The act of fainting at the sight of one’s beloved is a common trope in Sanskrit and Sufi traditions, where fainting becomes the ultimate expression of a love so divine it is invisible to the eye. naked, inexpressible, but it’s the kind that overwhelms the senses. . The ancient Indian love story of Madhavanala and Kamakandala is one such text that features the fainting lover trope. The folktale was widely disseminated across the Indian subcontinent from the 16th to the 19th century through oral histories, written manuscripts, and painted illustrations. The manuscripts of the story have been translated into several languages such as Sanskrit, Braj, Gujarati, Hindi and Urdu, spanning an overwhelming geographical expanse and transcending community and language boundaries.
The story begins with Madhavanala, an accomplished musician and scholar, who is banished by the king of his hometown of Pushpavati because his talent has turned women away from their work. Wandering through the realms, he comes to the realm of Kamavati, where he sees the courtesan Kamakandala. Enchanted by her beauty and grace, he faints. It is suggested that this moment is symbolic not only of a lover captivated by the beauty of his beloved, but also represents a metaphor for the dissolution of the self when one is united with the divine.
The moment when Madhavanala faints upon seeing Kamakandala has been the subject of several Rajput and Mughal paintings. Although the scene has been rendered in a variety of visual styles, the paintings share similarities in composition: Kamakandala is always depicted seated on a pavilion, flanked by courtesans and adorned with a halo around her head, idealized as an incarnation of desire. The beauty of Madhavanala, on the other hand, is often depicted with iconography associated with Krishna – with blue skin and playing the veena. A crowd of courtesans surrounding the couple are shown engaged in a flurry of movement, serving Kamakandala and attempting to revive the unconscious Madhavanala. As oblivious to the chaos, the couple are united in quiet stillness, suggesting that the ideal response to love is inner and transcendent.
Interestingly, it’s the very lack of contact and their eyes not meeting that captures the couple’s love. In several variations of this scene, created in different royal workshops, the lovers are separated by a physical distance: Madhavanala faces his beloved with his eyes half-closed or averted downwards while Kamakandala looks towards a courtesan, apparently unfazed by Madhavanala’s fate. .
The distance between the lover and the beloved is not only a physical separation but rather a psychological one – between the conscious and the subconscious, between the corporeal and the disembodied, between sight and blindness. In Sufi and Sanskrit conceptions, love is intertwined with visual perception – the idealized image of one’s beloved, conjured up in one’s imagination, evokes a response as powerful as his actual presence. What appears as apathy between lovers is therefore seen as a sublime, hidden love that goes beyond ordinary attachment.
‘Discover Indian art is a new bimonthly column that delves into fascinating stories about art from across the subcontinent, curated by the editors of MAP Academy’s Art Encyclopedia. Find them on Instagram as @map_academy