Sunday, May 22 2022

Dive In


and when all the wars are over a butterfly will still be beautiful…

This line from  Ruskin Bond’s story ‘Scenes from a Writer’s Life’ is a reminder that no matter how fractured the world may seem, there’s always something to appreciate and celebrate. And so, we turn to our museums that are filled with delightful treasures, stories and art—many of which were created and composed amidst war and suffering. Today, they inspire us and fill us with a sense of wonder—just like the butterfly! 


Editor’s note: We are excited to announce another awesome partnership—this time with The Heritage Lab. This is a wonderful platform that helps Indians connect with their cultural heritage through stories, public engagement programs, campaigns. They also create lovely gifs, memes and puzzles that are a joy for children and adults alike. This once-a-month newsletter is authored by culture ninja and founder editor Medhavi Gandhi—and we hope it will brighten up your weekend with beauty, knowledge and delight.


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Culture Byte

Keshavdas: the poet who decoded “the mystery that is love” 

The TLDR: We all know about the Kama Sutra but have you heard about ‘Rasikpriya’—an iconic 16th century treatise that offered a guide to love and relationships?


Meet Keshavdas

Orchha (Madhya Pradesh), known today for its spectacular palaces and monuments, was once the capital of the Bundela dynasty. It was also home to poet Keshavdas, who is considered one of the nine gems of Hindi literature and finds a mention in the 1901 book ‘Hindi Navratna’.  He lived from 1555-1617, and composed many works during his  three-decade career at the Orchha court. Das’ popularity soared during Akbar’s reign—and his riti poetry became a “sought-after commodity” in courts across India.


In the above detail from an iconic painting from the National Museum, you can see him presenting his most famous work, ‘Rasikpriya’ (a Connoisseur's Delight) to his patron Raja Indrajit (on the right)—the brother of the Bundela rulers Ram Shah & Bir Singh Deo of Orchha.


An introduction to ‘Rasikpriya’

The ‘Rasikpriya’ is a treatise on love composed of short verses describing every situation you could find yourself in a relationship—from passion to jealousy and bitter fights, everything is covered in this manual! 


The work was so popular that it soon inspired musicians and artists across medieval India—who developed their own responses to the text. Many of these paintings are now part of prized collections in museums around the world. Here are examples from the Cleveland Museum titled ‘Krishna and Radha Avoid Embarrassment’ and ‘Rati, the Goddess of Erotic Love, Takes Aim at Krishna’:


Here’s a collage of two paintings–titled ‘Krishna and Radha’ and ‘Four Love Scenes and a Landscape’—from the Met Museum:


What was so special about the ‘Rasikpriya’? 

The text of this poem was composed in the vernacular Brajbhasha—which, unlike Sanskrit, was the language of the people. The setting of the ‘Rasikpriya’ (which features Krishna as a romantic hero) is courtly, not pastoral; the verses thus, tell of a regal, princely and humanized Krishna-Radha who feel the excitement & pain of love, just like us. 


In composing the ‘Rasikpriya’, Keshavdas transformed the writing-tradition of the time, birthing a new style of poetry known as riti. His work inspired some of the greatest artworks of the time.

Here’s a line translated by eminent art historian Prof BN Goswamy: “chhori chhori baandhi paag, aaras saun aarsi lai” (What ails you today that you keep tying and re-tying your turban?). This verse inspired a lovely painting where you can see Krishna, tying and untying his turban as Radha holds a mirror for him. The lines are spoken by their friend, the ‘Sakhi’ who is also in the painting—included in Goswamy’s ‘Spirit of Indian Painting’:


Here’s another verse you might relate to, when you’ve tried to keep your ‘crush’ a secret: rādhikā jhaṁkī jharokhe hvai jhaṁpa sī lagī gire murjhāi bihārī. sora bhayo samujhe sakuche haruvāi kahyo hari lāgī supārī.” Translation:


Radha appears at the window of a balcony where Krishna and his friends are conversing while consuming paan. On seeing her, Krishna blushes and swoons, drawing the concern of his friends. When probed, he says he choked on the betel nut.


Patronage of art and culture has been closely linked to political power for centuries. In their creations, poets and artists celebrated the courts that employed them, and helped burnish the royal image of their kings. Amidst power tussles between the Rajput and Mughal nobles, art became a vehicle of a vassal court’s independent cultural expression and their poets became vital to its cultural economy and power.


Read more: ‘Rasikpriya’ also popularized the ashta nayikas (eight heroines) who have now become recognisable not just in art and poetry—but also popular culture. Read a guide to these eight archetypes—with accompanying paintings—over at Heritage Lab.

Museum Mojo

All this week we celebrated the birthday of the much adored Ruskin Bond who made the hill town of Landour (near Mussoorie) his home. Here’s a lovely painting titled ‘Doon from Mussoorie’ by Marianne North—an English artist who visited India in 1877-79. In her autobiography, North wrote: 


"Masuri is a long scattered place, covering an uneven ridge for about three miles, looking over the wide Dun valley on one side, and into the rolling sea of mountains on the other. The ever-changing lights and shadows over the great mountains were a continual wonder for me to watch...One day we went up the hills and saw a tribe of black-faced monkeys, with long tails and grey whiskers, jumping from tree to tree and shaking the very trunks with their sudden springs. Those hills were full of wild nooks, great overhanging rocks, and scraggy twisted oaks...The climate was delicious between the showers, which were as frequent as in England."


A special bonus: This puzzle by The Heritage Lab features another North painting—titled ‘The Bazaar in Mussoorie’. Play it to win Bond’s latest book of short stories—titled ‘Song of the Forest’—published by Aleph Books!


In today’s edition

Incredible Indians 

  • Meet Mario Miranda: A great Indian artist of the 20th century


Be a Culture Ninja

  • Show us your skills in making art memes

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