The month of Magh

An Illustration from a Barahmasa Series
Kota or Bundi, Rajasthan, Northern India
Circa 1680-1700
Opaque watercolour and gold on paper
28.8 x 22.5 cm

This rare and sublime miniature from the Barahmasa (lit. “the twelve months”) is a remarkably poetic illustration highlighting one of the twelve seasons – ‘barah’ meaning 12 and ‘masa’ meaning ‘month’ — as written by the sixteenth century poet, Keshavdas and captures this rich tradition in refined detail and splendid chromatic. Through its multi-layered arrangement of figures and landscape, it is a truly magnificent example of the tradition of Barahmasa, long accepted as a genre of poetry — essentially romantic and overflowing with emotion. It typically speaks of viraha, or separation from one’s beloved, and how changes in nature can affect a lovelorn heart.

In the present example, we observe the season of Magh (January-February) and the sound of the thundering clouds and imminent separation pushes Radha, an unnerved nayika (romantic heroine), into the arms of her nayak (hero) Krishna. As the time of change, a time of separation follows the love-filled frolicking of the month of Kartika. Providing a complementing background to the scene in this Barahmasa painting are marble buildings and lush green trees with floral vines. On the trees we can observe bird pairs, a symbol of romance and conjugal bliss in Indian culture, as well as others sitting slightly distant from each other, becoming an extension of the anticipation of separation felt by the couple that stands in the centre of the painting.

From his hand gestures, we deduce that the nayak is in conversation with the exquisite nayika in front of him, probably breaking to her the news of his departure. Hearing the news of the sudden departure of the Nayaka, the heroine has her hand raised in an emotive gesture. Though her heart wants to stop her lover, the gorgeous and intelligent maiden knows that separation and reunion are fellow travellers for anyone who is stuck by the arrows of Kamadeva – the Hindu god of Love. This quiet acceptance of the unexpected turn of events can be witnessed on the faces of both the Nayaka and the Nayika, which appear to be surprisingly calm.

In wonderful chromatic detail the artist has layered and segmented the different visual planes – the uppermost register highlights the natural world and its version of courtship while below, several levels of a walled palace depict the terrestrial aspirations of its occupants, also yearning for love and companionship. Attended by a myriad servants and attendants, the principal characters, Krishna and his mortal consort Radha, have eyes only for each other.

Some of the earliest Barahmasa paintings are Mughal miniatures dating back to the 16th century and the Rajasthani or Rajput style flourished in the royal courts of Rajputana, which included present-day Rajasthan as well as parts of Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. Deccani art evolved under the Deccan sultanates in south-western India, while the Pahari style originated in the Himalayan kingdoms of North India.

Visiting rulers and chieftains from all these territories often spent several days in the courts of the Mughals and were introduced to the aesthetic richness of their art, which they carried back with them. However, subtle differences were introduced into the art form as it perpetuated even after Mughal rule declined. It became more ornamental and religious symbolism was introduced, and the portraits now typically depicted the love between the divine cowherd, Krishna, and Radha. Krishna eventually left his beloved in Gokul and moved to Vrindavan, making this a tale of love that lends itself effortlessly to the Barahmasa paintings, where romance is tinged with separation, sorrow, and selflessness.

The Barahmasa paintings are essentially reflections on the state of lovers with each passing month. All the portraits are composed around a couple — the nayak (hero) and nayika (heroine) — and resonate with graceful sensuality, colour, and the music of their love; their urges and pains are shared by the animals, trees, birds, and the blossoms. In most Indian styles, the nayak is Krishna, easily identifiable by his distinctive blue complexion and his nayika is Radha.

The other paintings in the Barahmasa series are in the collection of the British Museum, London, Acc. Nos. 1999,1202,0.5.2 to 1999,1202,0.5.8.


Private collection, UK, 1980-2008;
Private collection, London, 2008-present.

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