypal lovers, rather than Radha being the unattainable lover or heroine of the Bhakti movement that she was previously portrayed as.

Around the Gupta period, Malwa was a major centre of Sanskrit literature. This is evident from the number of illustrated manuscripts that originated there. The Malwa School, however, did not actually derive inspiration from the geographic region of Malwa but from Bundelkhand in the east, which was a part of the Malwa empire at one point. These Raasikapriya illustrations demonstrate the delicate brushwork and bright colours that are typical of Malwa Miniature paintings.

Amaru Shataka

Malwa Miniature Paintings
A Princely Couple in a Palace, Malwa miniature of ‘Amaru Shataka’, 1680 (image source: bridgemanimages.com)

A single stanza of the poet Amaru … may provide the taste of love equal to what is found in whole volumes.

literary critic Anandavardhana

The Malwa Miniature series of the Amaru Shataka created in Nasratgarh in 1652 displays one of the most prominent interpretations of poetry in painting. The Amaru Shataka is a collection of poems that date back to the 7th or 8th century. 

A shataka is a single stanza or verse. The author of this work is unknown, and some speculate that it is a curation of the work of several different authors. Another significant series on the theme was painted in 1680 and is currently part of the collection of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya in Mumbai. The Museum has ninety-one illustrations of this theme on display.

The Amaru Shataka miniatures are typically illustrations that were part of a complete album, or folio, of paintings. The artist wrote a verse of the poem above the page, and below it drew an illustration that complements it. A thin, single border is drawn outside the painting. The detailed architecture is a characteristic feature of Malwa paintings. The Malwa artist would paint Parchin-kari or ‘Pietra dura’ designs with gold on the lower walls in these paintings.

Gita Govinda

Krishna Revels with the Gopis, circa 1630–40
(image source: wikimediacommons.org)
Radha and Krishna Embracing in a Bower, Malwa Miniature from a Gita Govinda, circa 1605
(image source: collections.lacma.org)

The Gita Govinda is a Hindu poetic work that translates to ‘Song of the Cowherd’. The poet Jayadeva penned it in the 12th century. It describes the love story between Radha and Krishna. At first, Krishna falls in love with Radha but is unfaithful, or rather, neglectful of her, and is swayed by the admiration the gopis (female cowherders) have for him. When he returns to her ultimately, she sulks, and he repents and tries to win her over. This poem is a metaphor for how, though the human soul may stray, it will eventually return to God.

The poem has twelve chapters and also elaborates on the Ashta Nayika concept. It details the eight types of heroines, or Nayikas, a concept that is frequently explored in art, drama, and dance.

Artists often painted human figures in Malwa miniatures against a patch of a single solid colour. These paintings demonstrate the Malwa flair for flat compositions and architecture painted in vibrant detail. Arches with pillars, coloured marble, terraces, wall openings and decorations, and a blend of Indo-Islamic architecture are reminiscent of Malwa’s architecture and its varied elements. They also depict flora and fauna of the region- the above paintings feature peacocks, Rhesus monkeys, and black drongos.

The Varied Interpretations of Poetry Through Painting

A king receives Krishna in his palace (image source: The San Diego Museum of Art via flickr.com)

The Malwa School of Painting is easily distinguishable from other schools of painting due to its signature style and themes. Malwa paintings feature a blend of different styles and influences due to the geographical position of Malwa. They also display the influence of the rule of different dynasties and empires.

Malwa Miniature paintings also illustrate the themes of Bhagavad Purana, Ragmala, Barahmasa, Ramayana, Mahabharata, Devi Mata, etc. Though the Malwa School was relatively short-lived and declined around the 17th century, it left behind a wealth of art and cultural treasures that have enriched and adorned the heritage of Indian art.

Hanuman returns to Rama from Lanka, Malwa Miniature, ca 1640 CE
(image source: University of Michigan, Department of the History of Art, Visual Resources Collections, via sahapedia.org)

The interpretation of similar themes in different styles and contexts is one of the characteristics that distinguishes Indian art from other schools of painting. Reimagining poetry through different styles and centuries allows us to study the changes in philosophy and outlook of the artists of the time. Malwa Miniature paintings depict the clothing style of the time as well as important elements of its architecture that allow us to gain a deeper understanding of the anthropological elements of Malwa society.

Also read: The origin and evolution of Miniature Paintings in India

Do you want to know more about the various themes and motifs used in Indian miniature painting? Download the Rooftop App from Google Play or the App Store and learn miniature painting through our Maestro courses!

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By Melissa D’Mello

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