Krishna in Indian Art

views updated


KRISHNA IN INDIAN ART The origin and history of the myth of Krishna are complex. Over a period of a thousand years or more, many strands coalesced to form a predominant, multifaceted character called Krishna. Myths and legends associated with him pervade India's literature as well as its visual and performing arts. Concurrently, there are theological and liturgical works that interpenetrate into the aesthetic theories and artistic expressions.

The Bhāgavata Purāṇa consolidates the several myths into an impressive narrative, which has held the imagination of artists and devotees alike for a millennia or more. Jayadeva wrote a poem titled Gītā Govinda in the twelfth century, in which he introduced the character of Rādhā, a special beloved of Krishna. There was but a faint mention of her in the Bhāgavata Purāṇa. Jayadeva's poem gave a new twist to the perennial theme of Krishna and the gopis (cowherdesses). From then on, a further coalescing of Krishna as Vishnu and of Rādhā as Sri and Lakshmī and Shakti (female energy personified) took place. Sculpture, painting, theater, music, and dance rely heavily on these principal literary sources of varying periods. In turn, theology and liturgy has been affected by them. Many theological schools evolved, known as Sampradayas; each was a distinctive cult that incorporated the verbal, visual, and kinetic arts as an integral part of Krishna worship and ritual. The kernel of the myth of the baby child, adult king, and counselor was retained, but many modifications took place in India's regional literatures and in its visual and performing arts until the nineteenth century.

The Krishna Theme in Sculpture

The first examples of the Krishna theme in Indian sculpture belong to the Kushan period, during the first and second centuries a.d. The thematic context of these sculptures revolves around Krishna Vasudeva, not Krishna Gopala. There are, however, a few important exceptions. A relief in the Mathura Museum depicts Vasudeva carrying baby Krishna across the Jamuna River to the village of Gokula. Besides these, other Kushan sculptures depict Krishna-Vasudeva, of the Virshni lineage, along with his kinsmen, particularly Samkarsana Balarama, his elder brother, and sister Ekanamsa.

A clear change in emphasis begins with the Guptan period, fourth to sixth centuries, roughly a.d. 320–530. There are many more sculptures on the Krishna theme, especially in his aspect as Krishna Gopala of Braj. The Krishna Gopal theme becomes pervasive not only in Mathura and Rajasthan, but is equally popular in South India. While the Mandor and Osian panels are important evidence from Rajasthan, no less important are the Krishna life panels from South India, particularly Badami. All these belong to the fifth to seventh century.

From the tenth century onward begins another phase of medieval Indian sculpture. Several major temples were built in the north, south, west, and east. In many of them there are friezes portraying the episodes of Krishna's early life. Sometimes they are single panels, as in the Lakshman temple in Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh. At other times there are continuous serialized depictions, as in the Hoysala period temples of Belur, Halebid, and Somanathpur in Karnataka. An elaborate visual panorama unfolds on these walls, almost like a painting scroll.

While friezes of continuous narration are one methodology, there is the other of equal importance. It is largely during this period that single images of Krishna appear both in stone and in bronze. The baby Krishna with a butter ball is popular among the Chola bronzes. Equally important and impressive are the bronzes of Krishna dancing on the serpent Kaliya, and Krishna as the flute player (Venugopala), and Krishna the dancer supreme. The South Indian bronzes, especially those of Chola, are outstanding for their artistic skill.

The Krishna theme appears on the wooden chariots of practically all parts of South India. There are intricate carvings on the different parts of the chariot, including the spokes of the wheels and the frame of the chariot seat. Krishna is depicted in the metal sculpture of Nepal. Some sculptures, especially of the dancing Krishna and Krishna with flute (Venugopala), display exquisite craftsmanship.

The Vishnupur temples of the eighteenth century of Bengal began to use the medium of terra-cotta. The brick and terra-cotta temples of Bengal belong to the last phase of the Indian architects' and sculptors' preoccupation with the Krishna theme.

The Krishna Theme in Indian Painting

The inspirations provided by the Bhāgavata Purāṇa gave rise also to devotional poetry in many Indian languages: Braja Bhasa in the north; Gujarati in the west; Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, and Kannada in the south; and Bengali, Oriya, and Asamiya in the east. By the fifteenth century there was a vast body of poetry, which was not only the preserve of the elite or Sanskrit speaking, but was the language and literature of the high and the low, the affluent and the poor.

Painting, music, dance, and theater were the visual, aural, and kinetic counterparts of this powerful and pervasive movement. Any account of the Krishna theme in Indian painting has necessarily to recognize the rise of Vaishnavism, the popular bhakti movement, and the impact of the poetry of the bhakti poet-saints.

Evidence of the Krishna theme in Indian mural painting has to be traced to the magnificent large-scale depiction of the theme in South India, particularly Kerala. The Padmanabhapuram palace, the Mattancherry palace of Cochin (18th century), and the Padmanabhaswami temple (17th century) murals are striking examples of a distinctive style of painting that is analogous to the performing arts tradition of the region, particularly Kathakali.

However, by the fifteenth century and more particularly the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, there was a prolific popularity of miniature paintings based on the Bhāgavata Purāṇa and the Gītā Govinda. Later, the poetry of Suradas, Keshavadasa, Bihari, and other poets became the backdrop or springboard for their pictorial visualization of the theme. The paintings have been considered as mere illustrations of the text. However, a closer analysis reveals that the painters employed a variety of means to create their own visual text, which did not literally follow the verbal text.

It is in the varied schools of Rajasthani painting that we encounter a major preoccupation with the Krishna theme. Indeed, besides portraits and a few other local legends, such as Dhola Maru, most Rajasthani painting, in all its schools and styles, revolves around Krishna. The Bhāgavata Purāṇa is central, but the Gītā Govinda is not far behind. A Muslim artist, Sahibdin, executed a Bhāgavata Purāṇa. Housed in the Bhandarkar Institute of Pune, it is an exquisite example of the Mewari school of Rajasthani painting. He also painted over two hundred leaves of the Gītā Govinda. He followed the poem canto by canto, verse by verse, and yet made his paintings as if to sing the songs of praise of Lord Krishna. The artistic excellence of these paintings is clear proof of the artist's deep immersion in the theme and his acquaintance if not subscription to the symbolic import of the meaning of the text he was interpreting.

While the Mewar school has other sets, the paintings of the schools of Bundi, Kotah, Bikaner, and Keshangarh, from the seventeenth to late eighteenth centuries, largely revolve around the Krishna theme. So far more than thirty sets of the Gītā Govinda alone have been identified. There are perhaps others. Their content and stylistic analysis is beyond the scope of this article. There are other Bhāgavata Purāṇa sets besides those of Mewar, including important sets from Malwa. The poet Surdas's work Bhramar Gītā is another favorite, and so is the Rasikapriya of Keshavadasa, on the love of Krishna and Radha.

Two developments should be noted. First, the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, especially canto 10 (Dasamaskanda), provides the basis of pictorially depicting the Krishna dance rasa. Second, the other childhood pranks or plays (lila) of the Gītā Govinda place Rādhā as a special sakhi, central to the theme. The theme of love in separation and union becomes the theme not only of the paintings illustrating the Gītā Govinda but also of others that revolve around the seasons, such as Barahmasa (the 12 seasons), and the paintings that revolve around the hero-heroine typologies (Nayaka-Nayika). While the rasa symbolizes the love of the human and the divine, Rādhā and Krishna begin to represent the yearning of the individual soul for the universal (jivatma and paramatma). This aspect is subsumed; even when explicit, these paintings appear amorous, sensuous, and profane, yet they are largely sacred and devotional in essence. The sensuous and spiritual become two levels of the same pictorial image.

Finally, there is another group of paintings, which are directly related to ritual. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Braj became the center of Krishna worship. This was the result of the overpowering influence of Saint Chaitanya (1485–1533), who was responsible for establishing through his followers a special type of Vaishnavism called Gaudiya Vaishnavism. Music, dance, and floor painting were integral to the ritual. All revolved around the couple Rādhā and Krishna. Also, a Vaishnava saint called Vallabhacharya came to Braj from South India, establishing a sect called the Vallabhacharya. An important temple was built in Rajasthan, and Krishna was worshiped as Sri Nathji. Cloth curtains were hung behind the "icon." These painted clothes, called pichchavars, were many; the costume of the icon was changed according to the seasons and the cycle of the ritual calendar. The cloth paintings were also used as hangings. More than twenty-four iconographic types developed, each with its specific color and costume of Krishna, and the accompanying episode in his life.

No account of the Krishna theme in the visual arts would be complete without at least passing reference to the many folk forms of paintings still extant and flourishing in different parts of India. Among these are the Paithani paintings, so popular in Maharashtra and Karnataka. These paintings were used by itinerant bards who were reciters and singers of the epics. This style of painting is akin to the shadow puppets of the region. Profiles and extended eyes are prominent. The scenes of the epic battle of Kurukshetra, with Krishna as Arjuna's charioteer, are popular. The preoccupation of these painters was not with the Krishna of Braj; it was instead with the counselor of the Pandvas.

In Bihar, in the region called Mithila, women used to paint the mud walls of their homes, both outside and inside, on auspicious occasions. The depiction of Krishna and Rādhā in the inner chambers of young newlyweds was considered auspicious.

Concurrently, with the evolution of Kalighat paintings in Bengal, there was an equally significant movement in South India, spearheaded by the painter Raja Ravi Varma. Raja Ravi Varma's style of painting is deeply indebted to European naturalism. Indeed, it was this image of Krishna that became popular, largely through the oleographs that adorn the walls of domestic shrines in many Indian homes.

The myths and legends of Krishna have permeated contemporary Indian art in many ways. One modern Indian artist, Anjalie Ela Menon, captures the image of the child Krishna. Her medium, however, is modern: the Moreno glass of Italy. Of course, there is the extensive and popular world of Indian films, in which Krishna regularly appears.

The Krishna theme, as is obvious from even this brief and general survey, has for over two thousand years captured and enraptured the Indian psyche. Behind the phenomenon of a staggering diversity and distinctive regional, local, or individual and changing style, there is an unmistaken unity of vision and dependence upon the literary sources, in most if not all parts of India. The perennial and the ephemeral, the ancient, medieval, and modern move as if in tandem, not conflicting or negating, but building upon the received and given. The scope of improvization and variation within an ambit is vast. Perhaps this is the enigma of the Krishna theme, which has held the imagination of the ancient and continues to engage the contemporary and modern.

The Krishna Theme in the Performing Arts

As in the case of Indian miniature painting, the theater, music, and dance revolving around Krishna was a medieval phenomenon. Many forms that evolved were coeval with the evolution and development of the varied schools of Indian painting. The variety of the performance genres was as rich and extensive as the styles of Indian painting. Krishna theater forms and specific genres of music and dance are known to practically all parts of India. Each is distinctive in style and technique, yet there is an underlying unity of vision and purpose. A brief account of some will be given here, though not all genres of theater are still extant in India.

Important among these is the genre of theatrical performance known by the generic name rasa lila (the "play of rasa"). It is performed during specific seasons for particular occasions in the Braj area. From references in the literature, it is possible to say that the rasa lila performance in the precincts of the temple was well established by the time of Akbar. It has a complex history of development, and there are varying views among scholars. It may be more pertinent to restrict this account to a brief description of the contemporary performance of rasa lila.

The contemporary rasa lila of Vrindavana is the special domain of the svamis and the gosvamis (priests) who trace their family history back many generations, in most cases to the sixteenth century. The special organization of the contemporary performers of the rasa lila is popularly called the rasadhari mandalis. In all cases, the rasa lila demands a special stage. It is normally a circular platform of stone or concrete, 3 feet (.9 m) high. The symbolic significance of the circular stage is clear, for it recalls the descriptions of the rasa mandala (the round arena of the rasa) in the Shrimad Bhāgavata. On one end of the stage is a dais or platform called rangamancha (the stage of the dance) or a raised throne called the simhasana. All the scenes in which Rādhā and Krishna appear in their deified forms, and to which they return at the end, are performed on the raised back stage; other scenes suggesting the passage of time or change of location are performed on the lower stage. The performance is divided into two clear-cut portions: the rasa and the presentation of the lilas.

Throughout the performance, the objective is to emphasize the symbolism or the dual level on which the theatrical spectacle moves. The rasa is performed exclusively by child actors, as suggestive of happenings elsewhere, and at no point is there a realistic presentation of the theme. The nature of stylization and the techniques used are very different from those in epic dramatic forms, which revolve around the Mahābhārata theme. In the lilas, it is truly a play, a vision or glimpse with a mystical significance. A dreamlike lyrical form, swiftness of movement, and lightness of touch are characteristic.

The end of the rasa is the beginning of the lilas. There are enactments of the early life of Krishna that has been mentioned in the context of painting. Many literary sources are employed, which include the Bhāgavata Purāṇa as well as the poetry of the ashtachhapa school (eight poets of Braj of the 17th century). Night after night the life of Krishna as child, adolescent, and youth is re-created sequentially. Each night a new theme is presented. Popular among these is the famous Govardhana lila, in which Krishna lifts Mount Govardhana on his little finger, and the chiraharan, in which Krishna steals the clothes of the gopis. Unlike the rasa, the lilas are presented more realistically, with actual earthen pots being broken and milk and butter strewn across the stage.

It was this rasa lila of Vrindavana that traveled to distant Manipur and Assam in the easternmost regions of India. It reached Assam without the character of Rādhā but in Manipur she was included. Vaishnavism entered the valley only in the sixteenth century, with Rangba (in a.d. 1568) the first king to be initiated. He was followed by Garib Nivas, who was the principal ruler instrumental in converting the valley inhabitants into Vaishnava bhaktas. The origin of the famous rasa dances is attributed to Rajarshi Bhagya Chandra Maharaj (1763–1798), who, along with Chandra Kirti (1850–1886), laid the foundations of classical Manipuri dance.

Among the most beautiful lyrical manifestations of this transformation of an earlier layer of Manipuri culture to Vaishnava culture is the rasa lila. Today it is easily the most highly intricate and refined form of dance-drama. The message of Chaitanya was taken to Manipur by a disciple, who introduced the tradition of community singing and dancing. In the fields and open spaces of Manipur, one can still regularly participate in dances that extol the name of Lord Krishna.

There are several types of rasa lila in Manipur. The Basantrasa (spring rasa) is performed at full moon in March, and the focus of the story is the union of Rādhā and Krishna after a painful separation. The Kunjrasa is lighter in spirit and is performed during the early autumn festival of Dussehra. It represents the daily life of Rādhā and Krishna, who are portrayed as ideal lovers, amusing themselves and revelling in a relationship unmarred by separation. The Maharasais performed on a full moon in November–December and depicts the separation of the divine lovers.

The Vishnu and the Bhāgavata Purāṇa also traveled to Assam. In the course of time, through the genius of one man, Shankaradeva, a whole genre of theater was created around the Krishna theme. A poetic language called Braja boli was the vehicle of communication; the tool of their missionary zeal was a theatrical form, today called the bhaona or ankia nata. It continues to be performed in the monasteries of Assam, called sattras.

Among the many important forms of dance and drama in South India, there are two widely known forms called Kathakali and Krishnattam. While it is impossible to elaborate on the history of these important forms, it should be pointed out that Krishnattam also emerged in Kerala as a result of the influence of the Bhāgavata and the Gītā Govinda. The two works transformed the earlier Shaivite traditions into Vaishnava theater. King Manavedan, who reigned in Kerala from 1655 to 1658, was a renowned poet and the author of a work titled Krishnagiti. He was also a great patron of the famous Guruvayur temple, which is today the most important center of the Krishna faith in the South. His work, the Krishnagiti, was deeply influenced by the Gītā Govinda, but is significantly different. Today it is performed in an eight-day serialized enactment in the precincts of the Guruvayur temple, by an all-male cast. Except in the performance of the rasa krida on the third night of the cycle of plays, little else is lyrical or romantic. The episodes are played throughout the night, and by morning the spectators are moved to an elated state of wonder and devotion. This dance-drama is confined to the precincts of the temple.

Kathakali, the related dance-drama of Kerala, moves into the open spaces. It is the same world of gods and demons, heroes and villains, but now the life of Krishna is based on the episodes from the epics, especially the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyaṇa. The libretto is in Sanskrit or in Malayalam. It is sung and narrated; the dance is highly stylized, with a fully developed language of hand and facial gestures. Krishna appears in two roles, as the young brother of Balarama and as the warrior hero.

The poetry of the medieval poet-aints—whether of the south, north, east, or west, written in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Hindi, or Oriya as the base—has inspired great dancers in the solo classical dance forms recognized as Bharatanatyam, Odissi, and Kathak. The poetic line is set to a melody (rāga) and metrical cycle (tala). The verbal imagery is then interpreted through the movements and gestures and mime in endless permutations and combinations, depending upon the creative genius of the performer. Great dancers have kept large audiences spellbound by the presentation of a single verse or line. The dancer's ability to improvize and present variations is the test of both artistic skill and devotional and spiritual involvement. Other lyrics revolving around the child Krishna have inspired dancers to present memorable performances. The episode of the child Krishna eating mud and being reprimanded by Yashoda has been danced by one of India's greatest dancers, T. Bālasarasvati, who performed the piece for over four decades. Each time the cosmos was re-created through her mime, and the audience was transported to a mystical state, oblivious of time. Other great dancers have chosen verses from the Gītā Govinda, Surdas, Vidyapati, or the Ālvārs, and have transformed the stage into the universal Vrindavana of Krishna. The sacred and the profane, the romantic and the mystical, the poetic and the pictorial, the aural and the visual, the movement and the stillness of love in separation and in union, all come together in these performances of Krishna, the blue God, and Rādhā, the yellow heroine. The earth and the sky unite, the clouds pour rain through the sound of music, ankle bells, and speaking hands to re-create the vision of the blue God, eternal and ever new.

Kapila Vatsyayan

See alsoBhakti ; Dance Forms: Kathakali ; Miniatures: Bundi ; Miniatures: Kotah ; Miniatures: Marwar and Thikanas


Banerjee, Priyatosh. The Life of Krishna in Indian Art. New Delhi: Patiala House, 1978.