The true colours of the nayika

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This brilliantly illustrated celebration unfolds in myriad hues.

A Celebration of Love: The Romantic Heroine in the Indian Arts, edited by Harsha V. Dehejia, Lustre Press/ Roli Books, 2004, hardback, p.304, price not stated. HOW does one celebrate love in a public space? Love as it was crystallised and communicated through the arts in ancient India up to the 19th Century? Looking back, Harsha V. Dehejia, the Ottawa-based scholar of Indian aesthetics who collated this erudite, tantalising volume, writes retrospectively of his project, 'It has been a grand festival in which we saw the nayika in her many colours, were present at her idyllic, romantic trysts, were touched by the subtle nuances of her love, participated in her trysts and resonated with her heartthrob.'How does one couch the free-spirited nayika? Should we define her according to the Natyashastra, through Sanskrit drama and temple sculpture, the gopi of the Bhagavata Purana and Gita Govinda, or their more erotically charged Tantric counterpart? The book's 42 pieces pulse with examples, visual illustrations, and expositions that animate our preconceptions and help to redefine our overview.These highly individual insights into shringara rasa fill the imaginative spaces between Rosie Llewelyn Jones' comparisons with the Lucknowi tawaif to Bharat Gupt's Natyashastra-based evocations, from Amina Okada's discourse on the bird as an amatory idiom to Srilata Mueller's insight-packed essay on the Tamil Vrindavan through Periyalvar's 473 verses.

Explorations of beauty

This brilliantly illustrated celebration unfolds in myriad hues. Including Elizabeth Rosen Stone's analysis of the Buddhist nayikas at Nagarjunakonda as narrative sculpture and Shridhar Andhare's outlining of shringara in the Jain Agamic texts. Besides predictable aspects of literary sources in the early Pahari bathing scenes by Joan Cummins or Molly Emma Aiken's delving into the significance of bowers in Rajput painting, we encounter Lalit Kumar's exploration of the ideal Indian beauty through Urvashi, Draupadi, and other Karpuramanjari or artless heroines. More unusual aspects come to life through Kuchipudi dancer Shanta Rati Misra's ruminations about how to render the nayika within her given framework, or Sumanta Banerjee's attempt to unravel what makes Radha the most significant love icon in Bengali folk literature. Just as illuminating are Shilpa Mehta's study of the Rasikapriya of Keshavdas, Devangini Desai's study of the surasundari or nayika rendered with a mirror, a theme she traces back to the Second Century BC at Bharhut and the terracottas of the Ganges valley. Some essays prove memorable because of their choice of subject, others because of their myriad facets. One of these is Aditya Behl's exploration of the Sufi nayika in Qutban's Mirigavati, written in 1503, dedicated to his patron, Husain Shah of Jaunpur's Sharqi dynasty. Dehejia's discourse, 'Vaishnava ethos and Shringara Bhakti' provokes as much thought, when he looks back to the Sixth Century to observe, 'It was a time when the Aryan sacerdotal and contemplative ethos reacted with the life affirming but decadent romantic Tamil tradition... Sanskrit yoga was to blend with Tamil ecstasy, Aryan yoga with Tamil kama, northern spirituality and southern sensuality, purusha with prakriti, and from this synthetis the stage was set for a new ecstatic way of life, that could only come from an outpouring of romantic love towards an intimate and personal god, making bhakti shringara personal and universal at the same time.'

Detailed overview

It is the detailing of the overview that makes this volume worth its price. Its impeccable galaxy of contributors impart unusual aspects to these cadenced pieces, distinguished by sophisticated observation, impressive scholarship, and intelligent articulation. Greater care with the cross-references would have added lustre to this volume, though. For instance, the Guimet Museum's carved ivory panel from Madurai is illustrated on page 278, not 274. And the lounging Wajd Ali Shah among his court fairies is on page 216, not 212. The nayika has underlined the Indian aesthetic sensibility from time immemorial. This collection guides us into a subject worth engaging with more intensely, beyond seminars and academic enclaves. For, as Dehejia phrases it, ' ... the nayika will continue to touch and inspire us and whisper that not only is there truth in love but love is the truth.'



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