During the 18th century, the artist Nainsukh of Guler, in modern-day Punjab state, painted the story of those two legendary star-crossed lovers, Sohni and Mahiwal. During the 19th century, Punjabi poet Fazal Shah Sayyed brought the tale to life with his well-known qissa, or epic poetry. Today, Arpana Caur’s Love Beyond Measure series takes the classic legend and renders it with a new focus on modern elements. Caur, a well-known artist, draws frequently on Punjabi and other literature of the Subcontinent. Her collection provides a visual account of a story familiar to all in the Punjab.
Unsurprisingly, the details of the Sohni-Mahiwal legend vary. Born into a family of potters during the 18th-century Mughal period, Sohni was raised crafting earthenware. Her family’s home lay close to the Chenab River, on a trading route between Delhi and Central Asia. A wealthy young trader from present-day Uzbekistan, Izzat Baig fell in love with the young woman. In order to be close to his beloved he took on the job of cattle-herder in Soni’s family, and hence acquired the moniker ‘Mahiwal’. Word of the couple’s affections began to spread. In an attempt to preserve their honour, perhaps, Sohni’s family members quickly arranged her marriage to another young man of the potter caste.
Devastated, Mahiwal abandoned his material possessions and, after much searching, moved to a hut across the river from Sohni’s new home. In the guise of an ascetic, he revealed himself and his new address to Sohni. Thereafter, the two would meet by night, Mahiwal swimming across the river. An injury on his part led Sohni to wade across with the help of a large earthenware pot, returning home before dawn. Suspicious of Sohni’s whereabouts, however, one night her husband’s sister-in-law followed her to the river and watched, shocked, as Sohni removed the pitcher from a bush and swam across the Chenab. Again, the question of family honour arose. The sister-in-law, whose name is unclear, decided to replace the baked, water-resistant, vessel with an unbaked one. Sohni thus began her final trip across the river only to find her pitcher disintegrating in her arms. By the time Mahiwal reaches her, it is too late. Both drown, to be found together the next day.
Before Caur, the lovers also captured the imagination of numerous painters. Nainsukh’s miniatures during the 18th century – an era that some attribute to the incidents of the story – were followed by Sobha Singh’s famous work in 1957, as well as subsequent paintings by Satish Gujral. Caur pays conscious tribute to some of these earlier efforts. Two of the Love Beyond Measure works copy Sohni’s 18th-century attitude as depicted by Nainsukh, but place the subject in a new setting and context – a melding of history and modernity that rests at the heart of this series. For instance, Caur replaces the water of Nainsukh’s painting with a turbulent river of rulers and other drawing instruments, perhaps acknowledging a modern-day predilection for quantifiable information. These motifs, which suggest Enlightenment rationality, are juxtaposed with Sohni, whose courage is quite simply, as the title suggests, beyond measure.
Painting 1 reveals a split canvas, Sohni on one side, Mahiwal on the other. Sohni’s pose is a duplication of that in other works, but now her eyes are shut. The darkness around Sohni and the body lying at the bottom of the frame suggest death. Meanwhile, Mahiwal finds himself in the presence of a 21st-century urban environment. To his right, a large body of water reflects the colours and shapes of a city. Its presence suggests that the two lovers demonstrate a desire for independence ahead of their time.
Painting 2 goes a step further, taking Sohni’s posture as used by Nainsukh and Caur in Painting 1, and relocating her in a distinctly urban milieu. The fish, curved waves and bend of Sohni’s feet and hands all indicate that she is swimming. Meanwhile the vessel, ruptured by the cruelty of Sohni’s sister-in-law, foreshadows Sohni’s death. This moment of limbo creates an opening for Caur to transport Sohni to this locale; blocks of buildings replace water and trees. Floating through, Sohni gazes backwards in surprise at the world that has changed through betrayal. Caur has universalised Sohni’s experience as a means of highlighting a particular form of courage. In doing so, however, she also brings into relief a paradox surrounding this legend. The actions of Sohni’s sister-in-law are a means of protecting her brother, Sohni’s husband, from knowledge of his wife’s affair. Do those who celebrate Sohni’s courage consciously overlook this aspect of the story?
Multiple commentators have noted how Caur ‘renders Sohni through female eyes’. Caur is indeed the first known female artist to focus on this legend, but this neither defines nor limits the subject she creates. Of particular note, however, is Caur’s depiction of Sohni without Mahiwal. Only one print in the series reveals the lovers united; even this meeting is muted, unlike the ecstatic pose depicted in Sobha Singh’s famous rendition of the couple. The two appear to be together in sleep, or in death. The very ambiguity of their position might underline how their union is not the focal point of Caur’s work. Rather, she chooses to emphasise Sohni’s fearlessness.
By placing a traditional story in a context that evokes a modern environment, Caur’s paintings push us to consider the story of Sohni and Mahiwal in a new light. Even as she memorialises Sohni’s courage, Caur goes another step: her works illustrate the irony of heralding a young woman’s decision to pursue her true love. Even today, in many parts of the same societies, such a demonstration of choice would be decried as transgressive.
Hri researcher Daljit Ami works on the Sohni Mahiwal legend, and brought this series to our attention.
~ Kabita Parajuli is with the Hri Institute for Southasian Research and Exchange in Kathmandu.