Love in Indian Paintings: The Many Expressions of Prema, Sringaar and Kama

Article of the Month - Feb 2024

This article by Prakriti Anand

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Highlight Points

👉 Divine Love and Loving the Divine 

👉 Krishna: The Divine Definition of Love

👉 Parvati-Pati, the Beloved of Parvati - Shiva as the Epitome of Love

👉 Loving Bhairava with Devotion: Ragini Bhairavi

👉 Love Beyond the Sacred: The Colors of Love in the Human Realm

👉 Love in Modern Indian Paintings

Quite far from its image as the land of spirituality and sages, where love, passion, and romance present a deviation from the religious tradition, India and its creative minds from the ancient times have been engaged with the idea and expression of Prema (love) and Kama (passion) in literature, art, and popular tradition. The emotion of Prema, which is loosely translated in English as “love” is a multivalent experience, discussed in the Sanskriti (culture) of India from the Vedic period.

Whether it is the romantic dalliance of Urvashi, the heavenly Apsara with King Pururavas mentioned in the Rig Veda, or the folklores of Laila-Majnu and Heer-Ranjha, the romance of India’s artists and poets with the theme of love, romance, union, and separation has created a treasure of stories, which are immortalized by its people.

Growing richer with the inclusion of the element of Sringaar (the nectar of romance, one of the nine Rasa in Bharatamuni’s Natyashastra), the theme of love finds one of the best and most heart-warming exhibitions in the paintings of India, where the colors and emotions of love fill the canvases with unforgettable visual tales.

Divine Love and Loving the Divine

Krishna: The Divine Definition of Love

No discussion on romance and Sringaar can begin without paying obeisance to Sri Krishna, the incarnation or avatar of Vishnu who fulfilled his promise of protecting the earth and its residents by teaching them the art of divine love.

Raaseshwara”- the Lord of Rasas Krishna in the imagination of Indian poets and painters becomes the point where Prema (love) and Kama (passion) fuse, and transcend the dichotomy of love and devotion, becoming the emotion of “Krishna-rati” or love for Krishna and love of Krishna. Elements of Krishna-rati can be read in the works of Vaishnava Bhakti poets, such as Sri Chaitanya, who writes-

“I am a slave to the feet of Krishna
 and he is a fountain of joy and rasa

Inspired by the immortal legends of Krishna, his Lilas with Radha, and Gopis of Brija, the theme that shines bright in the Indian paintings is that of Sringaar-Bhakti, the union of passion and devotion, to the extent that one cannot separate the two. The raging waves of passion sharpen the fire of devotion, and the sacredness of devotion purifies the expressions of passion.

Becoming the Beloved

Krishna Disguised as a Gopi Teasing Radha | Exotic India Art

The desire or iccha to experience the world through the eyes of one’s beloved grows. Radha tells Krishna- “I will wear your ornaments, and will adorn you in mine. I will make a braid of your hair and wear your Mukuta (crown). You will become me and I will become Krishna, nothing but Krishna”, narrates Chandidas, a medieval Bengali poet, expressing the desire of Radha to become Krishna.

Rajput paintings, from different sub-schools, depict the scenes of Radha and Krishna in the forests or gardens of Vrindavana, where Radha appears in the garments of Krishna as the blue-skinned Krishna veils his face with the chunri of Radha.

Meeting the Beloved

Shri Krishna Bowing Down before Radha | Exotic India Art

The divinity of love for Krishna is such that Radha becomes “swamini”- the supreme feminine, and Krishna takes the identity of the lover, suffering from the pain of being apart, and seeking union constantly. In the lyrics of Gita Govinda of Jaideva, Krishna as the ideal lover appears, asking Radha to “place her lotus feet on his head to extinguish the fire of passion”. The pinnacle of samarpana or self-surrender is expressed through the words of Krishna, which are translated into awe-inspiring Rajput paintings, depicting Krishna bowing in front of his beloved Radha.

Krishna Appeasing Radha for Not Coming on Time | Exotic India Art

In the love story of Radha-Krishna, the eagerness for union, and the preparation of the lovers foreseeing the moment of togetherness is an episode of pure passion and bliss. Sung in the Seva or service of Krishna, one Bhajan titled “Sakhiyan ruchi ruchi seja banai” (the friends of Radha made the bed for the couple joyously), narrates the preparation for the union of Radha-Krishna, done by the Sakhis, who make the bed, adorning it with flowers, lighting the lamps of the chambers, placing fragrant incense and perfumes around.

The meeting spot of the couple, usually in the grooves of Vrindavana or a palace room, is often depicted in Rajputana paintings, with Radha and Krishna embracing one another or sitting in close proximity, relishing in the nectar of the beloved’s company.

Amorous Quietude | Exotic India Art

The enamored bliss of having met the beloved, the beauty of Sringaar, or romance at its peak is not only presented in paintings showing Radha-Krishna in romantic poses but in artworks that capture the contentment of the two in the aftermath of the union. Paintings where Krishna is adorning Radha, putting each ornament from where he himself had removed it in their playfulness, bring the rare moments of tranquility of the lover’s heart, which has achieved union with the beloved, and for a few seconds, knows nothing but fulfillment.

Separation from Beloved

The theme of love in Indian poetry and art moves between the two peaks of union and separation. For the heart in love, everything in between is just time spent in contemplation of either union (Sambhoga) or separation (Vipralambha). The bliss of union is short-lived for the lover, often symbolized by Radha, who undergoes pangs of pain and anxiety if Krishna’s arrival is delayed even by a few moments.

The upheaval of Radha’s heart mirrors the pain of the human heart or soul, which when uniting with the beloved or divine, is aware of the transitory nature of the moment and knows that after this rendezvous with the beloved, they will have to return to their worldly cage.

Krishna Pursuing Heroine (A Folio from Nayika-Bheda ) | Exotic India Art

Paintings, especially from the Basohli school of paintings, inspired by the description of the various moods and emotions of Radha in the medieval text Rasamanjari, show Krishna approaching Radha in her bed chambers and being rebuked by an agitated Radha, who turns her lotus face away from Krishna, feigning maana or pride (of a Nayika or heroine who has charmed her lover).

The playful pretentious of anger and anxiety over separation sometimes turn out to be true, when Krishna leaves his beloved Radha and Gopis to fulfill his duties at Mathura. This chapter of Krishna-Lila, when he is absent from the lives of Radha and Gopis, is a popular theme in Bhakti poetry and classic and folk paintings on Nayika-bheda, becoming a medium through which the devotee voices the state of their heart, in the absence of Krishna.

The interactions between Radha and Krishna’s duta or messenger Uddhava, called Udho in folk poetry are some of the most riveting expressions of Viraha or pain of separation, an emotion which churns the heart of the lover.

Exile in the Forest | Exotic India Art

Though more popularly connected with the poetry and art of romance, Krishna is not the only divine being who descended on earth to experience love. Rama, another avatar of Vishnu is also an epitome of conjugal love and devotion, addressed sometimes as “Eka-patni vrata” (he who took the vow of being only with one wife).

His sacred epic, Ramayana was created by Valmeeki when a fountain of Karuna (compassion) sprouted in his heart, seeing the pain of the Krauchna or crane bird upon separation from its partner, which reminded him of the viraha of Rama, who suffered the unbearable pain of being separated from Sita.

From Rama’s meeting with Sita in the Pushpa-Vatika or floral groove of Mithila, their marriage, to their time together during the Vanavasa and Rama’s state after Sita’s abduction, the Lord of Ayodhya emerges in the poetic verses of Valmeeki as a loving husband, devoted to his virtuous wife, with every particle of his being.

Parvati-Pati, the Beloved of Parvati - Shiva as the Epitome of Love

The Dancing Lord Shiva With Goddess Parvati | Exotic India Art

Shiva, the auspicious or blissful one is the ancient most divine being in Hinduism. Known more popularly as the annihilator in the Hindu trinity, Shiva in his life with Sati and Parvati, the aspects of the great goddess, is the symbol of pure love and affection beyond bodily attraction. Whether it is the Tapasya of Parvati to attain Shiva and only Shiva as her husband or Shiva’s agony after the separation from Sati, the story of Shiva-Shakti in Indian literature and art is replete with moments of joy of union and pain of separation.

Loving Bhairava with Devotion: Ragini Bhairavi

Ragini Bhairavi (Worshipping of Shiva Linga) | Exotic India Art

Inspired by the notes of Indian music, Ragamala (garland of Ragas) is a genre of Indian paintings, depicting the musical Raga and Raginis in human forms, whose actions, expressions, and contexts are an expression of the emotions of the human heart. Amongst the many beautiful Raginis (feminine or softer musical notes) is Ragini Bhairavi, the female devotee of Bhairava, the ferocious aspect of Shiva, who is often painted with a Shaiva shrine, playing the cymbals and singing the hymns of Shiva.

Some of the inscriptions that accompany classic Ragamala paintings identify Ragini Bhairavi as a maiden (unmarried young woman), who is enamored by the aura of Bhairava, and with a single-minded devotional love, prays to Shiva, for receiving the hand of Bhairava in marriage. Unparalleled in its theme, paintings of Ragini Bhairavi are the pinnacle of Prema and Bhakti, a path of love that leads to a union with the divine that is beyond the reach of sages and ascetics.

Love Beyond the Sacred: The Colors of Love in the Human Realm

Crossing the boundaries of sacred and spiritual, when Prema or love reaches the human world in Indian art and writings, its deep and passionate hues remain intact. A corpus of literature and art has developed over centuries around the themes of love, romance, and passion, with human actors- Nayaka (hero) and Nayika (heroine), known as “Nayika-bheda” in the realm of paintings, depicting the many moods of the heroine in love upon seeing, uniting and separating from her lover.

This eternal story of lovers is often compared to its spiritual counterpart- the love and union between the soul and the divine, but even as a simple expression of romance and passion between men and women, these paintings are masterpieces of Indian art.

Nayika- Women in Love

Radha as Abhisarika Nayika (Heroine who Moves) Based on Rasamanjari | Exotic India Art

Nayika, translated as heroine is the symbol of a female in love, in the field of Indian art and literature. From the Natyashastra of Bharata to the Rajput paintings, the Ashta, or eight Nayikas, grow to become innumerable, as visible expressions of love, union, and longing for the beloved.

One of the most engrossing and revolutionary expressions of the Nayika’s love and eagerness to find her lover in art is the figure of the Abhisarika, literally “she who moves”, this Nayika wraps herself in the darkness of the night, and begins a journey full of obstacles to meet her beloved.

Often equated with Radha, Abhisarika Nayika is she who denies the control of societal norms over her and crosses the threshold of her home, to walk into the wilderness. Serpents, night, residents of the forests, thorns on her path, pouring rain and thunderstorms, Abhisarika forgets all, on one condition- that she gets to embrace her beloved!

Baramasa: The Twelve Colors of Love

Baramasa - Month of Magha (Shishir) | Exotic India Art

Another instance where the Nayika and her Nayaka make an appearance on the classic canvas of Indian art is the Baramasa or Twelve-Month painting series, describing the beauty of the seasons, keeping the changes in nature and climate as the backdrop, against which the interactions of the Nayaka and Nayika are presented.

At the heart of Baramasa painting is the Nayika, the heroine who describes the state of her heart with the changes in the seasons, and in each of the twelve Maasa, urges the Nayaka to not leave her alone. Using her sweet voice and astuteness, the Nayika always aims at keeping her beloved close to her, making Baramasa paintings infused with the essence of romance.

Ragamala: Raginis as Nayika in Love

Ragini Gujari, The Wife of Deepak Raga | Exotic India Art

The musical art of Ragamala paintings aims to express the beauty of Raga and Raginis through colors and imagery, using the beauty and moods of the female and male musical notes, presented as the heroine and hero. The Raginis of Ragamala paintings are an extension of the Nayika-bheda, mixed with the description of the musical notes in Sangeeta-shastras.

From the love-lorn Ragini Gujari, walking in the forest with her musical instrument, becoming a Yogini or Jogan in the love of her Raga Deepak or Ragini Vasanti, collecting flowers and rejoicing seeing the arrival of Vasant, anticipating the coming of her beloved, Raginis in Indian art are playful and profound symbols of the state of a heart which has been touched by the gentle yet piercing arrow of love.

Dhola-Maru: Love in Folk Culture

Dhola and Maru: A Folklore of Rajasthan | Exotic India Art

A favorite emblem of love in folk Rajasthani culture and painted in every school of Rajput paintings with rich colors, the legend of Dhola-Maru is one of the many heart-warming tales of romance from India. The story revolves around the characters of Dhola and Maru, who according to the local traditions were married at a young age, while Maru stayed at her parents’ house, waiting for the appropriate age when Maru was to come and take her to the house of her in-laws.

However, with a cruel twist of fate, Dhola forgot about his marriage with Maru and upon reaching adulthood married another woman, from a royal house of Malwa, named “Malwani”. Maru lost heart upon hearing about the marriage of her loved Dhola and lamented the separation with hopeless cries. Her pain was heard by the birds of her house, who flew to Dhola and narrated the state of Maru’s heart, which made Dhola remember his first wife and inspired him to visit her and welcome her to her rightful home.

The paintings of Dhola-Maru visually celebrate the coming together of these long-lost lovers, by showing Dhola-Maru dressed in traditional attire, seated on a camel, which gallops across the desert, its quick movement expressing the desire of the couple to reach their home and begin their life of bliss.

Love in Modern Indian Paintings

Vishwamitra and Menaka | Exotic India Art

This story of love stories in Indian culture is an unending stream, flowing eternally, with many smaller streams joining its waves. The classic tales of love and romance continued to inspire artists like Raja Ravi Varma who immortalized the beauty of the tender first meeting in the story of Menaka and Vishwamitra and the eager yet patient wait of Shakuntala for Dushyanta using modern medium and contemporary sensibilities. Romances on the canvases of modern Indian painters have mesmerized the connoisseurs of art, turning them into Rasika- the seekers of Rasa of the ancient times.

The ability of the Indian artists to translate the passionate and poetic language of classic, Sanskrit, and folk literature into masterpieces of romance is rare and so is their dexterity in infusing two-dimensional figures with the ambrosia of love. Concepts of passion and romance are imagined by these Indian masters with a blend of depth, maturity, and youthful mischief of lovers. Seeing these artworks transports the audience into the romantic world of the subjects- a realm away from the narrowness of the world, where all expressions of Prema, Sringaar, and Kama have found an eternal, aesthetic haven.



1.                Celebration of Love: The Romantic Heroine in the Indian Arts | Exotic India Art

2.              Encyclopedia of Love in World Religions

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