India, Himachal Pradesh, Bilaspur, ca. 1740-50
Opaque watercolor and gold on paper
Courtesy the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.: Purchase and partial gift from the Catherine and Ralph Benkaim Collection — funds provided by the Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries, S2018.1.4
The depiction of the monsoon season is one of the most common ways to express romance in ragamala painting. The monsoon season brought fertility in several ways; dry, arid plains became luscious landscapes, animals began to mate, and lovers stayed indoors together. This painting depicts a man and woman, presumably lovers, taking shelter while a storm rages around them. The woman, beautifully dressed and adorned in jewels, offers her lover a pitcher of water. The man then pours water into his mouth, creating a direct parallel with the rain pouring from the sky above. The two lovers gaze into each other’s eyes, further emphasizing the romantic mood.
The red dye on the heroine’s hands, known as henna, is meant to enhance her beauty. The fact that she is adorned in jewels, fine clothing, and henna indicates that she is a woman of wealth, refinement, and taste.
These scenes of shelter are contrasted by other scenes of romance in which the heroine (nayika) ventures out alone during the monsoon to meet her beloved hero (nayaka). Though both of these monsoon scenes indicate romance, the scenes of shelter capture a very different mood (bhava) than those of the heroine alone. The scene above, which shows the lovers together, can be easier to understand for those unfamiliar with the subject matter of the painting. While these lovers are not physically embracing, the idea that they are close together to take shelter in an intimate space enhances the sensual nature of the monsoon. In the scenes where the heroine is venturing out to meet her lover, visual details indicate that while she appears to be alone, the thought of the hero is always on her mind, and her desire drives her to brave the elements.
In this scene, the hero and the heroine share an intimate moment while rain pours from the sky above. This storm indicates the season of the monsoon, which is commonly associated with growth, fertility, and romance. The water pouring into his mouth creates a direct parallel with the water pouring from the sky, emphasizing the romantic mood and the closeness of the two.
This painting also indicates romance through subtle cues. For example, both the hero and the heroine are dressed to impress, wearing rich textiles and jewels. Her jewelry extends up her arms, neck, and ears, leaving every surface of her body covered in ornamentation. Her clothing is made of beautiful fabrics and covered in intricate patterns. Additionally, her hands and feet are marked with red dye, which is meant to enhance her beauty. Similarly, the hero is adorned in jewels. His clothing and his turban are covered with intricate patterns and decoration, indicating that he, too, wants to impress his lover. Finally, the textiles beneath them are covered in winding floral patterns. The elaborate ornamentation in this painting further emphasizes the romantic mood, as it shows that they are both individuals of refinement and taste.
The shelter above the two lovers is rendered in a way that makes it appear to recede into space, while the textiles beneath them are flattened. This creates a sense of depth above them while simultaneously allowing a full view of the intricate patterns beneath them. The juxtaposition of depth and flatness creates an ambiguous sense of space, likely a stylistic choice by the artist.
While the artist utilized traditional methods of representing the monsoon, including a thick band of clouds and dark colors, some stylistic elements were left to his own creativity. For example, the artist depicted rain drops as long, thin strands of pearl-colored drops coming from the cotton-like clouds above. Additionally, while the two lovers are dressed in elaborate clothing, the background behind them is left without detail. Instead, a brown color is used to fill in the space. This causes the viewer to focus closely on the two lovers rather than getting lost in background detail, thereby intensifying the intimate nature of the scene.