Krishna, the 8th incarnation of Vishnu has been the muse for artists across centuries. In celebrating his birthday, here are five Krishna stories from Art Museums across the world!
I love the Balgopal versions of Krishna for a simple reason : it tells me God too, was once a kid. No other deity has that connect with children (at the most, probably Ganesha) and the stories of Krishna’s childhood are just too adorable! South India is famous for its 10th century temple-architecture and bronze sculptures. Deities like Krishna were often taken out for processions to “Visit & interact with” people – just as a King would. Priests endeavoured to dress them, decorate them with precious jewellery before the public-parade. So if you ever find a Chola Bronze Krishna at a Museum, imagine the amazing costumes and jewellery it could have been adorned with.
From Art Museums: The Legends of Krishna
Obsession with Butter
Krishna was a naughty child & loved butter so much that he stole it! A lot of artists took inspiration from his butter-stealing acts including Jamini Roy. Here’s a simple activity sheet for children to draw their own Jamini-style-painting.
But did you know, once, the act of stealing butter released two people from a curse!In a futile attempt to keep him from stealing butter, Yashoda, tied the God to a mortar. Due to Krishna’s miraculous nature, she was originally thwarted, as the rope was always too short no matter how much of it was supplied by the Gopis (cowherdesses); in the end, Krishna took pity and allowed himself to be bound under the flowering twin-trees.
This scene has been beautifully captured in the painting below, which follows the convention of the Jaina-Manuscripts style painting.
These trees were not ordinary though! A sage had imprisoned two arrogant, drunken sons of Kubera-the God of Riches and cursed them to take form of these trees (to make them humble). Krishna rolled the mortar between the trunks, uprooting the trees and resulting in the release of the two young men.
While the young men thanked Krishna, the commotion of the trees falling raised an alarm and Nanda-Yashoda came running guided by Balram. Still tied to the mortar, Krishna showed his resentment to his father for the way Yashoda punished him. The above painting is a Kangra-style miniature.
Krishna and the Forest Fire
The Lord Agni, annoyed with Krishna raised a tremendous Forest-Fire, sending all animals, birds and cowherds into panic-mode. When they shouted out to Krishna for help, he asked them to close their eyes. That’s when little Krishna swallowed the Forest Fire, and rescued the frightened calves. This Pahari-style miniature from the National Museum of Scotland is one of the best depictions of this scene.
Krishna, the Poisoned Yamuna & Kaliya
In another story, Krishna’s cows and companions fell unconscious because of the poisonous river water. Krishna found the culprit to be Kaliya, the Giant Serpent. He threw a ball into the river & jumped in to get it only to be able to catch the Serpent. As Kaliya entwined Krishna and coiled around him, the little God expanded his size till Kaliya could no longer hold on. Then emerged Krishna, dancing on Kaliya’s head till the Serpent’s wives pleaded for his release! Often, this episode is referred to as ‘Kaliya Daman’ or the Defeat of Kaliya.
The Government Museum, Mathura also has an interesting half-broken sculpture depicting this scene. This Lithograph captures the same story with the word “Vintage” written all over it. How many of you have seen such a calendar print? Lithographs made art commonly accessible and Krishna-stories is what the crowd loved.
Krishna and the Demons
Keshi, the Horse Demon : One of the finest examples of Gupta art, this is undoubtedly the most famous and beautiful Krishna sculptures ever! The art of the Gupta period was known to be intricate and detailed with the body structure being aligned to divine proportions.
Keshi was a powerful demon sent by Kansa to kill Krishna. On finding Krishna, he assumed the form of a mad-horse and started raging towards him. Krishna on the other hand, challenged the Horse, caught him by the legs and threw him with force on the ground! After a much exhausting duel, the horse decided to swallow Krishna whole but instead, the little God thrust his arm into the mouth of the Demon, breaking all his teeth in one blow! Then, he extended his arm right up to the belly of the animal till it could no longer breathe.Bakasura the Crane Demon
While there are many depictions of this story in miniatures, I love this Kalighat version.
Krishna and the Gopis
My favourite art-style in all of these is the Pichhwai from Nathdwara. In this painting, you see what is perhaps one of the most famous themes in Indian art – Krishna and the Gopis. This particular painting from the Harvard Art Museum is “Daan-Lila” or the collection of tax. As the Gopis would proceed to Mathura to sell milk products, Krishna and his friends would stop them and demand a “tax”. Could you guess what his tax would be? Of course….BUTTER!! If refused, they would end up breaking the pots of the Gopis!
What are some of your favourite Krishna stories? Have you ever found a favourite Krishna-piece at a Museum? Don’t forget to share the post if you enjoyed reading (perhaps as a tax) !!
Pin-it for Later:
The Heritage Lab is a digital platform connecting museums & citizens through campaigns, public-engagement programs & free access content for youth, families and kids.