Love Stories

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LOVE STORIES The composition of full-length love stories in Indian literature can be traced back to the epic Mahābhārata, long before the beginning of the common era. The Mahābhārata narrates the stories of King Nala and Damayanti, and of King Dushyanta and Shakuntala, in detail; both tales acquired great popularity. Mahakavi ("Great Poet") Kālidāsa was the first to dedicate a full-length drama to the story of Dushyanta and Shakuntala in his Abhijnana Shakuntalam, written in the fifth century a.d. Subsequently a number of romantic tales were written either in the form of drama (natakam) or in the form of story (akhyana, or Akhyayika, or Mahakavya) in Sanskrit by writers like Bana, Bhavabhuti, Subandhu, and others, but these never captured the imagination of painters.

The practice of illustrating love stories, however, came into vogue with the development of Indian miniature painting from the sixteenth century onward. Moreover, these artists did not have to depend on Sanskrit compositions, as romantic literature had become available in local dialects, such as Apabhramsha, Hindi, and Avadhi. There is a vast literature in the Prakrit language, including Tarangavai, Lilavai, Malayasundari Katha, and others, and in Apabhramsha, including Bhavisayatta and Nayakumara Chariyu. These were illustrated particularly in Rajasthan and western India, but since these Jain compositions have heavy religious overtones, they are not looked upon as secular love stories.

The popularity of romantic literature in Avadhi can be attributed to the spread of Sufism after the fourteenth century, which uses the imagery of human love to symbolize the love of the soul for the Supreme. Love stories provided an excellent vehicle to communicate this philosophy to the elite as well as the masses and hence were often illustrated.

Love Stories Inspired by Sanskrit Literature

Abhijnana Shakuntalam

This famous drama in Sanskrit, by the legendary poet Kālidāsa, narrates the romance between King Dushyanta and Shakuntala, the adopted daughter of sage Kanva, who lived in a hermitage in the forest. King Dushyanta fell in love with Shakuntala at first sight, and they were married in a private ceremony, the king giving her his ring. Dushyanta then returned to his wife in his royal capital. Later, when Shakuntala went to his kingdom, pregnant with his child, she found to her dismay that he had forgotten her, for enroute to the palace she had lost his ring in a rushing stream. She suffered for years until one day the royal ring was recovered from a fisherman and returned to Dushyanta, restoring his memory of Shakuntala and their idyllic romance. The drama ends with a happy reunion. A beautifully illustrated Shakuntala manuscript, painted in the Nagpur region and dated 1789, as well as a series of paintings from Hindur, painted in the nineteenth century, are preserved in the collection of the National Museum in New Delhi.

Nala and Damayanti

Originally the story narrated in the Mahābhārata was rendered in the form of a Sanskrit mahakavya (epic poem), Naishadhiya Charita, by the famous poet Shri Harsha in the eighth century a.d. Subsequently several versions of the story were written in Apabhramsha, Hindi, and Deccani Hindi, centered around the love, separation, ordeals, and eventual reunion of King Nala and Damayanti. An Avadhi version of the story, titled Nal Daman, was written by Suradasa of Lucknow in 1637, and the Nalaraya Davadanti Charita was written by a Jain monk, Rishivardhanasuri, in Apabhramsha around 1465, illustrated in the popular Mughal style. The folios of these works are now scattered in several museums and private collections. Nal Daman has been a part of the repertoire of the artists of most schools of Indian miniatures. including Mughal, Rajasthani, Pahari, and late Mughal. A profusely illustrated manuscript of Nal Daman, written by Babulla in Deccani Hindi and preserved in Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Museum of Mumbai, is an exquisite example and is evidence of its popularity in the Deccan region as well.

Madhavanala Kamakandala Katha

The love story depicting the intense love affair between Madhava and Kamakandala was written in different forms of literature by various writers. The earliest version in Sanskrit is a story titled Madhavanal Akhyana by Anandadhara, believed to have been written in 1300. Jodh, the court poet of Emperor Akbar, wrote Madhavanala Kamakandala Katha in 1583. It was also composed in a prabandha form as Madhavanala Kamandala Prabandha by the poet Ganapati. This is a story of a vina (Indian lute) player Madhava and the court dancer Kamakandala, with overtones of the traditional concept of rebirth, in which Madhava was the incarnation of the love god Kama, and Kamakandala the incarnation of his wife Rati. The story, which ends in a happy union, was very popular in North India during the Mughal period. A beautiful illustrated manuscript in Sanskrit, painted in a horizontal format, datable to the seventeenth century, and now scattered in various museums, is one of the earliest illustrated manuscripts of this love story. It was later illustrated in the Deccani and the Pahari schools of painting as well.

Love Stories Inspired by Folklore and Legend

Dhola Maru

Composed around the fourteenth century, Dhola Maru ra Doha is the earliest love story written in Hindi that seems to be based on some folk legend. Dhola Maru by Kushalalabha, composed in 1560, and Dhola Marawani by the poet Kallol of Jodhpur, written in 1620, are the best known versions of this tale. Both tell the story of Dhola, who was engaged to Maravani at a young age but later was married to Malavani, the princess of Malwa. Maravani sent her emissaries, who narrated her lovelorn state to Dhola. He realized his folly and, mounting a camel, went to bring Maravani. The story ends with a happy union of Dhola and Maravani. Rajasthani artists delighted in painting colorfully attired Dhola and Maravani riding a beautifully decorated camel, against a plain desert background. Several illustrated manuscripts of Dhola Maru from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, all from Rajasthan, where it was particularly popular, are preserved in the libraries of Rajasthan as well as in other collections; a very colorful one is the Dhola Maru series of about 1820, now in the Maharaja of Jodhpur Palace Library in Jodhpur.


Another story in which the hero and the heroine are incarnations of the god of love and his wife Rati is Madhumalati. The most popular version of this story was written in Avadhi by Chaturbhujadas in the first half of the sixteenth century. Madhu, the son of an important trader, fell in love with the princess Malati. There was a long period of separation, dejection, frustration, and ordeals, after which the hero and the heroine were united with the help of a friend. Profusely illustrated manuscripts of the work are available from Rajasthan, particularly notable ones being from Kota, painted in 1771, and from Mewar, painted sometime in the eighteenth century.

In addition to these love stories, there are others, such as Adamant by Lakshmansena, Rosaria, Mainmast, Rope Mandarin, and others, which, though popular as literature, do not seem to have been patronized by art lovers; no illustrated manuscripts of these have thus far come to light.

Love Stories Inspired by Sufi Philosophy

Around the mid-fourteenth century, Sufi poets in India started writing the masnavis (long narrative poems in rhyming couplets with a common meter) in Hindi or in the local dialects. Amir Khusrau (a.d. 1253–1325) was one of the great Indian Sufi poets of the time who is believed to have especially favored writing in Hindi. The Indian Sufi poets and writers based several compositions on the available resources in Indian as well as Persian literature and contemporary folklore. Besides the compositions in Hindi and local dialects, several original famous Persian love stories were also illustrated in India, the most notable being Nizami's Laila Majnu, Khushrau-wa Shirin, and Yusuf-wa-Zulaikha. A number of illustrated manuscripts were commissioned by Muslim patrons.

Emperor Akbar patronized illustrations of love stories and is thought to have commissioned illustrations of Khamsa-e-Nizami (Five poems of Nizami); Raj Kunvar, a Hindu romance of a prince who disguised himself as a mendicant and went through ordeals and adventures to win his beloved, written in Persian; Duval Rani Khizr Khan by Amir Khusrau, a Persian text narrating the tragic romance between Khijar Khan, the son of Ala'-ud-Din Muhammad Khalji, and a princess of Gujarat Duval; Nal Daman; and others. An extensively illustrated manuscript of Raj Kunvar, dated 1603–1604, is in the Chester Beaty Library in Dublin. Duval Rani Khijar Khan, illustrated in 1567, is in the collection of the National Museum of New Delhi.

Sufism concentrates on the agony and longing of the lovers and the beauty of the beloved as the reflection of divine beauty. In fact, the expression of love in Sufi poetry itself contains the seeds of pain and suffering that symbolize the hardships of the spiritual journey to attain ultimate union with God. The non-Sufi literature, on the other hand, is a combination of diverse sentiments and perspectives, including eroticism, conjugality, truthfulness, and devotion. The illustrations of the non-Sufi romances therefore illustrate the erotic aspect of the romance between hero and heroine, whereas the Sufibased stories avoid directly erotic representation.


One such popular love story, laced with Sufi ideology, was Laur-Chanda or Chandayan, written by Mulla Daud in the Avadhi dialect in 1380. Based on a Dhalmai folk tale, Laur-Chanda is a popular ballad of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Bengal, and central India, even today. The story narrates the romance of Laurak and Chanda and the hurdles they faced after their elopement. Illustrated copies of this manuscript were commissioned from the mid-fifteenth century, as evidenced by the manuscript of Laur Chanda in the Staat Bibliothek of Berlin, painted sometime between 1450 and 1470. It was a popular text for illustrations in the sixteenth century as well; two of these manuscripts are available, one preserved in the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Museum in Mumbai and the other in the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, England.


Kutban wrote Mirgavat (Mrigavati) in Avadhi in 1504; it became popular in the early sixteenth century, when it was profusely illustrated. It is a story of romance between Prince Rajkunvar and Princess Mrigavati, incorporating adventures and fairy tales with episodes of romance, separation, longing, and final reunion.

Madhu Malati

A commonly illustrated Sufi poem, especially in the Rajasthani styles of painting, is Madhu Malati, written by Manjhan in 1545. This is another version of the Madhumalati by Chaturbhujdasa.

Sufism was thus gradually spreading its roots in India. The seventeenth century was particularly productive as far as the Sufi love stories are concerned. Some of the popular works of the time were Kutb-Mushtari and Sabras by Mulla Vajahi, Saif-ul-mulk or Vadi-ul-Jamal by Gavasi of Golkonda, Chandrabadan Mahiyar by Mukini of Bijapur, Gulshan-e-ishq by Nusarati, Ysuf-wa-Zulaikha by Hashmi of Bijapur, and Kissa-e-Behram-wa Gulbadan by Tawai of Golkonda. The works were often illustrated, especially in the Deccan.


Composed sometime in the late seventeenth century by Muhammad Nusarat of Arcot, Gulshan-e-ishq is one of the most popular love stories in the Deccan. The poet was a court poet of the Bijapur sultan Ali Adil Shah II. Gulshan-e-ishq, also sometimes known as Madhumalati, narrates the story of Prince Manohar, the only son of king Surajbhan of the city Kanayagiri, and Princess Madhumalati. The earliest manuscript of Gulshan-e-ishq thus far known is dated 1669. It is preserved in the collection of the Salar Jung Museum, Hyderabad, which has a total of eight manuscripts of the same, copied and painted at different times.

Single Paintings Representing Love Stories

In addition to the illustrated manuscripts and series of illustrations that narrate these stories, there are some legends that were depicted by a single, particular visual composition incorporating the most significant episode of the story, serving as an iconographic representation of the story. These were the tales of the legendary lovers Baz Bahadur and Rupamati, Sohni and Mahiwal, and Sassi and Punnu.

Rupamati and Baz Bahadur

Bazid Khan (1531–1561), also known as Baz Bahadur (Brave Falcon), was the last king of Malwa; Rupamati was the daughter of a Rajput chieftain from Dharampur. Baz Bahadur saw Rupamati bathing in a pool in the forest and fell in love with her. Infuriated by this, Rupamati's father decided to poison her. However, Baz Bahadur rescued her and they eloped.

The story is illustrated either by depicting them riding horses or resting during their flight, as in a Mughal painting of the mid-seventeenth century in the Punjab Museum at Chandigarh and a Garhwal painting of the eighteenth century in a private collection at Ahmedabad. The theme was popular even in the Deccan area. The other type shows Rupamati climbing down the fort wall to elope with Baz Bahadur, who is waiting for her below, as seen in a Jaipur painting in the Chhatarapti Shivaji Maharaj Museum of Mumbai.

Sohni Mahiwal

Izzat Beg, later known as Mahiwal, was a merchant from Bukhara who settled in a city on the banks of the river Chenab. He fell in love with Sohni, a potter's daughter, but the family disapproved of the relationship. The tale ends with the death of Sohni, who drowns while crossing the river to meet Mahiwal. The last scene, depicting Sohni in midstream with her pot, is representative of the story. Several Pahari and Rajasthani paintings depict this scene; some of the outstanding ones include a Kangra painting of the late eighteenth century in the Bharat Kala Bhavan at Varanasi, a Bundi painting dated 1790 in the Kunwar Sangram Singh Museum of Jaipur, and one from Farrukhabad, painted around 1770, in the collection of Edwin Binney of Dublin.

Sassi Punnu

This folktale is well-known throughout Punjab. Sassi, because of an unhappy prophecy, was abandoned by her parents and was brought up by a Muslim washerwoman. She grew up to be a beautiful maiden. Punnu, son of a prosperous chief, fell in love with her, and they married secretly, much to the dismay of his parents, who carried him away while he was asleep. Sassi set out to look for Punnu, and after a misadventure, she died. Punnu met the same fate, and the two were united in death.

The illustration generally depicts Punnu being carried away on a camel while Sassi laments behind. A painting from the Kangra region, datable to the eighteenth century, poignantly depicts the lamentation of Sassi trailing behind the kidnapped Punnu. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has a beautiful set of five paintings of this theme, painted at Siba around 1800.

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See alsoLiterature ; Miniatures


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