Sohni and Mahiwal: The Exploration of Literature and Love Stories through Art
Indian art and literature have always been interdependent. From the ancient treatise Chitrasutra dictates the themes of painting to the work of poets Keshavadas and Govindadas inspiring the miniature paintings of the Barahmasa theme. Indian folk tales and poems often served as inspiration for miniature artists, and the emotional and poetic beauty of prose and poetry came alive in portraits and paintings. Tragic stories of forbidden love were painted through the deeds of Heer and Ranja, Sassi and Punnu, Laila and Majnu, Mirza and Sahiban, and Sohni and Mahiwal.
The legend of Sohni and Mahiwal is a Punjabi folk tale. As with all folklore, several versions of the story exist.
And the Legend Goes Thus…
Sohni is a beautiful woman, born into a family of potters belonging to the Kumhar caste. Her family lives near the Chenab river and along the trade route between Delhi and Central Asia. Izzat Baig, a wealthy merchant from Bukhara, meets her when he visits the family home to buy pottery. He is enamoured by her beauty and skill, and she is charmed by him in turn. The two fall in love, but her family disapproves of her having a relationship with a foreigner. Izzat begins living as a cowherd in order to remain near his beloved, which earns him the moniker ‘Mahiwal’. Some versions state that Izzat was the prince of Bukhara; others say that he was a powerful aristocrat.
And Then Tragedy Struck.
Sohni’s family arranges for her to get married to another man who belongs to the potter caste. Even after her marriage, Sohni cannot forget her lover, and every night she swims across the Chenab river in order to be reunited with him. Since she cannot swim very well, she uses an earthenware pot to float across. Sohni’s sister-in-law realises that she disappears each night and, upon witnessing her swimming across the river, hatches a ploy to punish her unfaithfulness.
On the night of their ill-fated rendezvous, Sohni’s sister-in-law replaces the earthen pot with an unbaked one. When Sohni sneaks out and looks for the pot, she realises that it is not the one she uses each night. However, she is already late and does not want to keep her lover waiting. So she swims across the river, afloat on the unbaked pot, which melts when she reaches halfway. She starts to drown, and Mahiwal, anxious that she is late, rushes to save her but fails. They both drown, and only the tale of their love survives.
Even though Mahiwal was rich and could have provided Sohni with a life of luxury, her family was against the relationship as it was against the custom for women to marry outside the community. Indian folk stories such as Heer-Ranja, Mirza-Sahiban, Sassi Punnu, and Momal Rano are all love stories that were common parts of prose and poetry.
Folk songs sung from the point of view of the female protagonist spoke of the sanctity of love, the defiance of community values and orthodox patriarchal norms, and the censorship of inter-caste and community romance. This is a great contradiction in a region that openly disapproves of inter-community marriage and witnesses the rampant practise of honour killing. The consequence of a forbidden romance is almost always death, which can prove a distressing notion.
Sohni and Mahiwal: Commemorated in Poetry and Painting
Across the Chenab, his hut beckoned her, like a lamp flickering on a grave
On that stormy night, the breath of the Chenab was torn, clouds screamed
To test Sohni, God created this night
Cold, violent, and strangely rain-drenched. Speaking Allah’s name, she lifts her pot
Knowing intuitively that it is half-baked…Qadir Yaar
The earliest literary reference to this Punjabi folk tale is in a stanza listing famous lovers by the Sikh scribe Bhai Gurdas. The stanza dates back to 1637 and goes thus: Mehival no sohani nai taradi rati (Sohni swims the river by night for Mahinwal). The poets Fazal Shah and Qadir Yaar preserved their tale for posterity through imaginative and heart-wrenching verses.
Some sources state that the first Miniature painting of Sohni and Mahiwal was created by the painter Nainsukh. The problem with this statement is that a lot of miniature paintings are undated. The story of Sohni and Mahiwal is said to have originated in the 18th century but the existence of several miniature paintings of the theme that date back to the 17th century suggests otherwise. Most of the miniature paintings depicting the lovers were created in the latter half of the 18th century. This theme was popular in the Rajasthani, Pahari, and Mughal Schools of Miniature Painting.
The Depiction of Sohni and Mahiwal in Rajasthani Miniature Paintings
The painting on the left belongs to the Mewar school, which is famous for its bright and simple use of colours and inclusion of emotional themes. Notice the sharp, geometric river bank cutting a divide into the picture. The Chenab river represents the physical barrier that Sohni crosses, echoing the metaphorical social constructs that have been placed on her. This painting was created using gold, silver, ink, and gouache on paper.
Mahiwal has been illustrated as an ascetic who gave up worldly possessions just to be with his beloved. This painting depicts him in a sage’s attire. The soft brushwork of the river gives it a gentle and soothing feel, with no forewarning of the disaster to come. Bright, soothing, and hopeful, this painting does an excellent job of capturing the calm before the storm.
The gouache and gold-painted miniature on the right is an almost exact replica of the example on the left. Most of the elements, like the trees, shrubs, flowerpots, etc., are in the same place. The use of colour is slightly different. This painting from Jodhpur seems to be less detailed than the Mewar Miniature. The environment feels warmer but does not provide the sharp contrast that the Mewar one executes to perfection. However, it manages to portray a soft, romantic, rose-tinted vision of the scene. The light and simple rendering lend it an air of naivete.
The vibrant colours of a Rajasthani Miniature make it easily distinguishable from its Mughal and Pahari counterparts.
The Depiction of Sohni and Mahiwal in Mughal Miniature Paintings
This painting depicts a dramatically different environment than the previous ones. Here, we can easily tell that it is nighttime. The artist has used a grey wash to make the environment dull and gloomy, with only the lovers shining bright. While the world sleeps, Sohni swims. The couple portray the passion and determination to fight for their love rather than agree with the world and let it sleep forever.
These Mughal Miniatures were made in the same year and have similar compositions as well. The one on the left seems to have more detail and better finishing than the one on the right. Its colours are toned down but bright and refreshing at the same time. The dead of night is depicted in a hopeful light, as when the sun sets, their love gets the chance to shine. A full moon lights up the dreamy scene. This gouache painting’s narrow blue and dark brown polychrome borders are intricately detailed and flecked with gold.
The Miniature on the right features some impressive rendering on the bullocks as well as Sohni and Mahiwal’s clothes. It is sharp and bright, and our eyes are easily drawn to the central theme and characters. The background is minimally detailed, but perhaps this was intentional.
Motifs as Metaphors
Both Sohni and Mahiwal possess a sword, although no weapons are mentioned in any of the folk retellings. Perhaps it is a metaphor for their guarded nature and a symbol of their fight and rebellion against the rest of the world. Weapons in paintings usually convey alertness or foreshadowing of a battle or great struggle to come.
This gilded painting features a blue and gold foliate border. It is an example of the blend of Hindu and Persian miniature painting styles in the Mughal School of Miniature Painting.
Also read: The Uniqueness of Miniature Paintings
The Depiction of Sohni and Mahiwal in Pahadi Schools of Miniature Painting
The theme of Sohni-Mahiwal is popular in the Pahadi schools as well, especially Guler, Kangra, and Chamba.
This painting has a very unique composition, perhaps the most different from all the other depictions of this theme we’ve seen so far. Its unknown artist is rumoured to be eminent painter Nainsukh, though this is hard to confirm from an undocumented piece. Here, Sohni is mid-journey to her beloved, and the wide and open background reminds us of the vast distance she would have to cross every day just to be with him. She is completely alone in the centre of the piece, which echoes her loneliness and lack of any support system and how bleak her world is without Mahiwal.
Contemporary Representations of Sohni and Mahiwal
Satish Gujral creates a romantic portrayal of the ill-fated lovers by curating a mesmerising mosaic of shapes and colours.
Despite being considered ‘kitsch’ by art critics, Shobha Singh’s reinterpretation of the tragic love story is the most famous painting on the Sohni-Mahiwal theme. It was a cult favourite, and prints of the painting were present in almost every household in Punjab.
Arpana Caur has created a series of portraits on this theme, and her work is symbolic, abstract, and focuses on the female perspective.
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By Melissa D’Mello