Nayika: The Contemplative Heroine in Raag/Raga

Aesthetics in Indian art has its roots belonging to the Sanskrit treatise, Nātyaśāstra, a classical text solely devoted to the production, technique,...

Written by Brahmanshi Shekhar · 8 min read >

Aesthetics in Indian art has its roots belonging to the Sanskrit treatise, Nātyaśāstra, a classical text solely devoted to the production, technique, and rendering of music, dance, and drama. It is also notable for its ‘Rasa’ theory which connotes a concept of the aesthetic flavour of any visual, literary, or musical work. 

        Similarly in Indian classical music, each rāga has a specific mood, where the performing musician creates the rasa in the listener.  The Rasa-s are eight in number namely, Sringara (Romance), Hasya (Laughter), Raudra (Fury), Karunya (Compassion), Bibhatsa (Disgust),  Bhayanaka (Horror), Veera (Heroism) and, Adbhuta (wonder). Predominantly all rāgas and musical performances aim at one of eight rasa-s, wherein music is a form of painting within the listener. Anger, disgust, and fear are usually not the subjects of rāga, but part of Indian theories on dramatic arts.

         Throughout musicological history, the Rāga has been put into scrutiny under several classification systems. Rāga-Rāgini system in the 13th century emerged as one such concept which classified ragas based on male and female musical entities. The Rāgas could be Pullinga (male rāga), Streelinga (female rāga/or Rāgini), and Napunsaka (neuter) Rāga-s. Bhairav, Mālkauns, Hindol, Deepak, Sri, and Megh were considered to be male rāga-s, accompanied by six wives (or Rāgini-s) each. 

          The oldest surviving descriptions of the Rāga-Rāgini system appear in the treatise Sangitopanisadsaroddhara, which was written by Sudhākalasha in 1350. His descriptions correspond to miniature paintings representing Rāgini-s as the Nāyikā  (or heroine) often shown in a dramatic situation with the Nāyaka (or hero). Other treatises with similar descriptions include Sangitadāmodara (c.1500) written by Subhānkara, Sangita Darpana (c. 1625) written by Dāmodara Pandit, and Rāgavibodha (1609) written by Somanātha.

           Even though the Tantric and seasonal typification of rāga-s and rāgini-s were popular, this hero-heroine-based system also emerged as means of extra-musical classification of dramatic and poetic themes. A total of 144 types of nāyaka-s and 384 types of nāyikā-s have been stated in the Nātyaśastra by Bharata Muni. Later on, the number of nāyikā-s reduced to eight and this figure occupied considerably more space than the hero or nāyaka in dramaturgical and erotic literature. One can perceive an interesting fact that nāyika was a purely male point of view discussed only by the men. This system was often designated by poems called Dhyāna (or contemplations). The Dhyāna significations correspond to miniature paintings representing rāga-s.

         The instances of Nāyaka and Nāyika as seen in the Rāgamālā (lit. garland of rāga-s) miniature paintings are representations of illustrated poetry and musical sentiment. Each painting focuses on a dramatic situation, often depicting the Nāyikā in respect with the Nāyaka, in a typical ‘He loves me, he loves me not’ dramatical setting.  

           Ashta-Nāyikā is the collective name given to these eight basic heroines. This classification (or nāyikā-bheda) first appears in Nātyaśāstra and later is detailed in later works like the Dasarupaka (10th century), Sāhityadarpana (14th century), and various other treatises. In Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda (12th century) as well as in the Vaishnava poet Banamali’s compositions, Rādhā dons the roles of the various Nāyikā-s with her nāyaka, Krishna.

         In Hindustani classical music too, the eternal love between Rādhā and Krishna is represented through the consciousness of Rādhā as Nāyikā, especially through the poetry and bhāva (or emotions) semi-classical genre of Thumri with Rādhā as Ashta-Nāyikā consumed by a passionate love for Krishna.
        The Nātyaśāstra describes the nayika-s in the following order: Vāsakasajjā, Virahotkanthitā, Svādhinabhartrukā, Kalahāntarita, Khanditā, Vipralabdhā, Prośitabhartrukā, and Abhisārikā.  The basic division of the Ashta-Nāyikā is made according to the two varieties Šringāra rasa, Sambhoga, and Vipralambha, listed as follows:

Sambhoga (love in a union)
AbhisarikaThe nayika who is adventurous in love
VasakasajjaThe nayika who is adorned to meet her lover
Svadhinabhartruka‘Happy, proud wife’, of the nāyikā who holds her over in subjection
Vipralambha (love in separation)
ProśitabhartrukāThe nāyikā whose lover is away
VipralabdhāThe nāyikā who is deceived, her lover failing the appointment with her
VirahotkanthitāThe nāyikā who is distressed in solitude
KalahāntritāThe nāyikā who is separated by a quarrel with her lover
KhanditāThe nāyikā who is reproving her lover, who has another woman
Table 1: Nāyikā-s

In the Šringara Prakāśa, Bhoja relates the various nāyaka-s and nāyikā-s with musical rāga-s and rāgini-s (a female rāga). Somanātha’s Rāgavibodha (1609) and Dāmodara’s Sangitadarpana (c. 1625) continue this trend.

    As the archetypal romantic heroine, the nāyikā representing eight different states (or avasthā), has been analyzed as follows with some rāga-s and rāgini-s.

1. The Abhisārikā Nāyikā is the daring rāgini. She is the mistress who

takes lead and goes to meet her lover. Rāgini-s Saurāshtri and Bahuli represent this Nāyikā.

According to Somnātha, she is wearing clothes of various colors and has a very fair complexion. Her busts are covered with a dark blue bodice. She has red teeth, a moon-like face. Being afflicted by her lover’s passion, she goes to see him. 

Dāmodara’s description is similar to Somnātha’s. With a pearl necklace enhancing her beauty, and with a full and heavy bosom, her attention gets turned to the sound of the bees, humming around the lotus behind her ear, she goes to meet her lover, her arms hanging down, she is the girl from Saurashtra, beautiful like the embodiment of Rati, the goddess of love.

2. The Vāsakasajjā Naāyikaāa is the one preparing herself to receive her lover from a long and arduous journey She is represented musically by

Ragini-s Bhupāli and Todi in Rāgavibodha. The dhyāna describes her as staying in a groove and moving hither and thither like a swing, while her bracelets are shaking, she is adorning herself. She is much attached to her lover. Being overwhelmed by the love she is pale like saffron Yet the same Bhupāli in Sangitadarpana represents the girl suffering in Vipralambha. Authors often differ from each other’s description of the same Rāgini. Dāmodara describes her as the one belonging to the quiescent mood, a woman in the splendor of beauty, lovely, with a face beautiful like the moon, and a full bosom, her body anointed with saffron, pained by separation, she remembers her husband.

3. The Svādhinabhartrukā Nāyikā is the secure lady, the proud wife who

has her lover under her spell. The Rāgini-s representing the Svādhinabhartrukā Nāyikā  are Mālāśri, Trāvanikā, Rāmakriti, Jaitāśri, and Purvi.

Somnātha describes Mālāsri as a slender woman, walking under a mango tree, singing a melodious song, and smiling to her husband. She is brilliant, has eyes like a deer, is holding a lotus flower in her hand, and is wearing a garland.

In Sangitadarpana she is described similarly as holding a lotus in her hand, showing her slender liana-like body, reclining at the foot of a mango tree, smiling a little.

4. The common dramatic situation for vipralambha is when the nāyaka is traveling for business or military reasons and the nāyikā suffers due to separation. This Prośitabhartrukā  Nāyikā.

        Somanatha indicates Rāgini-s Dhanāśri and Kāmodi in this category. The rāgini is described as having a complexion like durvā grass, incapable of enduring separation. She draws a picture of her lover her breasts being

wetted by her weeping. She has white cheeks and fixed, braided hair.

The Dhyāna mentioned by Dāmodara represents precisely the same rasa. Dhānaśri is the one whose bosom is washed by the streams of tears, with a tear still on her white cheeks, pained by separation, with a dark complexion like the durvā grass, charming, is busy painting the portrait of her lover.

5. Vipralabdhā Nāyikā is the deceived lady whose lover has failed to honor the meeting because he was busy spending time with another


      In rāgavibodha, rāgini-s Varāti and Velāvali represent this Nāyikā. Somnātha sets the nāyikā hopelessly seeking her lover in a forest where they were supposed to meet. Varāti is described as a young lady of fair complexion, who is piteously searching for her lord. She wears dark blue clothes and her beauty is enhanced by the flowers of the ‘tree of gods’.

Dāmodara however presents Varāti as the irritated Nāyikā, which must be described as a different type, Khanditā. She rejects her lover with a fly whisk. He describes her as a beautiful woman, with lovely locks, adorning sura tree’s flower bracelets in her ear. She pushes her lover back with the movement of her bangles.

6. The mistress unable to bear the separation from her lover, the Virahotkanthitā Nāyikā, is represented by several Raaāagini-s in the

Raāaga Vibodha. These are Mukhaāri, Pauravi, and Turuskatodi.

None of these have been mentioned by Dāmodara. Turuskatodi is an ancient form of Todi that came from Turkestan.

She is depicted as a Moghul woman as shown by her clothes and physique. She is described as wearing a long, dark-blue outer garment, a rosary in her hands. She whispers the name of her husband, distressed by separation. She is tall, has a fair complexion, and wears her hair in a long braid.

        This raga was probably obsolete in the times of Somanatha, so his descriptions are imprecise. He describes the nāyikā as a fair woman, separated from her beloved, her body tormented by love, withered, wearing a garland on her beautiful body, her limbs grey like dust, but being comforted by her beloved girlfriend- Patamanjari.

7. Rāgini Saindhavi is depicted in Rāgavibodha as the Kalahāntritā Nāyikā,

the mistress who has separated from her lover because of a quarrel. She is very slender but developed in her hips, wears red clothes.

       Her symbol is the trident. She has a fair complexion and a stately gait. She is very angry because of a fight with her lover.

     Some tantric traces in Dāmodara’s version can be seen. She is described as Saindhavi, the rāgini of Bhairava, one carrying a trident in her hand, growing with devotion for Šiva, dressed in red, adorning a bandhujiva flower, in fiery anger, inspired by the heroic sentiment.

8.The Khanditā is enraged at her lover but he is close by, and she rejects him for his fault.

Dāmodara classifies rāgini-s Rāmakruti and Varāti under this. The nāyikā is golden in hue with shining jewels, arrayed in a garment of blue- though besought by her prostrated lover, obdurate she remains.

But Somanatha’s conception of this rāgini hardly conveys the idea of khanditā. He describes the nāyikā as the one with a golden complexion, extremely glittering ornaments laden on bluish-black clothes. She is very charming and has beautiful teeth. She speaks delicately, while her beloved is in the neighborhood. This is the description of  svādhinabhartrukā, the happy mistress.

     However, Damodara describes Rāmakāri as being in high spirits, as the beloved is near, with a charming voice, shining like gold, with brilliant ornaments, but wearing a dark veil over her beauty.

These dhyānas of nāyaka-nāyikā bheda-s are not static in any way. They are dynamic and represent love which is gallant and valorous. These personifications, when placed in certain circumstances of the dramaturgy of music and other art forms, act out a role in which at least one more character is implied. The characters correspond and support each other unequivocally, hence creating a central theme of love in Indian music.


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