Depictions of seasons in Indian miniature painting

by  Dorota Kaminska-Jones

Paintings depicting the seasons (shadritu-varmana) and months (barahmasa) in Indian miniature painting started to appear around the sixteenth century, and then were mainly produced in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They were especially popular at the courts of Rajput rulers in two regions - Rajasthan (mainly Jaipur, Bundi, Kota, Bikaner, Jodhpur) and the foothills of the Himalayas (the so-called pahari, mainly Kangra and Garhwal). They were based on literary works, fragments of which were often included in the depictions.

Descriptions of the seasons and months were a popular topic in Indian poetry and drama. While works describing the changing seasons intertwined with a love theme emerged earlier in Sanskrit literature, barahmasa was mainly described in later times and in regional languages.

The earliest records of the seasons can be found in the Rigveda. Initially, only five seasons are mentioned: rainy, summer, autumn, spring and winter. The cool season was not seen as a distinct period, but an integral part of winter. In the Brahman period, they began to be distinguished, and since then, the year was divided into six seasons. The changing aura of the seasons that harmonize with, and fuel, the sentiment of lovers was first described by Valmiki in the Ramayana. There, the pain of Rama, separated from his beloved Sita, is expressed against the background of changing seasons, showing the relationship between human feelings and nature.

The second great Indian epic, the Mahabharata, also contains a description of the months, albeit in a marginal way. During the Puranic period, the popularity of this subject grew noticeably. Throughout this whole time, however, the shadritu-varmana only constitute part of a given literary work, to a greater or lesser degree. It was in the works of Kalidasa that these descriptions received special attention. In the Ritusamhara, the lover tells his beloved about different seasons of the year. He often compares the changing nature to human behaviour, and reveals the extent of its impact on him.

Conventional descriptions of the seasons become an increasingly popular characteristic of an elaborate style in poetry. Poetics required that they be used as a background for eulogies of love in union, although they also happened to be used to depict the torment of the loneliness felt by lovers in separation. The latter variant can be found, for example, in Jayadeva's Gita Govida, where the pain of longing is presented against the backdrop of the spring season.

While the origins and development of the shadritu-varnana form have been fairly well defined by researchers, these issues are still highly controversial in the case of the barahmasa. An additional difficulty is the fact that these works were not written in Sanskrit, but in numerous regional languages. In each area, they also developed their own, specific form that distinguishes them from the rest in a certain way.

Such is the case in Bengali literature, where the descriptions of the barahmasa were very popular and can be roughly divided into two groups: folk poetry and poetry within classical literature. In the latter form, the feelings of lovers, especially the despair of an abandoned woman, are often associated first and foremost with religious themes (e.g., in the Shririshnakirtan by Chandidas).

Similarly, to the classic Bengali barahmasa, descriptions of twelve months from the Bihar area illustrate the feelings of a lonely, abandoned woman, and are of particular interest. She suffers the torment of separation from her beloved, especially during the rainy months.

Gujarati literature also has a rich tradition of describing the barahmasa yet features the peculiarity of drawing the vast majority of its inspiration from one month only - Phalguna. The depictions are light and joyful in mood, and the very precise descriptions of the feelings of lovers in union or separation do not shy away from erotic elements. A characteristic feature of these works is how they end - the main character undergoes a metamorphosis as a result of which he converts to Jainism. Besides the so-called religious phagus, secular poems were also written. One of the most famous is the Vasantavilasa, which describes the charms of spring in detail. In addition to the phagu, there are also barahmasa in the strict sense of the word, i.e., describing all twelve months.

Barahmasa were also very popular in Punjabi literature. Descriptions of the twelve months are even found in the Sikh holy book Guru Granth Sahib. There are also many examples of barahmasa in the secular works from Punjab.

As in other regional languages, Hindi literature is also rich in descriptions of both barahmasas and shadritu. These descriptions can be roughly divided into three groups: parts of poems, independent compositions, and folk poetry. This theme gave poets the opportunity to suggestively describe the drama of separated lovers or their happiness when reunited. Most often, especially appearing together in one work, the shadritu-varnana manifested happy love, while the barahmasa reflected unhappy love. Although such descriptions had already appeared in the earliest stage of the development of the language, including in the Adi kal period (they occur, for example, in the Prythviraj raso or the Bisaldev raso), it was only a later period - bhakti kal - that brought about a significant increase in the popularity of this subject, especially the descriptions of the barahmasa. It was mainly thanks to Sufi poets that the descriptions of the months as well as the seasons reached their refined and fully mature form. The first Sufi poet to write descriptions of the twelve months was Mulla Daud. In Laur Chanda (1379) he describes the torment of the abandoned Majna, whose husband had run off with another woman. The most prominent Sufi poet was Jayasi, the author of the Padumavati. The work is about the love of Padumavati and Ratansen. Their happiness is described against the background of the changing seasons, while the torments of the abandoned Nagamati, the protagonist's first wife, are inscribed in the illustration of the twelve months.

Descriptions of barahmasa and shadritu were also very popular among Indian artists. Krishna poets willingly wove such descriptions into poems about Krishna. Descriptions of the seasons were also included by Tulsi Das in his version of the Ramayana.

Such descriptions also aroused significant interest in the elaborate poetry of the late Middle Ages. In this period when the love theme blossomed, especially in the nayaka-nayika bheda, they became a pretext to offer a detailed description of the heroines and an analysis of their feelings. Keshavdas was the authorofthemostfamous descriptions of the twelve months, which he included in the Kavipriya compendium of poetry (1601). Other authors of interesting barahmasa were, among others, Senapati and Bihari Lal.

The painting depicting the seasons and months was strongly influenced by literature and drew much from its rich tradition. One piece of evidence may be the fact that quotations from the relevant works, as previously mentioned, were very often added above the miniatures or on the back. The poet whose work was most often used was Keshavdas. Among the rest, the descriptions of Govindadas, Bihari and others also had local significance. Many miniatures were created on the basis of works by hitherto unknown poets, working locally at the courts of rulers. Many others were also inspired by folk poetry. One should also mention Chitrasutra, one of the shilpashastras, dealing mainly with painting. There are many references to the presentation of individual seasons, which also had a significant impact on how they were depicted in later painting. The majority of the barahmasa illustrations were created in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, although occasional examples hail from earlier times. This painting stands out in terms of its variety, similar to posts of this type in literature. It is often difficult to determine exactly what month is depicted, because in fact no general iconographic patterns were developed even within one literary pattern. What usually connects the representations of a given month is primarily the landscape (elements characteristic of prevailing weather, e.g., flowers - spring, hot sun - summer) as well as the general aura. What does help to strictly define the seasons depicted are images presenting holidays, as the most recognizable ones take place at an exactly appointed time, e.g. Holi in the month of Phalguna. There are also features characteristic of the representations of the months within a given painting school (although this is not a rule). Even a cursory glance at the inscriptions can offer the most certain clues. The following section indicates how a given month would be presented within the most important painting schools, along with the characteristic features (according North, West and Central Indian calendars).

Spring (Vasanta, mid-March-mid-May) falls in the months of Chaitra (March-April) and Vaishakha (April-May). The oldest depictions of spring in painting, while at the same time the first known examples of the months and seasons in miniatures, are illustrations in the Vasantavilasa manuscript (1451-1452). There, the main scene of the representation happens among numerous elements comprising the joyful landscape of spring: blooming trees and shrubs, animals dancing merrily, birds singing, and bees buzzing. We also see a prone lover who suffers the torment of parting with his woman, further fuelled by the spring aura, or an unhappy woman confiding to her friend about the pain of parting with her beloved, as well as the happiness of finally being together. What is characteristic of these depictions is, above all, the parity of the landscape, or even its predominance over the main scene, which ensures that the spring mood prevails. In later miniatures - e.g., in the pahari schools - the foreground usually features a pair of lovers (often Radha and Krishna), while the background is a spring landscape - flowering trees and shrubs, animals in pairs, and birds. The couple are usually involved in a discussion: the woman asks the man not to leave her, pointing to the pairs of happy animals in the background. What connects the representations of spring is not the iconographic scheme, which is in fact different, but the surroundings. So, this basically constitutes the core of the illustration, and the figural scene is merely woven into it.

It is similar with the illustration of the first spring month - Chaitra. The representations of the pahari schools are analogous to the miniatures depicting spring - a pair of lovers against the background of a flowery landscape; sometimes a man holds a sword and a shield as a sign of his readiness to leave, and the woman asks him to stay, while at other times they sit happily, gazing at each other. Most of the pictures are based on Keshavdas’ descriptions, and relevant passages are usually added on the back of the miniature. The miniatures from Jodhpur bear a great resemblance to them. Most often we see a man and a woman standing opposite each other. The protagonist holds a bow, which indicates that he is ready to leave, while the woman tries to persuade him to stay at home. Based on the descriptions of Govindadas, the Bikaner representations show a completely different situation. An unhappy, lonely woman sits on a bed and expresses the pain of separation from her beloved to the moon shining above her head. The pictures from Bundi, Uniara and Jaipur are among the more joyful depictions. There, the main characters are usually Radha and Krishna, who enjoy themselves amid the spring landscape.

The depictions of the second spring month, Vaishakha, are very similar to Chaitra. So, in pahari schools this means a couple against a backdrop of an idyllic landscape. The Bikaner style is similar, while a miniature from the Bundi school features an equally extensive composition, with many smaller side scenes (women worshiping a tree, three wanderers). Miniatures from Malwa offer interesting interpretations. A woman, gesturing expressively, asks the man not to leave her in this beautiful month, while outside the buildings stands a man, probably a companion of the main character, awaiting his arrival. These images are based on the work of Keshavdas.

After the April spring months comes the hot summer (Grishma, mid-May-mid-July) with the months of Jyeshtha (May-June) and Ashadha (June-July). The first is especially intense. As in the miniatures showing the spring months, here too the landscape plays a decisive role and allows this month to be accurately defined. A virtually omnipresent element is a large, radiant, golden sun. People, tired of the heat, take shelter in airy gazebos, bathe, fan themselves, and drink cooling beverages. Animals slowly and apathetically traverse parched stretches of land or take refuge in various hiding places. They are so devoid of mutual aggression that sometimes a tiger and a snake, seeking shelter together from the nagging heat, find respite under an elephant's corpulent body or under a peacock's tail. “The terrible heat of a hot day made the world a tapovan, where the serpent, gazelle, peacock and tiger, stunned by the heat, now seek refuge among themselves, forgetting their natural animosities,” writes Bihari, inspiring many of his later paintings with this suggestive description. The pahari miniatures usually depict a woman and a man against the background ofsuchan“apathetic”landscape; the same is true for pictures from Jodhpur and Jaipur. More elaborate and varied compositions were created in Bundi and Kota. In Bikaner, on the other hand, where the descriptions of Govindadas were often a literary model, there is a lonely woman, over whose head shines a glowing, radiant sun, magnifying her longing for her beloved.

After this hard, hot month, the first monsoon clouds begin to appear in Ashadha - harbingers of the long-awaited rain. So now on most of the miniatures they replace the radiant sun. Therefore, it is sometimes very difficult to distinguish this month (although still part of the hot season) from representations of the rainy season. A pair of lovers with clouds billowing above their heads in the Kangra miniature is unambiguously identified as Ashadha only thanks to Keshavdas’ inscription next to it. The same piece is also helpful in identifying a Jaipur painting. There, on the left side, in the palace buildings, sits a woman and a man; above them, in the upper storey, lies a blue-skinned god and a lady who watches over him. On the right, two ascetics sit in small ashrams. However, above hovers a dark, cloudy sky. Only the guidelines in the description of the poet (e.g., “even ascetics in the month Ashadha remain in their ashrams” or “Vishnu spends this time in bed with his spouse” etc.) facilitate a proper reading of the scene. The Malwa depiction is also based on the same description, and interestingly, it differs significantly from the previous examples. In the palace buildings sit a woman and a man while below, in the foreground, two ascetics say prayers. These examples show how different the artistic interpretation of one month could be, even within the same literary pattern.

The heat is finally followed by the long-awaited rainy season (Varsha, mid-July-mid-September) in the months of Shravana (July-August) and Bhadrapada (August-September). After the tiring heat and rain clouds in Ashadha, there is an explosion of joy in streaks of heavy rain. However, this mirth does not extend to everyone. For the lonely, it is a time of increased longing and pain - the torrential rains and raging thunderstorms matching the despair experienced at that time. Regardless of the situation presented - joyful or tragic - the landscape is very similar: swirling, dark clouds traversed by lightning bolts, streaks of falling rain, lush, fresh green, gushing streams, cranes, peacocks, sometimes fish and frogs. The most evocative and sophisticated paintings come from mountainous areas, especially from Kangra. Happy love is most often presented in the following way: lovers stand on a terrace, in a loving embrace (most often in the company of musicians and cheerfully squawking peacocks) and look at the flock of white cranes gliding through the dark clouds cut by lightning. Another variant shows a couple in the foreground having a lively discussion. The woman, pointing to the surroundings - people and animals seeking shelter, driving rain and the lightning tops of the hills - convinces the man that he should not leave her at such a time. However, when the protagonist remains deaf to her arguments and pleas, she melts into loneliness, plunged into profound sadness and anxiety, looking with concern for the return of her beloved.

The first month of the rainy season - Shravana - was represented analogously in pahari schools. Painters from Rajasthan or central India depicted it somewhat differently. For example, the Bundi School often presents the Teej festival procession with women swinging happily on a rope swing suspended from a tall tree. However, above against the background of the raging sky, the royal couple sit on the palace terrace, watching the whole merry event from above. The representations from Jaipur are slightly calmer in character - a pair of lovers (sometimes Radha and Krishna) sit inside the palace buildings or on the terrace and calmly gaze each other, as if ignoring the squalling nature around them. The Bikaner depictions feature a swing motif, similar to Bundi. Either it is empty, reminding the woman that her husband is absent, or they are already sitting together on it, enjoying the coolness of the light swing.

The swing motif also appears sometimes in depictions of the second month of the rainy season - Bhadrapada. The images illustrating this month are very similar to Shravana: a sky covered with billowing clouds, rain, lightning, etc. The oldest known representation of Bhadrapada is an illustration in Laur Chanda (Mulla Daud, manuscript from 1550). In the upper section of this depiction, Manya recounts her sorrow during the month of Bhadrapada to Sirjan sitting across from her so that he may convey this to her husband in turn. Below, a man is shown holding a tablet and a pen, with an inkwell at his side; these items suggest that it may be the poet himself - Mulla Daud. The representations from the pahari schools are very similar to the month of Shravana - a couple against the background of a landscape - while paintings from Bikaner (examples based on the descriptions of Govidadas) present a lonely woman in the company of servants. Another iconographic scheme, much more frequent, is based on the Keshavdas’ description and shows a woman and a man standing in or against palace buildings, engrossed in discussion (she is most likely trying to dissuade him from the idea of ??departing this month). In the background, below the overcast sky, a flash of lightning lights up the hills and the animals romping there: an elephant gracefully plucking a flower, a tiger, a snake and various birds. Several schools feature such images: Bikaner, Bundi, Kota, Jodhpur. Another type of iconography was developed at the Jaipur school. There, we most often see Radha and Krishna on the palace terrace, accompanied by servants who point with raised hands at the billowing storm clouds.

After the heavy rains and raging elements of the rainy season comes a much calmer and reflective season - autumn (Sharada, mid-September-mid-November) in the months of Ashwina (September-October) and Kartika (October-November), including the two very important holidays of Navaratra in Ashvina and Diwali in Kartika. In miniature painting, their representations will often appear in barahmasa paintings. Similarly, to the previous cases, they usually provide the background against which the main scene takes place (usually a pair of lovers); sometimes, however, in more complex compositions, they even constitute an equivalent element.

The pahari take on the month of Ashvina traditionally features a pair of lovers in the foreground, while many smaller scenes take place in the background, among ponds full of lotuses: the temple of Durga with worshipers praying alongside, pilgrimages heading towards it, etc.IntheBundidepictions, next to Radha and Krishna meeting in a quiet pavilion, we also see women praying near a small temple. Religious elements (temples, pujas) also contain representations from Jaipur, based on the descriptions of Keshavdas. The representations from Bikaner are slightly different. We see an unhappy woman, whose longing for her beloved is intensified by the prevailing aura.

The month of Kartika is presented quite similarly to Ashwina, mainly because of the frequent religious elements. Here, however, the feast of Diwali plays the dominant role, with a starry, autumn sky in the landscape. Traditionally, these elements form the background for a pair of lovers in the pahari images, an equivalent element in the elaborate Bundi compositions, or surroundings in Jodhpur miniatures featuring a conversation between a woman and a man equipped for a journey.

After a beautiful and romantic autumn comes the least popular season of the year - winter (Hemanta, mid-November-mid-January) in the months of Margasirsha (November-December) and Pausa (December-January). Due to irksome cold weather that prevails, poets recommend mainly staying at home and indulging in love. Scenes inside, snow-capped mountain peaks in the background (in the case of pahari schools), people wrapped in warm blankets and dressed in thicker robes - such are the characteristic features of how this cold season is represented in painting. The first month - Margasirsha - is infrequently depicted, although a miniature from Garhwal with a couple against a landscape, or from Bikaner featuring a lonely, unhappy woman who cannot stand the cold nights without her beloved, deserve our attention.

A similar aura prevails during the second month of winter - Pausha. Contrary to Margasirsha, however, it is honoured by numerous paintings. The oldest known depiction is an illustration of a Laur Chanda manuscript from 1550 and represents the much rarer viraha-barahmasa version of this month. In the picture, a distraught Majna tells Sirjan about her pain. However, the vast majority of images pertaining to this month show happy love with lovers united. These images achieved the greatest level of finesse in the pahari schools. There, traditionally, the foreground is devoted to a couple - a woman and a man dressed in warm robes, often wrapped together in one blanket, trying to warm themselves in this cold time, smoking a water pipe, chewing betel nut or indulging in caresses. There is almost always a glowing charcoal stove nearby, and the background offers a wonderful view of snow-capped mountain peaks. The pair tend to be divine - Radha and Krishna - and this is also a common element of Bundi representations of Pausa. Additionally, the characteristic, elaborate compositions also feature other people: a woman and a man, warming themselves over a fire in the wilderness, wrapped in warm robes. The month of Pausa as depicted in Jajpur takes on a rather surprisingly different appearance - for example, in a miniature dated to the early nineteenth century, based on Kesavdas' poetry. We see a half-undressed man sitting outside on a palace terrace. This may seem strange in the light of earlier images, even more so because nearby, in some buildings, a pair embraced in warm robes warm their hands over a stove. Even though the poet's text includes a passage explaining this depiction, which says that everyone wants a massage with aromatic oil, placing these two different situations alongside each other, suggesting different weather conditions, is surprising. Two portrayals of the month of Pausa from the beginning of the nineteenth century are slightly different, although they are based on the same literary work. In both miniatures we see Radha and Krishna wrapped in warm robes, accompanied by servants, warming themselves by nearby stoves. Paintings from other painting centres, such as Jodhpur or Malwa, also maintain this mood.

Finally, the cool season arrives (Shishira, mid-January-mid-march) in the months of Magha (January-February) and Phalguna (February-March). Spring begins in the middle of it, so Phalguna is properly classified as spring due to the weather that prevails at that time. For this reason, representations of the month of Magha are quite difficult to recognize. They can reflect the remnants of the cold weather of the passing winter, as well as the mood of the beautiful and joyful spring. The former is undoubtedly much more rarely illustrated. In a miniature from Jodhpur (based on Kesavdas’ description) we see a man preparing for the road and a woman trying to dissuade him from it, standing in front of him and offering him a vessel full of flowers. Were it not for the hero’s warm robes and a shawl wrapped around his neck, it would be difficult to guess that this is the cold season. The latter, much more enjoyable month of Magha is represented by more miniatures. The spring atmosphere inspires some images from Bundi, or more modest and simpler ones from Bikaner or Jodhpur.

The long-awaited spring festival of Holi takes place during the second month of the cool season and dominates the representations as an evident distinguishing feature of Phalguna in miniature paintings. In the interpretation of virtually every painting school, a woman and a man are featured among a group of revellers, showering each other with pink powder and shooting red water from special syringes. The literary work on which the depiction is based is less relevant in this case, because almost every poet describes this joyful holiday, which is either a source of happiness (when the lovers are united) or bitterness (when they are apart). However, usually the first variant appears in the miniatures. This is the case in an image from Jaipur from the beginning of the nineteenth century, where a couple in love, in a tight embrace, dance joyfully among the clouds of pink powder flying and in the streams of red water cascading from the syringes. The representation is based on Keshavdas’ poetry, from which a quote appears at the top of the image. The depictions from other schools (Bundi, Kota or Jodhpur) bear similar features, differing only in terms of surroundings and details. This month ends the year, while at the same time joyfully beginning the most popular and awaited season - spring.

Paintings depicting the seasons and months are extraordinary in many ways. It is interesting that they were created based on literary works. So, they represent a combination of poetry and painting. These miniatures also present the wide spectrum of changes that occur cyclically throughout the year. Yet, above all they reveal the extraordinary relationship between man - his feelings and activity - and his surroundings. Nature coexists with people, everything intertwines, creating one, harmoniously functioning

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