In Pictures: 5 Amazing Krishna Stories from Art Museums

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!

krishna art stories
Bal Krishna Chola Bronze at National Museum New Delhi

The Balgopal versions of Krishna reveal that 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

  1. Krishna & his 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.

    krishna art stories
    Cleveland Museum of Art : Jamini Roy

    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.

    krishna art stories
    From the collection of The Met Museum

    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.

    krishna art stories
    From the Collection of the National Museum, New Delhi

    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.

    Here’s a jigsaw puzzle featuring Krishna playing around his mother, waiting for butter!

  2. 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 art stories

  3. 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.

    krishna art stories
    Painting in Rajasthan-Marwar style | Los Angeles County Museum of Art

    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 art stories
    Litho Print: Chore Bagan Art Studio
  4. Krishna and the Demons

    Keshi, the Horse Demon & Krishna

    This is one of the finest examples of Gupta art, and 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.

    krishna art stories
    Keshi, The Horse Demon

    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, this Kalighat version is a favourite!

    krishna art stories
    From Edward Binney 3rd Collection, San Diego Museum of Art
  5. Krishna and the Gopis

    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!

    krishna art stories
    Pichhwai painting, Nathdwara | Harvard Art Museum

    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 (as ‘daan Lila‘ )  !! 

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