A Connoisseur’s Delight – Illustrations of Love Poems of the Rasikapriya



#Didyouknow that in the 16th century there lived in Orchha, in present day Madhya Pradesh, India a poet with the most colourful mind when it came to the nuances and delights of expressed love? And that he created a classic called Rasikapriya which was illustrated by many schools of Rajput miniature painting? He was none other than Keshavdas Mishra. He composed the ‘Rasikapriya’ which has been called The Lovers Breviary and The Connoisseurs Delight. It was written for the cultured aesthete. Let us look at aspects of his poetry in this famous pioneering work and some delightful illustrations made in Rajput ateliers during the 16th to the early 19th century.

Orchha Fort complex, Madhya Pradesh – Wikimedia

Keshavdas’ poetry 

Keshavdas Mishra was born in circa 1555 into a Sanadhya Brahmin family near Orchha at Tikamgarh. He had scholars in his ancestry who had worked for the royal Tomars in Delhi and Gwalior and he was well exposed to Sanskrit as a child. In fact, even his grandfather and father had been attached to the Orchha court as scholars. However, he chose to compose in Braj ‘bhasha’ (language), though he followed the Sanskrit tradition. The Bhakti movement had elevated the level of Braj ‘bhasha’ and he composed his poems in this language. 

Self-portrait, by KeshavdasWikimedia

The poetry of Keshavdas is in ritikavya i.e mannered poetry. He was the pioneer of the Ritikaal of Hindi literature. He was mostly attached to the court of Orchha as a scholar and advisor during his life. His first patron was Chandrasen, Son of Maldev of Jodhpur who ruled from the principality of Sevana. However, Keshavdas was mostly associated with the court of Orchha like his ancestors. Rasikapriya was composed by him in the Braj language in 1591 A.D, a vernacular style of Hindi spoken in mostly North India of yore; the work was inspired by Raja Indrajit Singh, a patron of literature, the brother of Raja Ramshah of Orchha. In 1608, Keshavdas joined the court of Vir Singh Deo for whom he composed separately. His major works include Ratan Bawani (1581), Rasikapriya (1591), Ramachandrika (1600), Rakhshikh (1600), Kavipriya (1601), Chhandamala (1602), Virsingh Dev charit (1607) and Jahangirdas Chandrika (1612). His poetry has rasa (essence), alankara (ornament) and chanda (metre). He was called acharya (master) and guided other poets in his lifetime.

His most acclaimed work is Rasikapriya which covers all the aspects of love, underlined by the Bhakti philosophy of Vaishnavism, also wherein he has highly praised the river Betwa and the land of Orchha. He passed away in circa 1617.

The Rasikapriya

Radha and Krishna in Rasikapriya, ca1634. Opaque watercolour on paper. Malwa, India – Wikimedia

The poems are composed in 16 chapters called prabhavas, based on different aspects of Shringara, like love in longing, love in separation, love in belonging, types of nayakas and nayikas, romantic gestures, meeting places or rendezvous points, offended nayikas and lonesome nayakas. There is also section in the chapters on the ‘sakhi’.  The ‘sakhi’ here is not the cowherd maiden or ‘gopi’ with Radha. She belongs to a lower rung of society and is a ‘love messenger’ who moves between the nayak and nayika. She has been captured in the paintings of Rasikapriya as well. Her role is very important in the realm of love portrayed by Keshavdas. He describes nature; foliage, birds, trees in his work as they from the backdrop in many of the situations captured in his poems. He used proverbs and folk idioms as well to highlight his poetry. In Rasikapriya Krishna is the nayaka or hero in a courtly ambience and Radha is his heroine who is a sophisticated nayika who takes on many forms. In Rasikpriya Krishna is shown as more human than divine, more royal than pastoral, like a princely character. He is closer to real life, emotions like love and hate. Keshavdas manages to move easily between the pastoral Krishna and the courtly prince nayaka.  The love story of Radha and Krishna is portrayed in Rasikapriya (and few other ritikaal works) which became quite popular. In Rasikpriya there was a shift from the groves of Vrindavan to the Rajput courts and havelis (mansions) where the divine lovers Radha-Krishna are depicted. This also resulted in the creation of delightful and captivating artworks of Krishna in the Rajput court and in Rajput costume.

Rasikapriya was not written for the common man or samajika but for the rasika or the connoisseur, a cultured aesthete. The work is drenched in Shringara, a strong focus on the aesthetic and also the erotic nature of the rasa, glorifying beauty and sensuality.

Illustrations of the Rasikapriya

Keshavdas’ poetry in the Rasikpriya was well adapted by the ateliers of the Rajput Schools of miniature painting, like Mewar, Malwa, Bundi, Kishangarh and the Pahari school of Kangra. The paintings depict the many situations in love in this iconic work with the nayaka, nayika and the sakhi

Let us see some illustrations to the Rasikapriya made by different Schools set in nature and a courtly ambience and delight in the painted poetry of the Rasikapriya.

Illustration – Radha looks at the picture of Krishna

Radha looks at the picture of Krishna, from Kangra, dated to circa 1820 – Image Source

In this painting, a forlorn Radha is looking at the picture of Krishna.
The sakhi tells her –

“You need to light a lamp to dispel darkness, you cannot do it with the lustre of your body. You cannot satisfy your hunger just by seeing food. You cannot quench your thirst by listening to stories of water. O you moon faced and lotus eyed maiden, can you bring to the house by just looking at a picture of Lakshmi? By looking at the picture of your beloved you cannot have the pleasure of meeting him. This is the time to go and meet him, so do not waste your time.’’

…from the Rasikpriya, as translated by Harsha V. Dehejia

Illustration – Abhisarika Nayika, Radha Goes To Krishna’s House At Night

Abhisarika nayika, Radha goes to Krishna’s house at night, painted by Purkhu, from Kangra, dated to circa 1805. Wikimedia

In this painting Radha has come to Krishna’s house at night braving dangers along the way. She is depicted as Abhisarika nayika, specifically Premabhisarika nayika.

‘’I am aware of your love and have conquered me as you have come uninvited.

I have come because of the dark clouds.

You must have endured a lot of hardship.

On this dark night when I cannot see my body where is the question of suffering pain?

Then how did you find your way?

I found my way on account of lightning.

Even then you must have negotiated ups and downs, moods and thorns on the way.

My gait was as easy as that of an elephant.

In this dark and foreboding night how did you come alone?

Your love was my companion along the way.’’

…from the Rasikpriya, as translated by Harsha V. Dehejia


Illustration – Krishna Comes To The Lovesick Radha

Krishna comes to the lovesick Radha, painting from Raghogarh, dated to circa 1700. Image Source

In this painting it seems that the sakhi has brought Krishna to Radha –

‘O Krishna! Ever since she has seen you, she does not want anything else. She does not look at a lotus nor does she want to look at the beautiful moon. Even though by nature she is romantic, she does not want to listen to love stories. The beauty of three worlds do not touch her. If she does not see you, she will die. Please come and meet her’

… from the Rasikapriya, as translated by Harsha V. Dehejia.

Illustration – Radha Speaks To Krishna

Radha speaks to Krishna, painting from Amber, dated to circa 1610. Wikimedia

In this painting Radha seems to be telling Krishna –

“Today your eyes are red as if painted in the colours of Mahawar. (Either you are awake all night or you fell at someone’s feet and the mahawar from the feet came into your eyes). Yes, I am in love with you and I like your eyes. I am brimming with love and anger. Tell me, your eyes are red because of longing for me or is it because you love someone else?’’

…. from the Rasikapriya, as translated by Harsha V. Dehejia.

Illustration – Radha Comes To Krishna With Her Veena

Radha comes to Krishna with her ‘veena’, painted by Ruknuddin, from Bikaner, dated to circa 1685. Image Source

In this painting there seems to have been an altercation between Radha and Krishna and she has come to woo him with her music and come with her veena. In the upper register Radha is speaking to her confidante sakhi and two other sakhi have brought a garland for Radha.

O Krishna! People will say what you have them say. Otherwise, they would not speak ill of us. Why walk on a road where there are thorns? When people raise a finger at you then our love will dry up like a withered pumpkin. Never forget that you are me and I am you”

… from the Rasikapriya, as translated by Harsha V. Dehejia.

Illustration – Radha As Utka Nayika Awaits Her Lover

Radha as Utka nayika awaits her lover, painting by Ibrahim, from Bikaner, dated to circa 1692. brooklynmuseum.org

In this painting, Radha, the romantic heroine is in an expectant state as Utka nayika sits talking to her friend, presumably about Krishna, not knowing that he is standing behind her.

“O sakhi, do tell me, why has there been such a long delay in Krishna getting here? Do you think he has forgotten me or has someone waylaid him? Is it possible that he has missed his way and is wandering in search of me? Could someone has frightened him? Is it possible that he some other beautiful woman along the way? Or maybe he is on his way and about to reach here or come here shortly?’’

… from the Rasikapriya, as translated by Harsha V. Dehejia.

These illustrations are made as miniature paintings to a classic work, Rasikapriya by Keshavdas from the 16th century, by different Rajput Schools of painting which brings alive the situations between nayaka, nayika, the sakhi, along with sentiments and experiences of romantic love as envisaged by the poet which are universal and timeless. He has expressed the same in beautiful verse in his monumental work which will continue to enthrall readers of poetry and the paintings will enchant  art lovers for years to come.

References –

1.Dehejia, Harsha V (2013) Rasikapriya – Ritikavya of Keshavdas in the ateliers of love, New Delhi: D. K Print World.

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keshavdas (accessed 19.04.2022)
  2. https://www.academia.edu/42626041/Idealised_Sexualities_in_Rajput_Miniature_Paintings_of_Rasikapriya(accessed 20.04.2022)
  3. Images are from the Public Domain sourced via Wikimedia, Flickr and Brooklyn Museum open collections online.

Image credits: The copyright for the images used in this article belong to their respective owners. Best known credits are given under the image. For changing the image credit or to get the image removed from Caleidoscope, please contact us.



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