From Kavya to Kalam: Barahmasa miniature paintings from Malwa

by  Poonam Rekhi

The carousal of seasons is the fulcrum on which life in India turns, and the colours, rhythms and resonances evoked by them have held great sway over literary as well as artistic imaginations. Kalidas’s opulent ode to the seasons, the Ritusamhara [1], Jayadev’s lyrical earthy Geet-Govinda [2], Jayasi’s epic Padmavat [3], all contain verses shimmering with vivid descriptions of the six seasons, the shadrituvarnan. A parallel genre, Barahmasa poetry, or poetry of the twelve months, remains the most evocative poetry in this genre of romantic verse. Not only are the poems poignant and full of pathos and longing, they also highlight the close reverberations between the psyche of the nayika and the mood of the seasons. Lovers’ emotions take on a tangible dimension through the eloquent imagery of burgeoning flowers, ominous rain clouds, or the golden brilliance of autumn. Each season possesses not only a different language, but a distinct message for those in love.

From kavya to kalam was but a small step. The Chitrasutra of the Vishnudharmottara Purana had, in the third-fourth centuries, laid down detailed guidelines for depicting the seasons [4]. It instructed artists to capture their distinctions through the appearance of flora and fauna, the pageantry of natural phenomena and the moods, rituals and lives of the people. For instance, the rainy season could depict dark clouds, flashes of lightning, rows of white storks flying in the sky, animals sheltered in caves and dancing peacocks.

This transmutation of the Barahmasa verses into a series of paintings is unique in its poetic inspiration and sequential seasonal order and several paintings are accompanied by text in the Devanagari script either on or behind the canvas. The depiction of Barahmasa verses in miniature paintings, surprisingly, is a later development in the Indian tradition [5]. It was only in the seventeenth century that artists, mainly in the Rajput kingdoms of Rajasthan and the Punjab hill states turned to this rich storehouse of imagery for visual depiction.

Prominent among the poets of the seventeenth century was Keshavadas (1555-1617), the court poet of Raja Indrajit of Orchha in Central India, who composed the Rasikapriya [6] (Connoisseur’s Delight, an extensive classification of nayikas and nayakas). He also composed a barahmasa text that forms the tenth chapter of his Kavipriya (Poet’s Delight or Handbook for Poets), a work on poetics written in 1601, containing an account of the twelve months as barahmasa. This tenth chapter depicts the life of people in different seasons, their ceremonies and rituals, and describes how a nayika should prevail upon the nayaka to stay with her instead of beginning a journey and leaving home. He gives an account of the months, mentioning the delightful spring (Chaitra [7] and Vaisakha [7]), the heat of summer (Jyeshta [7] and Ashadha [7]), the showers of Shravan [7] and Bhadon [7], the clear sky and brightness of Ashwin [7] and Kartik [7], the bracing Margashirsha [7], chilly Pausha [7], the pleasant Magha [7] and vibrant Phalgun [7]. Keshavadas’s text was extremely popular and was appropriated by painters who attempted to portray the seasons’ effects on lovers in samyoga (union) and viyoga (separation). The Barahmasa paintings thus open up a panorama of love, romance, tenderness and erotic splendor, highlighted by an appropriate landscape.

At the centre in all narratives of Barahmasa are the following three characteristics: the woman’s voice, the pain of separation from the beloved (viraha), and the catalogue of nature symbolism and images pertaining to the seasons. The conceptual foundation for the Barahmasa is, thus, a virahini, a lovelorn woman who pines for her beloved over a period of twelve months. In Keshavadas’s Barahmasa, however, the nayika adopts a clever ruse to forestall becoming a virahini in the first place. In keeping with the theme of this alankara, she “instructs” her lover about the various festivals, the special qualities, the seductive sights and sounds that encourage the dalliance associated with each month. In the guise of teaching the nayaka about the seasons, the nayika manages to find some impediment to his departing each and every month of the year. In the end no month is found suitable for his journey, so the ‘lesson’ to the nayaka is that he should not leave at all. And it is this nayika - not the virahini burning in the fires of separation, but the vilasini, clever, resourceful, full of feminine wiles and persuasive tactics - whom Keshavadas has etched out in his verses and who forms the protagonist of the Malwa Barahmasa miniature paintings.

Barahmasa miniature paintings from Malwa offer an appealing folksy idiom, a not-too-implicit sensuality, and a charming enactment of the moods of the determined nayika and her sensitivity to nature. She delights in the pleasures of each season, and is ready with her ruses to detain her lover within the circle of her love.

The month of Bhadon (August-September), Barahmasa, Malwa, 1640-50 [8],

Los Angeles Museum of Art, from the Nasli and Alice Heeramaneck Collection, Acc. No: 71.1.15

“The dark clouds have gathered around and are thundering loudly. The rain pours in torrents. The cicadas are chirping continuously and a strong wind blows. Tigers and lions are roaring, and herds of elephants break trees. There is no longer any difference between night and day (because of the clouded sky). One’s own home is like nectar and the outdoors is like poison. The poet is of the opinion that no-one should leave one’s home during this month” [9]: Keshavadas, Kavipriya

In an animated creation of the rainy season, the Malwa artist brings the month of Bhadrapad or Bhadon to life. The monsoon has intensified, and the rain falls in heavy strings, the structure almost tilting with the force of the gale! The sky is dark and foreboding; a restless elephant thunders across the page while a tiger and a lion roar ominously. The artist captures the turbulent environment of the rainy month, but within the pavilion rises another tumult as the nayika urges the nayaka not to leave her at this time. Anxiety in her mind rages like the storm outside, even as she negotiates, wheedles, cajoles with her beloved to stay beside her. No-one, she says, should leave one’s home at this time. The swaying palash tree, animals drawn with verve and charm, and doll-like figures imbuedwithanintensity of expression all bring to life the season’s vibrancy. There is striking visual and textual co-ordination, and Keshavadas’s verses throb to life in this folio.

The month of Ashadha: Onset of the Monsoon, Malwa, c. 1650 [10]1, from a dispersed series of the Kavipriya of Keshavadas, Acc. No: 1994-148-525.

“Strong winds are blowing all around. In such weather only a man of feeble mind will go out leaving his wife and house. Even the mendicants use only one asana these days, i.e. they avoid going out for begging. What to talk of human beings, even the birds do not leave their nests. Lord Vishnu has taken Sri (Lakshmi) along with him to spend this time in bed (Kshirsagar). Poet Keshavadas says that during the month of Ashadha he has not heard of anybody leaving his home, even in the Vedas and Gathas”: [11] Keshavadas, Kavipriya.

The gist of the argument which the distraught nayika makes to her beloved who is preparing to leave is that the strong winds that blow prevent even the birds from leaving their nests. Ascetics use just one asana, that is, they avoid going out for begging. Even Lord Vishnu and Lakshmi retreat to their chamber in this season.

In a colourful pavilion topped with an assemblage of chhatris and kiosks sit the nayika and her beloved, the nayika gesticulating expressively to the nayaka who is outfitted as though to depart. She is alluringly dressed and heavily bejeweled, and her mang-tikka, karna-phool, and jhoomar swing and tinkle as she cajoles her lover. A trio of weaver birds’ nests sway from the palash tree (ubiquitous in this Malwa series) which leans forward in the strong breeze. Beneath this, in a high-domed kutiya, the ascetic seated upon an animal-skin has contorted his body into an asana, while a devotee stands respectfully outside with an offering of food. A quartet of white cranes flies joyously across the dark skies, and two peacocks preen, for the rains are just beginning to release their bountiful showers.

The month of Vaisakha: Illustration from the Barahmasa (Twelve Months) Text in Canto 10 of the Kavipriya of Keshavadas, Malwa [12], private collection; auctioned at Christie’s, 20th March 2019, Live Auction 17347: Indian Himalayan and South East Asian Art, Lot 720, Property from the Estate of Baroness Eva Bessenyey.“Poet Keshavadas says that the earth and atmosphere are filled with fragrance. The breeze, full of sweet smell, is blowing gently. All around there is fragrant beauty. But the fragrance is blinding for the bee, and is painful for the lover who is away from home. The beloved says to the lover: “I pray to you, having taught me the pleasures of love-making, do not talk of going away in this month of Vaisakha, as the arrows of Kama are hard to bear in separation”: [13] Keshavadas, Kavipriya.In a charming folio, which appeared on the art market in 2019 at a Christie’s auction, the exuberance of Vaisakha is evident all around: in the brilliantly shining sun, the sprightly, blossoming palash tree, the sky with scudding clouds, and even the energetic swinging of the hand-held punkah which the nayika plies for her beloved. Her cajoling has apparently gone on for a while, for the attendant who was to accompany the nayaka on his travels has fallen asleep in the languorous air from the tedium of the wait, his head bent over his shield. The little pavilions atop the haveli hold flacons of wine, but the nayaka drinks in the nayika’s intoxicating gaze for it is an amorous and aromatic spring morning. There are doubtless fragrant breezes astir, but despite the amorousness of the situation, there is a pain in the nayika’s heart for she fears she might lose him if he leaves her in this season of love and longing.

The month of Shravan: Illustration from the Barahmasa (Twelve Months) Text in Canto 10 of the Kavipriya of Keshavadas, Malwa, ca. 1640 [14], gift of the Catherine and Ralph Benkaim Collection, Acc. No: 2009.2

“During this month of Shravan, the rivers (being in spate due to rains) meet the sea making a pleasant scene. The creepers (freshened by rains) have clung to trees. The lightning meets the clouds and shines all around. The peacocks (listening to the thundering of lightning and knowing the rains are around) make happy sounds announcing the meeting of earth and sky. Thus, all the lovers are meeting their beloveds. In Shravan, what to say of going out, one should not even listen to the talk of going out”: [15] Keshavadas, Kavipriya.

Shravan, or the month of rains, has a special association with romantic love. Peacocks sing paeans of love, and the heart of the nayika trembles with longing. Creepers twine around trees like young damsels clinging to their beloveds. Earth and sky mate, and clouds shine as the lightning touches them.

Within the pavilion the elegant nayika discourses on the temptations of the season. The background is merely a wash of a deep primary red, and the focus is on the two figures, the turbaned man in his transparent jama, pajamas, and cummerbund, equipped with bow and quiver of arrows, and the nayika in ghaghra-choli and odhni, with all possible finery in place, along with black tassels enhancing her radiance.

Outside, the rain pours from a cloudy sky, and two cranes rise and pirouette jubilantly in the air. A figure standing in the rain (probably a guard), wearing a hooded red cape as protection against the inclemencies of the weather, seems to be flagrantly eavesdropping on the lovers. The river is in spate and laps around the steps of the pavilion. It is a time of gushing waters, burgeoning verdure and surging, throbbing love. How can the nayaka think of leaving in these seasons of seduction?

Keshavadas’s verses overflow from the upper text box into the lower, as though in these months of fullness, even they cannot be contained in just one space.

The month of Kartik: Illustration from the Barahmasa (Twelve Months) Text in Canto 10 of the Kavipriya of Keshavadas, Malwa, ca. 1680 [16]. Gift of Neville and Donna Mobarakai, Acc. No: 2000.14.6

“Woods and gardens, rivers, earth and sky are all clear and shining bright, illuminated by lamps (of Dipavali festival). The days and nights are full of joy and couples are gambling. The courtyards and walls of every house are gay with colourful paintings of gods and goddesses. The whole universe is pervaded with celestial light and all men and women are gay with love. This is the month for earning merit by sacred-baths, giving alms and worship of god. Poet Keshavadas says that the Beloved implores the lover: ‘My Love, do not goawayfromhome in Kartika’ ”: [17] Kesahavadas, Kavipriya.

Kartika is the season of radiance and great festivity. The autumn moon is unusually bright and Dipavali, the festival of lights, comes to illuminate every home. Happy are the lovers who are together on the full moon night of October.

A two-chambered pavilion is open to our view. The pinnacled chhatris are alight with twinkling lamps. In the left chamber, a couple is engrossed in a game of chaupar, for gambling is considered auspicious at this time. The chhajjas are festooned with strings of banners, and the niches on the walls contain the paintings of gods mentioned in Keshavadas’s verse. On the right, the nayika is declaiming on the delights of the month, imploring the nayaka to stay back and forego his journey. The front of the pavilion opens onto a lotus pond with steps leading down to it from both sides. A profusion of full-blown lotuses with their dark-green leaves burgeon within the water. Keshavadas’s verse is inserted neatly into a text-box at the top of the folio. Text and image are seen side by side in such a way that the one directly informs the other.


The Barahmasa miniature paintings from Malwa are thus iconic representations of the seasons as well as metaphors for the emotions that surge through the nayika. Keshavadas’s sublime verses are emotionally fervent and highlight a world that shares the nayika’s romantic urges and longings. These barahmasa depictions of poetry, music and painting bind the two confronting worlds, the world of man and the world of nature, into one entwined thread. In expressing her lament and relating it to the colours and moods of the seasons, the heroine equates the throbbing of her heart to the pulsating sap of the trees, the trembling longing within her to the movement of the clouds, and the agony of her forlorn state to the pain of lonely birds. Nature is participant in, and mute testimony of, her love.

All five folios of this dispersed series are from mid-seventeenth century Malwa. The composition of all these pictures is uncompromisingly flat, the picture plane divided into registers and panels, each filled with a patch of colour and occupied by figures which provide the action. Figures are doll-like, gestures are economical, emphatic and expressive. It is a conservative, archaic style, which disappeared after the close of the seventeenth century. Each folio presents a story of tender love, the anguish of separation, and the delights of togetherness as the wheel of the seasons turns. Corresponding verses are written along the upper border of the painting, sometimes spilling over onto the lower border. Thus the paintings were an important mechanism of circulation for Keshavadas’s Barahmasa. The paintings are simple but balanced, and at the same time are considered pure classical statements of Indian abstract principles such as the affective power of the seasons.


1). The Ritusamhara (Medley of Seasons) is a long poem or mini-epic in Sanskrit attributed to Kalidas (fourth-fifth cent.) Considered to be his earliest work, it describes the six seasons by narrating the experiences of two lovers in each of the seasons.

2). The Gita-Govinda, a work composed by the twelfth century Hindu poet Jayadeva, describes the love of Krishna and Radha in 12 cantos containing 24 songs.

3). The Padmavat, written in Awadhi 1540 by Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi, describes the story of the historic siege of Chittor by Alauddin Khalji in 1303.

4). Vishnudharmottara Purana III, Vol 1.1, Baroda, 1958, pp. 153-158. C. Sivaramamurti, Chitrasutra of Vishnudharmottara, New Delhi, 1978.

5). Dwivedi, V.P., Barahmasa (Delhi: Agam Kala Prakashan, 1980) p. 81.

6). Keshavadas is best known for his Rasikapriya, a pioneering work of the ritikaal (Scholastic-Mannerist period of Hindi literature). This comprehensive work in sixteen chapters treats various aspects of poetic theory including rasa, and focuses on an extensive classification of nayikas and nayakas.

7). The twelve months of the Hindu calendar under discussion in barahmasa tentatively correspond to the English calendar in the following way:

Chaitra: equivalent to March-April

Vaisakha: equivalent to April-May

Jyeshta: equivalent to May-June

Ashadha: equivalent to June-July

Shravan: equivalent to July-August

Bhadon or Bhadrapad: equivalent to August-September

Ashvina: equivalent to September-October

Kartik: equivalent to October-November

Margashirsha: equivalent to November-December

Pausa: equivalent to December-January

Magha: equivalent to January-February

Phalguna: equivalent to February-March

8). The month of Bhadon, Malwa, c. 1650:

9). Translation of Keshavadas’s verse from the Kavipriya: Dwivedi, V.P., Barahmasa (Delhi: Agam Kala Prakashan, 1980) p. 134.

10). The month of Ashadha, Malwa, c. 1650:

11). Translation of Keshavadas’s verse from the Kavipriya: Dwivedi, V.P., Barahmasa (Delhi: Agam Kala Prakashan, 1980) p. 132.

12). The month of Vaisakha: Illustration from the Barahmasa (Twelve Months) Text in Canto 10 of the Kavipriya of Keshavadas, Malwa, c. 1650 [12], private collection; auctioned at Christie’s, 20th March 2019, Live Auction 17347.

13). Translation of Keshavadas’s verse from the Kavipriya: Dwivedi, V.P., Barahmasa (Delhi: Agam Kala Prakashan, 1980) p. 130.

14). The month of Shravan, Malwa, c. 1650:

15). Translation of Keshavadas’s verse from the Kavipriya: Dwivedi, V.P., Barahmasa (Delhi: Agam Kala Prakashan, 1980) p. 133.

16). The month of Kartik, Malwa, c. 1650:

17). Translation of Keshavadas’s verse from the Kavipriya: Dwivedi, V.P., Barahmasa (Delhi: Agam Kala Prakashan, 1980) p. 136

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