Rain is an important aspect of the cultural life of the Indian subcontinent, and it continues to evoke a range of emotions and memories. It has inspired music, literature, poems and paintings – and each region interprets rain from the vantage point of its associations and relationship with this natural phenomenon. This essay will take a look at different pictorial interpretations of rain in the Rajput traditions to understand how various artists visually communicated about it.
It can be safely assumed that the artist of this particular painting (Fig 1.), like most of his contemporaries, was engaged in recording the court activities and stories of individuals associated with it through the miniature painting. These paintings, in effect, must have been snapshots to look back upon at a later time. However, it is the approach the viewer takes towards engaging with the painting which decides the subject of the painting. Ordinarily, when viewed from a distance, the painting revolves around the central figure of the man venturing out into the rain, as the title suggests. The rain falling from the sky guides us towards the figure of the man, who is framed between the sky and the earth by the large clouds looming in the sky and the small stream of water rushing past his feet – they manage to convey that the man is enveloped by the rain.
An up-close and deliberate engagement with the painting, on the other hand, lends an alternate perspective wherein the rain itself is the subject of the painting. The artist has exhibited a very keen observation and a tremendous mastery of the brush and stippling technique through the transference of natural phenomena onto paper. The artist’s acute observation is noticeable in the way he renders the tiny droplets scattered high up above the sky, the faint drizzles descending from the clouds indicated by thin small strokes, and the tiny multiple dots indicating the intensity of the small raindrops. In between, there are a few larger raindrops, and the ones that inch closer to the earth are slightly elongated to indicate a certain sense of diffusion as they plop in the running stream of rain (in the foreground). Even the clouds are painted with careful detail. The artist displays a certain understanding of the play of light in his rendering of the clouds – the sunlight passing through the clouds leave a faint silver lining, which is especially noticeable in the far right corner at the top, while the clouds that are overshadowed by the others are quite naturally rendered dark. He successfully articulates the different forms that rain could take as it passes through the atmosphere, conveying the idea of incessant rain and a lyrical, rhythmic quality that is associated with this natural phenomenon.
In the painting, the earth and the sky sublimate into one another in the pitch darkness of the sky, except for the slight stroke that indicates a hillock on the right. The artist had also paid attention to how the rain interacts with materials. This is noticeable in the raindrops that bounce away from the umbrella. It is also visible in the manner in which the artist depicts the cloak wrapped around the man. The artist captures the rain-soaked muslin cloth through thick layers of paint, indicating the water it has absorbed, and in a few places left it transparent as it clings to the skin of man. The rainwater dripping from the cloak sways in the direction opposite to the one in which the figure walks. The earth has also given way to small depressions under the impact of the incessant rainfall, through which the rainwater flows in tiny streams.
The brilliance of the painting is realized when it is viewed closely, especially under a magnifying lens. Under a magnifying glass, the raindrops which subside into the two-dimensional flatness of the painting can be seen to display a sense of space and distance as it falls through the atmosphere. As the viewer traces the falling raindrops, the act of engagement slows down the time. Time is conceived through the differences in the depiction of the volumes of water that reach the earth. The rainwater that pours down from the thatched roof of the hut, or as it slips from the edges of the umbrella will flow at different speeds. The runoff water in the foreground will rush faster than either. Even the rain that falls through the atmosphere depending on their sizes will reach the earth at different time intervals, and anyone who has watched the rain knows that the faint drizzle floats through the air slowly while the large water drops hasten towards the earth. The artist has painted an ode to rain through his brilliant understanding of the phenomena and he captures a certain relativity of time in the painting through the depiction of rain.
The previous painting (Fig 1.) displays skill in rendering observed natural phenomena with great attention and detail. On the other hand, in this painting here (Fig 2.), the idea of rain and the incoming storm is conveyed through the intelligent use of narrative devices. The grey sky with the large black cloud and bright streaks of lightning are the most direct indications of rain. However, the ‘image’ of the forthcoming rainstorm is represented through motion which is largely encapsulated in the figure of the lady cowering for shelter in the center.
It indicates the young lady’s skirmish with the wind. The billowing dupatta indicates the direction and the gusto with which the wind blows as it lifts upwards along with the ends of her dress. She responds to the incoming wind by bending forward in a gentle curve, to overcome the force of the incoming wind. Through this gesture of balancing the movements, the artist is also able to establish a sense of harmony and bring forth a restrained grace. This quality of grace is further articulated by the firm but gentle pressure with which she holds on to the ends of the dupatta, which could otherwise slip away if her grasp were to loosen.
Much of the painting is also conveyed through what is not depicted in the painting. For instance, the incoming rain clouds which ‘are yet to enter the frame of the painting’. However, we become aware of its lingering presence (somewhere outside of the frame) from the gaze of the peacock perched on the terrace. The movement of the girl’s clothes (as described earlier) indicates the direction of the wind, and thus that of approaching clouds too.
Peacocks in Indian painting often signify rain; given the cultural association of the bird with the weather. The mating season of the bird which falls around the monsoon season in May, when the bird spreads out its fan to attract the female birds of its species, has led to an understanding that the peacock dances at the onset of rain. This idea has permeated the cultural imagination to the extent that peacocks are directly associated with the season and the weather. Thus, the turned head of the peacock creates an anticipation for the approaching clouds and the torrential rainfall – both of which aren’t indicated in the painting.
It is also worth taking note of that its composition which guides the viewer’s engagement with the painting through a circular arc. The arc starts at the clouds which are outside of the frame followed by the peacock awaiting its approach and the large thunder cloud in the background. It then continues to the young lady in the foreground through whom the tempestuous nature of the approaching storm is realized. The dynamism of her movement as she rushes to seek shelter leads us to the door which is only partially depicted. This closes the arc a little outside of the frame as we seek to complete the image of the door. Indicating the complete frame of the door could have conveyed a greater sense of security and comfort. Yet, the artist’s decisive approach to partially depict the door, adds to the urgency to seek shelter – since we are looking for the door somewhere in the frame. This arc also incites a linear progression of events and actions in its depiction of a very predictable response to rainstorms and we are able to empathize and respond actively to the painting.
Thus, in this painting, the imaginative use of narrative devices by the artist helps the viewer conceive the movement of the wind, the incoming rain clouds, and the associated urgency of seeking shelter to shield from the downpour of rain. Yet, despite the urgency the painting tries to convey, it emanates a quality of unhurried grace.
Attributed to artists after Nainsukh, this painting (Fig 3.) from 18th century Punjab Hills, Kangra, depicts an abhisarika nayika braving the dangers of a dark, rainy night on her way to meet her beloved. The inspiration for this painting originates in Bharatamuni’s Natyashastra that gives the description for the ashta nayikas (for theatre) – eight states of emotions and reactions that a woman in love experiences in a relationship . The abhisarika nayika, thus describes a woman who leaves her house against conventions to be with her lover, while facing many dangers and hurdles on her way. There are several depictions of the abhisarika where the woman venturing out is pictured against different times of the day like jotsnabhisarika (during moonlight), divabhisarika (daylight) and krishnabhisarika (during the dark night) or even in different weathers such as kuaasha abhisarika (during fog), and the varsha abhisarika (during rain).
In paintings of the varsha abhisarika, like any other abhisarika, she is depicted to have dropped her anklet as she walks through dense and unknown forests haunted by spirits, with poisonous snakes obstructing her path, and the addition of the the hurdles that the incessant rainfall, thunder, lightning brings. The lightning striking through the clouds imitate the movement of the snakes on the ground. The theme of the abhisarika, especially the varsha abhisarika appears to be a popular one for miniature paintings; given the association of love and romance with rain.
The nayika in the bright yellow chunri and the complementing blue of her lehenga, calls back to the blue god of Indian lore. She wears the colors Pitambar Krishna. Through this simple but clever use of color, the artist invokes the idea of Krishna, thereby the lore of Radha-Krishna which continues to permeate literature, performative arts, and also paintings. It is interesting to note that the inspiration for such a depiction of the nayika was received through Jayadeva’s Gita-Govinda which reads:
“One morning, Acyuta found Himself mistakenly garbed in Sri Rädhä’s blue veil, and Her breast was covered with His yellow shawl. This caused all the sakhis to burst out laughing.” (Act 7, Verse 42)
However, the artist’s interpretations create new meanings and different allusions in the context of the abhisarika. It does not just picture and idealize a woman who defies conventions to be with her lover, but it refers to Radha as the abhisarika who defies society to be with her Kanha. Thus, we find that some values and ideas of the Bhakti tradition emerge through the painting which sought union with the divine.
This idea is further explored by leading us to engage with the entwined trees. In contrast to the abhisarika’s quiet determination, the trees are the most expressive elements in the painting. In miniature paintings that depict themes of love and romance, the idea of togetherness is indicated through representation of objects in twos. Thus, the union of two different souls which is depicted through the embrace of the two trees – and the abhisarika’s glance towards them expresses her desire and longing to find herself in a similar union. This implication holds for most paintings of the abhisarika with a similar composition involving trees and herself. However, the artist’s implied intent with respect to this painting allows a secondary reading. The abhisarika’s contemplative glance over her shoulder, directs us to the trees tied together in what could be understood as an anthropomorphized embrace. The directionality suggested through the woman’s gaze, and the expressive qualities conveyed through a non-human entity coerces the viewer to linger on this part of the painting for longer. Thus, the artist invites the viewer to contemplate upon a union with the divine by directing this desire through the yearning glance of Radha. Thus, the artist succeeds in imparting layers of meaning and opens up the possibility for multiple interpretations in the painting.
If we are to look at the depiction of rain in another painting from Garhwal, the sky is fluid as if the clouds are diffusing and melting into each other. The quality of diffusion and fluidity is exhibited in the lighting too. The falling raindrops sweeping towards the earth seem to compliment the body movements of the abhisarika. It indicates an active participation of the rain with the abhisarika, the rain seems to mirror her movements and the excitement that she must be experiencing.
Rain, in most traditional paintings, evoke the ideas of romance and a longing to be with one’s beloved (as we shall also see in the paintings of the Barahmasa). While it is conjectural, in the painting we were discussing previously (Fig 3.), the rainclouds could be an allusion to Ghanshyam, another epithet of Krishna with whom the abhisarika seeks union. The painter has meticulously painted the rain to fall in straight, unfaltering parallel lines of nearly uniform thickness. The rain, however, seems to recede to the backdrop and exists as a spectator to the spectacle, presenting only the setting of the narrative. Unlike the Garhwal painting, it doesn’t actively engage with the viewer. Yet its steady and continuous flow reflects the quiet determination of the abhisarika and her mood. It lends it a certain pensive quality allowing the viewer to contemplate on the painting, and the ideas it seems to connote. The slow steps of the abhisarika, are droned away by the stillness and the incessant rain which falls rapidly upon the grassy terrain – seemingly covering for her escapade. At this point it is worth noting the quality of restrained grace and muted expression that is visible in the painting which lends both the painting and the abhisarika a quality of refinement.
The rain ‘surrounds’ the painting. It is denoted as raindrops that fall like strings of pearl that seem to adorn the sky, much like a house decorated with garlands of flowers during a celebration. The overpowering impact of the rain, however, is communicated through the right-ward tilt of the haveli. It sets the tone for the rest of the painting (which we will come back to in a bit).
The painting is a pictorial depiction of the month of Bhadon as described by Keshavdas in Rasikapriya. The Barahmasa poems depict the different stages in a relationship as the woman waits for her lover to return home through the different months of the year. Bhadon (which falls between August – September) brings intense rain and is conceived as a time when the lovers are finally together after a
long period of separation, much like the month of Shravan. There is a standard set of elements that recur in the Barahmasa paintings which the artist interprets according to his creative acumen. Thus, representations of the togetherness of a couple amidst a rainy season along with elephants, tigers, and lions would be understood as a painting of the month of Bhadon.
It is delightful to note how each of the elements in the painting (Fig 5.) come together to essay the mood of the season and the vigor with which it arrives. The rain has arrived with a devastating impact: a tree sways uncontrollably as the storm soars. On the other hand, an elephant marches in, stomping across the roof of the haveli, putting it through shockwaves that shake it up which is made visible in the tilt of the mansion. Add to that, it is submerged by murky floodwaters which we identify as the waves painted in brown that cover the bottom part of the painting. Amidst this clamor, the couple enjoys a moment of reunion as the man returns into the waiting arms of his lady love. There is a certain element of humor blended with the catastrophic weather that seems to act as a foil to a perfectly romantic moment – which nonetheless endures despite the calamity that has presently befallen the stronghold. However, neither is the elephant rampaging on the terrace nor is the haveli collapsing under its weight nor are the lion and tiger at the door. Rather, it implies the effect of rain by visualizing it through a direct representation of the metaphors that are associated with the weather. This imagination is nurtured by the metaphors found in the languages spoken in the northern region of the subcontinent. The movement of the massive gray clouds is often compared to that of an elephant’s which moves in large herds much like the slowly passing aggregate of clouds. The elephant (nor the tree) does not physically occupy such a space. Rather the presence of the elephant on the terrace may act as a substitute for the rain clouds which bring with it rumbling thunderstorms. In fact, ‘garaj,’ the word used to describe the sound of thunderclap is the same word used to describe a lion’s roar. In this context, the ferocious felines at the door might resound the thunderclap that announces the incoming rain.
Before we delve a little more into this, we should take a moment to appreciate this particular interaction of the lions and the lady closest to them in the painting. The framing is worth noting since the lion moves forward from its frame, ready to pounce upon the who is yet to completely enter ‘her’ frame ( we understand this from the tassels of her dupatta that are outside of the frame). It puts together an intelligent narrative that is once again humorous and catastrophic but at the same time metaphorical. What it hints towards is the need to retreat indoors to keep safe from the approaching storm. The lady or the nayika here had wanted to be with her lover too. However, unlike her friend whose companion has returned, her beloved hasn’t returned yet. The artist creates a very interesting dynamic – her feet are lifted as she returns into the mansion yet her body is turned towards the door, as she longingly looks for the arrival of her beloved. We get a further glimpse into the psyche of this nayika through the two niches (কুলুঙ্গি) at the topmost right corner which holds a round-bottomed flask in each. This is contrary to representations where two similar things are represented in pairs to represent togetherness, especially in artworks that deal with the subject of love. What the two flasks seem to indicate is that despite the closeness the two lovers feel towards each other they are separated by distance.
The accompanying verse at the topmost part of the painting reads as:
Ghorata ghana cahu ora, ghosa nirghosini mandahi,
Dhārādhara dhara dharani musala dhāraba jala chandani.
Jhilli gana jhankāra, pavana jhuki jhuki jhak jhak jhorata,
Simha- bagha guñjarata, punja kunjara taru torata.
Nisi dina visesa nihi sesa miti jāta suoli oriai.
Desahī piusa paradesa visa, bhādaū bhauna na choriai.
Dark clouds have gathered all around; they thunder and thunder.
Rain pours down in heavy torrents.
Cicadas chirp, strong winds blow fiercely.
Tiger and lion roar, elephants dishevel trees.
Night and day, there is no difference,
Home is nectar, traveling abroad is poison, one should not leave home in the month of Bhadon.
(Fransesca Orsini, Barahmasa in Hindi and Urdu)
This describes some of the elements which appear in subsequent paintings of the Barahmasa including that of Bhadon. However, what we have noted so far is that the painting does not translate every idea as it is in the literature into the visual. Rather, it takes the idea mentioned in the poem, addressing the viewer’s familiarity with the subject matter to derive an innovative way to communicate the idea of the season by using these elements commonly associated with Bhadon as metaphors for rain.
An analysis of the simple subject rain confronts us with the skill possessed by the artists who produced these paintings. We are made aware of a flourishing culture of storytelling through pictures in this part of the world, which perhaps was at par with the European Renaissance, by its own merits. While this analysis has included only four paintings, it presents an exciting diversity in how rain is depicted and interpreted. Through the meticulous and sublime rendition of rain in Fig. 1 – Prince Amar Walking in the Rain, we come across the artist’s capability to transmit observed natural phenomena into the painted form. It also confirms that while the aesthetic registers in these regions did not insist upon a naturalistic representation of the surroundings, the artists were acutely aware and capable of evoking the qualities of natural phenomena through his art. In Fig. 2- Lady taking Shelter from the Storm, there is a very intelligent depiction of the theme without representing it. We only see the advent of rain, yet we see an intelligent use of narrative devices and motion to convey the idea of the incoming rain. Unlike the other paintings we discussed, the Abhisarika (Fig. 3) depicts how rain is used to propel a narrative and provide it a backdrop against which the main narrative can take place; as an ancillary to the moods and ideas that the artists intend to convey. In the painting of Bhadon (Fig. 5) on the other hand, we see a clever storyteller who employs humor and satire to evoke the idea of the season, in a visual retelling of existing pieces of literature. There are multiple devices that the artist uses imaginatively to communicate his idea visually.
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Mariyam Begum is a postgraduate student of Art History at Kala Bhavana, Santiniketan. As part of her Masters’ dissertation, she is studying contemporary art in South Asia. She is passionate about nature and much of her work aligns with reading visual art through an ecological and cultural lens.