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AshtaNayika Paintings: The Eight Heroines

Composition and Semiotic Analysis by Omkar Pradhan

यथा सुमेरू: प्रवरो नगानां यथाण्डजानां गरुड: प्रधान:I

यथा नराणां प्रवर: क्षितीशस्तथा कलानामिह चित्रकल्प” II ४३:३९ II

Viśṇudharamottara Puraṇa

As Sumeru is the best of mountains, Garuda, the chief of birds, and a lord of the earth, the most exalted amongst men, so is painting the best of all arts.

(Tr. by Stella Kramrisch, 1928)

Miniature Painting by Dr. Shrikant Pradhan in his Neo-Maharashtrian style


The visual art in ancient India had its own space among all other art forms. The art of painting in ancient India had a certain importance. Atthasalini, a famous Buddhist text describes the essence of art i.e., painting as -

कथं चित्तकरणताया ति ? लोकस्मिं हि चित्तकम्मतो उत्तरिं अञ्ञं चित्तं नाम नत्थि I”

“There is no art in the world more variegated than the art of painting.”

(Tr. by Maung Tin, 1921)

This example of a Gatha (verse) from Atthasalini suggests the importance of Chitra (painting) as a versatile, and an imaginative form. Similarly, Chitrasutra of Viśudharamottara Puraa also defines,

“….कलानामिह चित्रकल्प” and कलानां प्रवरं चित्रं…”

“The finest among arts is painting.”

Since ancient times (1st/2nd century BC/AD – 5th/6th century AD) we have had great examples of fine art. The legendary murals from Ajanta caves exhibited the numerous imageries of art elements as well as the influence, concept, metaphor and the philosophical thoughts of their genre. To infer, the ancient Indian art of painting had its own peculiarities which later influenced other regional art of paintings in many aspects. However, the philosophy, concepts, metaphors and other representations found in this art, made this form more versatile, narrative, symbolic, decorative and even metaphysical. Many such diverse aspects of Indian paintings influenced the subsequent periods of paintings in vast regions of India.

In the mediaeval period, under the Mughals, Indian art of painting took a great sway in its manifestation. Royal patronage helped this new idiom of the art of painting become the zenith of new Indian art. It was a great amalgamation of Persian, local and regional art forms. These amalgamations gave birth to different royal as well as regional schools and styles in India known as Mughal, Rajasthani, Pahadi, Deccani etc. This was an innovative and a small expression of paintings, mostly done on paper, arose to be known as miniature paintings. Earlier conducts of kings or royalties, stories, epics stories, the scenes from royal courts, royal portraits were main subjects of these paintings. Whereas Hindu mythology, epics and Puraic stories and paintings on music, i.e., Ragmala paintings were introduced. These all became the subjects of painting in different principalities or the regions, under the kings and their subordinates.

It so appears that Indian artists have portrayed their compositions with various elements of nature; including flora and fauna, colours and symbols, even the celestial beings which they visualised by their own understanding of philosophy and age-old literature. While depicting complex figures they utilised their aptitude by surrounding various elements of nature. Aesthetically they added emotions i.e., bhava and rasato make them animate. Fascinatingly, the perception of figures by Indian artists as described by Jayamangala in his commentary on Kamasutra states,

रूपभेदा: प्रमाणानि भावलावण्ययोजनम्I

सादृश्यं वर्णिकाभंग इति चित्रं षडंगकम् II”

“Differences in appearances, proportions, the blending of feelings with grace, resemblance with colour hues are the six limbs of paintings.”

However, among these, some elements are visible whereas some are inner or mental expressions. Similarly, Buddhist text like Attasalini also describes the creation of mental state of art, reflecting the renowned Jatakastories of Ajanta caves.

The compositions in each frame, in paintings or even in sculptural panels, are mostly full of action. Often, they are animated, decorative or even static. Vertical, multiple perspective or centralized figures are used to complete the depictions. Mostly these depictions are narrative in form. The entire space of portrayal is distributed into many segments, with multiple small spaces, surrounding the main subject. Colours also have symbolic meanings and are accordingly used to show a particular figure. Flora and fauna too have their own peculiar meanings. Signs and symbols and cantos/verses from celebrated texts are often employed to add feelings or sentiments in the art.

Finally, as mentioned in Viśnudharmottar Puraa of 5th/6th century AD. The art of painting is inter-connected to other performing and visual arts, such as sangit, nrutya abhinaya, poetry, sculptures, etc. All these perspectives of art, are important; and make Indian art a distinct form of visual art.

However, the compositional elements in the Indian paintings are treated differently as compared to the art of painting in the west. As mentioned earlier that the Indian idea of painting is mainly based on ‘six limbs’ of paintings. When differences occur in nature, the painter should adapt and paint accordingly but the proportions mentioned are based to form the divine rhythm of body, synchronising mainly with the nature. For instance, Rajivalochana Rama i.e., the eye of Rama resembles the petals of lotus, or Minakshi i.e., the shape of the eyes like a fish. Here, blending of feelings are most important, i.e., ‘rasa’ though it is the base of all art forms. Finally the use of colours or hues in the figures or any other entity in the picture is more important. As mentioned earlier it is more symbolic. Interestingly, the symbolic identity of colours convey the different moods, feelings and movements. In ancient literature, most of the colours are associated to the different activity, the psychology, notions and even rasa etc. Here, one can observe the image of Shiva, when shown in white as auspicious, calm or in the Yogic, meditative gesture, symbolising grace and creation (Utpatti), whereas, when shown in red, he is seen to be more aggressive towards the Asuras or symbolises continuance (Sthiti), when shown in black, he symbolises destruction (Laya). The above given example is not only restricted to Shiva, but other subjects as well, Interestingly in Yogic Sciences, the body is divided into a number of Chakras, which are associated with particular colours. Colours in the Indian Philosophy emancipate the divine or the universal energy.

With this brief introduction of colours, one can understand that in Indian painting, the perspective is different from that of the Western realistic paintings, which with the help of light and shadows (highlights, mid-tones, shadows) are painted in a more dimensional form; whereas, in Indian paintings the dimension (here contrast) is achieved with the help of colour gradation, zones etc. which in turn create a sense of multiple depths as mentioned earlier, to the paintings.

To understand miniature paintings, though it is an amalgamation of the Persian and the other regions as well, the subject of our concerned study is related to the Nayikas, the heroines from the ancient Indian literature hence, the idea and notions in Indian paintings are necessary to analyse the colour palettes, semiotics, etc. Hypothetically, it enables us to understand the pictorial frame of Indian paintings, with reference to the Indian miniatures.

Understanding the Concept and Classification of Nayakas and Nayikas

From the perspective of Poetry Rhetoric and Drama, as well as Śrungara-Erotics, Indian writers have been keen in classifying the Heroes and Heroines (Nayaka and Nayikas) in very well-defined types. We can study these classifications in some of the ancient Indian classics such as Bharatiya Natyashastra, Sahitya Darpaṇand Kamasutra. Many vernacular literature (poetry) works of Hindustan, such as Keshavdas’ Rasikapriya, Biharilal’s Satasaiya and Jaswant Singh’s Bhasha Bhushaṇ being its primary examples.

The oldest Classification can be traced in the Natyashastra wherein Bharata Muni defines fourteen Nayakaor the types of Hero-lovers in the following manner with respect to their Swabhava (Nature), as articulated in The Eight Nayikas by pioneering and celebrated historian, philosopher of Indian art Ananda K. Coomaraswamy as - lover, beloved, gentle, lordly, possessive, animated, pleasing, miscreant, evil, untruthful, refractory, braggart, shameless, brutal.

Whereas, in Sahitya Darpaṇ and Bhasha Bhushaṇ, Nayaka are classified majorly in four main categories - Anukula/faithful (to one beloved), dakshina/impartial (kind to one while loving another), satha/cunning (both unkind and false) and dhrshta/shameless (indifferent to blame).

In Rasikapriya’s classification of the above, anukula is replaced by the term atula (meaning the same), by keeping all the other attributes common. Further, in texts like Bhasha Bhushaa, Rasikamanjiri a more defined classification can be seen. This classification is based on the type of the hero-lover - husband (pati), paramour (upapati), one who resorts to hetairai (vaisika).

If we further study Bharatiya Natyashastra, heroes and heroines are classified into three more categories - worthy (uttama), unworthy (adhama), mediocre (madhyama).

The concept of Nayika/Heroine occupies a more detailed space in Literature of Dramaturgy and is more erotic than that of Nayaka/Hero. Coomaraswamy explicates this perception with a quote of Schmidt, that

“…is quite natural, since it is men that are classifying women; had the situation been reversed, the proportion might well have been different. Moreover, we can easily allow that a Woman is a much more interesting and many-sided object to study than Man,” Schmidt.

The very first basic classification of Heroines/Nayikas with respect to their relationship with the beloved appears in Kamasutra as - maiden, wife and hetaira.

Later on in Ratirahasya, women in general, based on their appearance are classified as- mrgi (gazelle-like), vadava (mare-like) and hastii (elephant-like).

As per Ratirahasya, Anangaranga, Bhasha Bhushaa and Rasikapriya, a better known classification of women in the descending order of their merit - padmini (lotus), chitrini (variegated), shankhini (conch) and hastini (elephant-like).

Further, Ratirahasya classifies women as per age into - bala (up to 16 years), tarui (16 years to 30 years), praudha (30 years to 50 years) and vriddha (55 years and above).

Sahitya Darpa, Bhasha Bhushaṇ further classifies women into the following type - swakiya (one’s own), parakiya (another’s) and samanya/sadharana (anybody’s).

Swakiya is further divided into - mugdha (artless/youthful), praudha (mature) and madhya (adolescent).

There are majorly three phases in the life of every Nayika, which could be classified into - navodha (newly married), udha (childish) and manini (attitude).

Ashta Nayika: The Eight Heroines

The concept of Ashta-Nayika can be traced back to the 2nd Century BC and 2nd Century AD, where the term ‘Ashta Naayika’ appears for the first time, in Natyashastra, a key Sanskrit treatise on Indian Performing Arts, authored by Bharata Muni.

तत्र वासकसज्जा वा विरहोत्कण्ठितापि वा I

स्वाधीनपतिका वापि कलहान्तरितापि वा II१९७II

खण्डिता विप्रलब्धा वा तथा प्रोषितभर्तुका I

तथाभिसारिका चैव इत्यष्टौ नायिका: स्मृता: II१९८II”

(Classification with nomenclature, translated and elaborated below)

Ashta Naayika (Nayika-bheda) is a collective name for the eight types of Nayikas or the Heroines. These eight Nayikas represent eight different types of states or Avasthas in relation to her hero or Nayaka.

It has been used in the Indian paintings, literature, sculptures as well as in Indian classical dance, as the most common states of the romantic heroine.

The classification is further detailed in various other treatise as - Sahitadarpaṇa (14th Century) and Dasarupaka (10th Century)

And in poetics & erotic’s like: Kamashastra, Kuttanimata (8th – 9th Century) based on courtesans; Panchasayaka, Anangaranga and Smaradipika.

In Keshavdasa’s work Rasikapriya (16th Century), a Hindi poetic; a detailed work on the concept of Ashta Naayika can be witnessed. In most of the situations, Radha can be seen in the roles of these various Nayikas, whereas Kṛiśhna can be seen as her Nayaka.

The love between Radha & Kṛiśhna is represented through the domination of lyrics, from the consciousness of Radha in the Hindustani classical music; the semi-classical genre thumri, imbibes the moods of Radha, as the concept of Ashta Nayika revolves around the passionate love of Radha towards Kriśhna.

It is also believed that there are three ways in which the Lover may first see the Beloved - through a dream, through a picture and face to face.

Nomenclature and Identification of AshtaNayikas

It can be observed that, the lover and the beloved are represented as Radha and Kṛiśhna respectively in the Indian paintings.

Ashta Nayika has been one of the keen subject of the Indian Pahari paintings.

परिस्थिती-अनुसार नायिका-भेद

ये सब जितनी नाइका, बरनी मति-अनुसार I

केसवदास, बखानियै, ते सब आठ प्रकार I१I

स्वाधीनपतिका, उत्कहीं, बासकसज्जा नाम I

अभिसंधिता बाखानियै, और खंडिता बाम I२I

केसव प्रोषितप्रेयसी, लब्धबिप्र सु आनि I

अष्टनायिका ये सकल, अभिसारिका सु जानि I३I

Acharya Keshavdas kruta Rasikapriya (1962.23)

The above lines from Rasikapriya, by Acharya Kesavdasa, a 17th century Sanskrit pandit and Hindi poet, who composed a famous collection of poems. He describes the eight Nayikas according to the Natyashastraof Bharat Muni and his understanding. He mentions in his work, that there are eight forms of Nayikas.To comprehend the basic idea of eight Heroines i.e. Nayikas, the short introduction with description and synonyms of the Nayikas, are extracted from “THE EIGHT NAYIKAS” excellently described by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy.

(a) Swadhinapatika, Swadhinapatika; she whose beloved is “in her bandoun”, is subject to her.

(b) Utkala, Utka, Utkahita, Virahotkaṇhita; she who is alone and expectant or yearning.

(c) Vasakaśayya, Vasakasajja, Sajjika, Sajjita; she who waits by the bed.

(d) Abhisandhita, Kalahantarita, Kupita; she who is separated from her beloved by a quarrel, i.e. as a result of her own unkindness.

(e) Khanḍita; she who is offended.

(f) Proṣita-patika, Proṣita-bhartṛka, Proṣita-preyasi; she whose beloved has gone abroad.

(g) Labdhavipra, Vipralabdha; she who has made an appointment and is disappointed.

(h) Abhisarika; she who goes out to meet her beloved.

The introductory sections and individual characters or swabhavas of each Nayika, gives her physical or emotional acuities. Accordingly, in abhinaya or natya, and especially in the art of painting, artists seems to be well proficient in each described swabhava of Nayika. Interestingly, these paintings show a number of features through colours, signs and symbols, flora and fauna too. All these renderings reflect bhava as well swabhava.

In the following discussion we will try to understand each and every Nayika, with respect to her key identification points, and later on we shall try to analyse a few paintings with the help of the Semiotics prevailing in them.



Swadhinapatika Nayika

(she whose beloved is “in her Bandon”, is subject to her)

In the mansion of Radha, Krishna paints his consort's feet with auspicious red lac, popularly called mahawar, a dye extracted from beetles. Radha's attendant is amazed to witness this divine love. Kangra, 19th century. From the collection of The National Museum, New Delhi

Swadhinapatika Nayika is classified as standing/seated beside her lover, whereas he is seen gently massaging her feet, washing it, caressing her or applying lac dye on her feet. This is an evidence of her Lover’s complete subjection.

Swadhinapatikā Nāyika’s charm and gentleness is such that it leaves her lover, not only faithful but also her faithful salve.

Swadhinapatikā Nāyika is considered as the happiest Nāyika amongst the others.

Swadhinapatika Nayika Lakshana

Plate (i) Swadhinapatikā Nāyika

Krishna spreads lotus petals using which Radha follows him at night by a lotus tank. 17th C. Malwa India.

From the collection of The National Museum, New Delhi, India

Color Palette

Palette (i)

Swadhinapatika Nayika Lakshana Painting

Palette Analysis:

The use of complimentary colour scheme can be seen here, wherein the contrast is created with the help of yellow and orange on the foreground of the colour blue and its shades. The use of white to balance the mass of blue is evident and helps create a deeper contrast. A careful calculation of the warm colours is used to create harmony with the vast mass of the cool colours, which in turn gives rise to the mood of the theme. In terms of colour psychology, the colour blue is used here to portray night as well as it symbolises peacefulness, tranquility, stability, as well as the infinite Sky.

Semiotic/Compositional Analysis:

The Nayika in the above miniature painting can be classified and identified as ‘Swadhinapatika Nayika’ as we can see Kṛiśhna spreading lotus petals for his beloved Radha, who can be seen walking over them. This painting is drawn in the oriental perspective, especially in Indian context here. The tree in the centre divides the scene into two symmetrical parts, which is the symbolic representation of the two mindsets and the equal-ness/one-ness of Radha-Kṛiśhna.

The branches of the trees, peacock feathers, eye-line of the monkeys etc. are smartly utilised by the artist to lead the viewer’s attention back to the subject. Such kind of leading lines can be seen in a lot of Indian paintings. In Indian paintings, Kṛiśhna is always painted using the colour blue and black, which denotes that Kṛiśhna is an avatar of Vishnu and that in turn signifies the “sky and infinity”. To maintain the privacy of the scene/moment, the artist has used the “frame within a frame” technique.

The presence of Banana trees, with inflorescence at the base of the painting, especially the occurrence of Banana flower signifies fertility/motherhood. All the trees present in the painting are blooming with flowers; the peeping monkeys becoming the witness in the scene adds to the creation of the romantic ambience as well as gives the viewer an indication of the mindset of the Nayika.

The body language of peacocks as well as the lyrical lines of the tree branches, gives us an illusion of the happiness of the scene. Peacocks, in Indian semiotics are considered as auspicious, as they are related to monsoons. 60% of the frame is filled with cool colours; mostly shades of blue to ensure the area visible is as infinite as the sky.



Utkanthita Nayika

(she who is alone and expectant/yearning)

The Anxious or Expectant Heroine (Utka Nayika), Folio from a Rasikapriya (The Connoisseur's Delights) of Kesavadasa. Rajasthan, Uniara, circa, 1760 or later.

Utkanthita Nayika is classified as the one who awaits her beloved impatiently at the place of their meeting. Generally this Nayika is seen standing beside or seated on a leaf-bed under a tree/beside a stream/at the edge of some groove, mostly at night. The presence of timid Deers, grazing, snuffing the winds and ready to dash away at the least sound, with the stillness of the water and the loneliness of the place is evident around her.

Utkanthita Nayika and Abhisarika Nayika are considered as the most poetic and the most appeared ones from the entire Ashta Nayika series in Indian paintings.

Utkanthita Nayika Lakshana

Plate (ii)

Utkanthita Nayika: Radha waiting for Kriśhna (From Google)

Color Palette

Palette (ii)

Utkanthita Nayika Lakshana Painting

Palette Analysis

Bright orange is used as an element of contrast as well as to show the curiosity of the scene. The gradation of purple is used to depict devotion, mystery. The mass of white creates the element of innocence and alsostrikes a balance in the composition, whereas the gradation of bluish grey in the leaves around the Nayika depicts subdued, quiet and reserved emotions. Elements of green is used to symbolise calmness and create depth to the surrounding.

Semiotic/Compositional Analysis

The Nayika in the above given image can be classified as Utkanthita Nayika as we see her waiting for her Nayaka. The central composition is quite evident in this painting too and the Indian perspective can be observed. The asymmetrical imbalance, helps the theme of the painting to connect more towards desolation.

In the Indian school of composition, circularity plays a vital role. The circular leaf bed suggests that the wait is infinite. The branches of the tree are used as leading lines to divert the viewer’s attention back to the Nayikafrom any part of the frame.

The imbalance between the volumes of leaves and the flowers suggest the imbalance and the conflict between her thoughts. The presence of the doe, drinking water, is a symbolic representation of thirst, serenity and grace. The incomplete composition of the doe, signifies the incompleteness present in the theme.

There are three types of lotuses:

(i) Pundarika (White; blooms at night)

(ii) Kaumudi (Blue; blooms at night)

(iii) Padma (Pink; blooms in the morning)

The purposeful use of Pundarika lotus suggests the time of night as the light of the surrounding falls onto the stream and is being bounced back by the lotuses thus, illuminating the Nayika even at this dark hour of the night.

The gradation of the sky towards blue signifies that the wait for the Nayika is endless whereas the evident white patch around the Nayika suggests purity.



Vasakasajja Nayika

(she who waits by the bed)

The expectant lady, with peacocks representing the absent lover.

Mandi, ca. 1840 (From Internet)

Vasakasajja Nayika can be classified as the one, looking out of the door of her house, standing beside the bed and waiting for her beloved, while the maids can be seen preparing the house and the bed for the reception of Kṛiśhna .

Vasakasajjā Nāyika is a delightful Nāyika, which can be seen properly dressed for the union with her lover.

Vasakasajja Nayika Lakshana

Plate (iii)

Vasakasajja Nayika: Radha preparing for Krishna ’s arrival (From Internet)

Color Palette

Palette (iii)

Vasakasajja Nayika Lakshana Painting

Palette Analysis

A very well executed symbiosis of complimentary colour scheme can be witnessed in this painting, wherein the painting is divided into two zones, the palette of Krishna is depicted in blue (cool) and the Nayika and her sakhis are shown in a warmer tone. White is used to create a balance between the cool and the warm tones. The subtle presence of red is used to depict love and create a contrast to the overall ambience. Green colour is used to represent tranquility, good luck, health.

Semiotic/Compositional Analysis

The Nayika in the above painting can be classified as Vasakasajja Nayika, as she is dressed to meet her beloved. The Indian composition as well as an asymmetric imbalance is evident in this painting. The first thing noticeable in this painting is the mass of blue, which indicates the presence of Kṛiśhna.

Interestingly, Kṛiśhna’s presence can be seen in two ways, one seen in the bushes observing Radha, and the other, seen in the reflection. The crowded compositional elements used in the surrounding of Radha determine her thoughts. The presence of immense banana flowers indicates fertility. Peacocks can be seen which indicate a new beginning, as well as rain and beauty.

The eye-lines and the gesture line of each character in this painting plays an important role in focusing the viewer’s attention to the central characters. The gushing of stream, jumping fishes depict the excitement of the moment.