Indian art history has a rich and illustrious past, with many regions having their own specific styles and certain motifs associated with them. The miniature painting schools of the Kangra Valley, Rajasthan, Malwa, the Deccan Plateau, Murshidabad – are all uniquely different in their tradition and the stories/themes they portray.
The women depected in miniature paintings are generally either part of the courts – either wives or consorts of the rulers and courtiers of these regions; or literary/mythical characters depicted to bring a certain story, a song or even a bhaav (emotion/mood) alive.
There are, however, exceptions – In many of these paintings, we see representations of yoginis – female renunciates, in the course of their spiritual path. The majority of these paintings come from the Murshidabad, Rajasthan and Deccan regions – between the 15th and 18th century. The images seem to be related to many diverse incidents in Indian history, but the common thread seems to be the spread of the bhakti movement which took a foothold in these regions at that time.
The representation of the female spiritual experience in Indian literature and art is rare, when compared to the abundance that exists depicting the male experience. However, in what exists, there is a lot to observe and learn – we can infer a lot about Indian society at the time, the perception of women on a spiritual path, and the practices and lifestyle of these yoginis. Some of these paintings are collated here, with brief descriptions:
Visiting the Yogini (Columbia University)
In this 18th century Murshidabad painting, we see a group of ladies from the court, in the forest seeking a yogini’s counsel. There are many such paintings, in which a renunciate is sought out by the subjects of a kingdom for advice – but this kind of interaction between a woman renunciate and women subjects is rare. Another such painting is shown alongside, from the same region and time – this painting also has a similar composition.
Yogini in the forest (Ashmolean Musuem)
This 16th century north-Indian painting shows an elderly yogini, seated on an animal skin (presumably a spotted deer, from the markings), with her japa mala in hand. The japa mala is a common object seen in paintings of yogis and yoginis. Her other hand is shown resting on a Yoga-danda – which is a tool to help yogis and yoginis during japa. In many of these paintings, the yoginis are without an upper body cloth, as the practice of covering came after the Mughal and British rule.
Yogini in Profile (Columbia University)
This painting is from the Deccan, 18th Century. The yogini stands in profile, her matted hair collected into in a bun, wearing magenta and green robes and holding a peacock feather whisk, and a bowl (presumably for collection of food). She has many necklaces, which seem to be prayer beads, and a red patch of vermillion on her forehead.
Two Yoginis (Victoria and Albert Museum)
The painting shows two female ascetics seated on animal skins, the traditional seat of holy men and women. The dark shading and sombre colouring are typical of painting in the Mughal province of Murshidabad in the mid-18th century.
Nath Yoginis (Wikimedia)
This 18th century painting of two Nath Yoginis in the forest from Bikaner, Rajasthan shows them in conversation, both with matter hair tied into a bun, and japa malas in their hands. One of them is seated on animal skin, in gomukhasana pose, while the other one is resting on a swing.
Many more representations exist – there are various images of women engaging in many different kinds of spiritual practices. But there isn’t enough information as of yet on who the women in these paintings are – many of them are anonymous, as are the painters of these images.
However, with more interest and research, we are finding out more about these paintings, these yoginis and their practices. Hopefully, we will soon have a more comprehensive understanding of the female spiritual experience in India, and its depictions in art history.
By: Aarthi Parthasarathy