“Indian art would be incomplete without Krishna”.
I first heard this statement and variations of it all through the year-long (2015–2016) course on Indian Aesthetics at Jnanapravaha Mumbai. I must confess to feeling a little bemused with this statement at that that time, because I didn’t really know much about Indian art, and what little I did was not about Krishna.
But as the course proceeded and I was introduced to different forms and styles of Indian art that perception changed. From the classical to the folk to the contemporary, from sculptures to manuscript and miniature paintings, from wall frescoes and murals to prints to contemporary interpretations, and more — Krishna was the constant all through.
And as it usually happens with any kind of growing awareness, I started noticing Krishna everywhere around me — roadside shrines, people’s homes, museums, posters, book covers, etc. It was no different when I travelled and I saw Krishna in the most unexpected of places. This new-found interest even led me to dig into my photo archives to see if I had captured any images of Krishna. Not surprisingly, I found quite a few. That is when the idea of this post was germinated in my mind.
But the idea really grew and took shape when I attended an exhibition titled “Visions of Krishna” at the Artisans’ in Mumbai in August last year. I loved the exhibition, particularly the lithographic and oleographic prints on sale. The exhibition also helped me visualise the idea of a blog post on the myriad ways Krishna is depicted in art.
My initial idea was to write a post around the exhibition and I even got a draft written but for some reason I never published it. This was a year ago. When I looked at the draft again a week or so back, I decided to revive it and broaden the scope by including art, not just from the exhibition, but from all over. And that is how this post took shape.
As the title indicates, this post is a celebration of Krishna in art by exploring Krishna as a sculpture, as a painting, as a terracotta panel, in print; Krishna as a divine being, a mischievous child, a romantic hero, as a destroyer of evil; Krishna represented in the traditional form or in a quirky manner, as a form to be worshipped or as a medium to sell hair oil ! In other words this collection of 22 images is Krishna all the way !
Krishna in Stone
Madanagopala has the attributes of both Krishna and Vishnu — two of the hands hold Krishna’s flute and the remaining two hold the shankha and chakra of Vishnu. When I first saw this Madanagopala with vibhuti marks, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Who has ever heard of an ash-smeared Krishna (or Vishnu) as against being anointed with sandal befitting a god belonging to the Vaishnava Pantheon?
The playfulness in this little tableau, which is just about 8″ across is enchanting in its details. The child Krishna is doing his level best to bring down the pots filled with butter and curds. this little panel has and it almost appears that the pots are swinging with his efforts to bring them down. And that stack of pots on the left? How pretty is that.
The Painted Krishna
Based on the tree and flowers, Krishna and Radha appear to be strolling in a garden. Krishna has a possessive arm around Radha and is pointing at something and both their gazes are drawn towards it. The viewer’s gaze, however, is drawn towards Krishna and Radha, who have been painted in the style of a Mughal miniature. Krishna’s large and distinctive peacock feather and chunky jewellery contrasts sharply with Radha’s delicate ornaments.
The blue of Krishna is the first thing that catches your eye in the this wall painting; the details register only later — the delicate leaves of the tree that Krishna is perched in, the garland of flowers around his neck, the lotus flower in his hand, the flowers in the tree…
This is perhaps the quirkiest representation of Krishna that I have ever come across. Here he is sitting on a chair with a distinctly European design wearing what looks like striped leggings/tights. His flute has been replaced by the algoza or the jodiya pawa, an instrument favoured by folk musicians from Punjab, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Sindh and Balochistan. And don’t miss Hanuman on the right though what he is doing here is a mystery to me. This image, in a lot of ways, is a happy fusion of many styles and inspirations; yet retaining the identity & iconography to make Krishna immediately identifiable.
It is so rare to see a depiction of the death of Krishna, that I did not realise what this tiny mural was all about when I first saw it. It was only later when I was going through my photos that the story came to me in a flash of realisation. This scene captures the moment when the hunter, whose poisoned arrow has pierced Krishna’s foot, realises who his ‘hunt’ is.
This painting depicts the Maharaas or Rasa Leela, the divine dance of Krishna with the gopis of Vrindavan on Sharad Purnima. Here, the landscape is bathed in the pearly white luminescence of a full moon night. Dreamy, fantastical and magical at the same time, the placement of this painting in a niche is very strategic as the viewer feels like he/she is looking through a window to witness this divine dance. I must confess that when I saw this painting, I heard the sounds of anklets and music too !
This is painted on a wall in one of the galleries at the Crafts Museum. While the colours of Krishna and Radha grab your attention immediately, the details are very interesting too — the delicately painted leaves and flowers, the parrots on the tree, the peacock perched on Krishna’s flute, the block printed pattern of Radha’s saree, and more.
The Embroidered Krishna
The Rasa Leela depicted here is on a Chamba Rumal, an embroidered cloth from the Chamba region of Himachal Pradesh. The rumals are made from hand-woven, mulmul or muslin with Krishna as the most favoured theme. I saw this Rumal for the first time at an exhibition at the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai and fell in love with the art form and the way Krishna has been so lovingly celebrated here.
Another embroidery. This time Krishna and Radha in a playful mood churning butter the old-fashioned way using a wooden churn. I can almost imagine them singing while doing this !
Krishna in Wood
The photograph of this magnificent wooden sculpture of Krishna dancing on the hood of the snake Kalia does not give any hint of its size — about 10 ft tall. This wall mounted sculpture makes for an impressive sight, but what makes it even more so is how lifelike the sculpture is. And don’t miss Krishna’s expression that the artist has captured. Is it satisfaction or smugness?
This fluidity and grace of Krishna and Radha as depicted in this wooden panel just took my breath away. When I saw this at the Artisans’, I wanted to buy it and bring it home with me. Sadly, the reality that my flat is too small for this hand carved and hand painted teak wood panel registered and I had to drop the idea. Do click on the picture to see the full picture and more details.
The Everyday Krishna
Wrought iron railings on balconies in old havelis and houses are quite common, especially in Rajasthan and to a certain extent Gujarat, with the most common pattern being this alternating Radha Krishna design. The railings are usually painted with pink, green, white and blue being the most common choices. These too appear to have been painted at some time, but most of it is gone. Religious iconography as a form of aesthetics and as a blessing in everyday life is common across India in various forms.
I saw this stucco decoration of Krishna while on a guided walk of Kalbadevi area of Mumbai. Another example of Krishna in the everyday life. I forget where exactly I saw this, but do remember that this was one of the many ‘discoveries’ in a neighbourhood that I knew nothing about and one that left me fascinated with the various stories it had to say. Time for another visit and say hello to this Krishna once again. 🙂
Thanjavur would be all about Shiva, or so I thought after visiting the Periya or Brihadeeswara Kovil. But it was not so as I found Krishna in the most unlikeliest of places, including this Government Showroom which had at least 9-10 different types of Krishna for display and sale and in sizes ranging from a few inches to a nearly 4 ft. tall idol. The garishness of the new and bright colours is something that fascinates and repels me in equal measure.
Krishna in Terracotta and Ceramic Tiles
This was just one of the many terracotta tiles that covered the front façade of a now abandoned merchant’s house in Sibsagar, Assam. I was lucky to find the location of the house and luckier still to be able to document some of the tiles still in place, including this one. Though the details of this story this panel has to say is not clear, there is no mistaking the figure with the flute !
This was one of the many exhibits at “Mutable”, an exhibition on clay and ceramic art from post-Independence India at the Piramal Museum, Mumbai. According to the information provided with this exhibit, these tiles were made from a mixture of Quartz, Green Glass, Fuller’s Earth, Banyan Tree Gum, and Sodium Sulphate particles. This is such a tender, loving depiction of Radha and Krishna,and I love the way they are gazing into each other’s eyes. The lush green foliage also adds to the beauty of this work of art.
Krishna in Print
This print is quite different from most of the prints on/about/of Krishna. There is a sense of loss and devastation as Krishna has just announced that he is leaving Gokul for Mathura. Some of the gopis have looks of disbelief, while some are sad; one gopi appears to be pleading with Krishna, while another looks on hopefully at him. Krishna himself does not meet anyone’s eyes and looks just as sad, but determined. He looks like his mind is already elsewhere.
This one is perhaps my most favourite of all the vintage prints I have come across. The colours, the details, the unusual architecture of the temple (?), the saree clad angels and Krishna as Ranchhod ji Maharaj Thakur were enough to captivate me. And even more than a year after first seeing this print, I keep going back to look at it.
It used to be a common practice for devotees of Srinathji to insert their photographs or portraits into a print with Him in the background, especially after a visit to Nathadwara. It was felt that such ‘prints’ meant that the blessings of Srinathji were always with them. I can’t say that I like this print very much, but it does intrigue me and is one of the reasons that I included it here.
The Kitschy Krishna
This print advertisement was released sometime in the late 1800s or maybe early 1900s and was one of the many popular ones of its times. Do note the thick, long, black hair of the gopis. This was strategic as the ads were for the Bengal and Madras markets — places where such hair was highly valued. Popular images of Krishna were predominantly used for commercial advertising that pervaded every home with a uniquely Indian ‘kitsch’ aesthetic.
The Elephant Parade took over Mumbai in March 2018 and there were over a 100 elephants displayed each one with its own unique artwork that was different from the others. This elephant had gorgeously painted stories from the life of Krishna all over it. I particularly liked the one I have shared here — Krishna as Govardhan Giridhari. The brushstokes and the detailing is incredibly fine and is something that my camera has not been able to capture.
Yesterday evening, in the midst of writing this post, I took a screen shot of the computer screen, posted it on my Instagram Stories and asked if I would finish writing it by night? I wasn’t so sure of completing it and as it happened I didn’t. But quite a few were pretty sure that I would and cheered me on. One of the responses I got was different from the rest where it was suggested that the post should be done as a series.
When I began this post, it was supposed to be a short one with a discussion around some iconic works of Krishna in art. Then it morphed into a photo post, which then developed into this photo essay. I never realised when I decided to write about Krishna in Art just how challenging it would turn out to be. The sheer numbers of images and the variety made it impossible to include them all in one post, and there are probably more omissions than inclusions. I will probably have to write many more to do justice to them all. So @veejasaysai, I completely agree with you. 🙂 This post is just the beginning of what may turn out to be a broader or a more focussed series; only time will tell which direction it will take.
This first post may appear to be a random collection of images that I have of Krishna. Maybe they are, but the reason each one has made it here is that each one of them is unique in some way or the other. I have taken a very big liberty with this post by assuming that everybody knows about Krishna and the stories, legends and myths associated with him. Instead, I have preferred to concentrate on the art and aesthetics of each work presented here. In case you’d like to know more about any of the art talked about in this post, do leave a comment and I will be very happy to elaborate.
So tell me, which of these Krishna images intrigued you? Which one did you like the most? Also, do share links or leads to Krishna in Art that you feel that I should not miss. Go on, I’m waiting to hear from you.
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8 thoughts on “Celebrating Krishna in Art”
Sudha, what a lovely post. I will look at Krishna in art with new eyes now. Never realised the variety of styles. After all Krishna is popular from North to South, East to West in India.
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Thank you so much, Lata. One of the reasons I wrote this posts is what you have said too – “never realised the variety of styles” ! And as the post got conceptualised, everything just fell into place as if my magic. Or maybe Krishna’s grace 🙂
I loved them all! Thanks Sudhgee. Kanha is so magical. I love Him dearly. Thanks
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Thank you so much, Amby. Very happy you liked them all. 🙂
Beautifully written post Sudha. I just cannot decide which appeals to me more as each depiction is not only visually appealing and pleasing but tells a different story. I am however partial to the Radha Krishna tile panel at Piramal museum.
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Thank you, Neena. I had a tough time shortlisting the images for this post and selecting the ones that finally made it here. Did you know that I had about 82 images to begin with? Though I like the Radha Krishna tile panel, I’m pretty partial to the quirky Shekhawati mural of Krishna playing the Algoza.
Thank you for the well written post which is as good as a preamble of a Research thesis. It is no wonder that you have been attracted to this new field of your investigation related to fine arts, architecture, since the very word “Krishna or Krushna” is derived from the root word of Sanskrit – ” Krush/Karsh” meaning ” to attract” – “karshathi ithi krushnaha”. Krishna’s beauty or actions or deeds in all stages of his life has a touch of beauty or meaning attracting the attention and interest of the humanity.
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Thank you for your very enriching comments and the appreciation, Mr. Krishnamoorthy. I was not aware of the root word that Krishna was derived from. So thank you, once again. 🙂