Classical Indian Painting from Kapoor Galleries, NYC (Part II)

If you have missed it, check out Part I of this post.

A good number of paintings from the collection of Kapoor Galleries depict the god Krishna and his consort Radha. Although she is just one of his many partners (Wikipedia lists his consorts as “Radha, Rukmini, Jambavati, Satyabhama, Kalindi, Nagnajiti, Mitravinda, Lakshmana, Bhadra & 16,000-16,100 junion queens”), her role remains special. Theologically and spiritually, she is accorded a privileged position—she is considered a metaphor for the human soul (atma), with her love and desire for Krishna being symbolic of the human quest for union with the ultimate divine reality (brahman). Parallels of this idiom are found in Abrahamic religions.

In the following work, we see Krishna submitting to Radha’s will. The first is a scene from the great 12th-century Sanskrit love lyric, the Gita Govinda (literally “song of the dark lord”) by the poet Jayadeva. The poem presents the lovers’ attraction, estrangement, yearning and final reconciliation through the help of a sakhi (female confidant). At the end, all doubts laid to rest, all anger assuaged, Radha, “secure in her power over him”, ‘commands’ Krishna to do things for him, the poet says.

“Paint a leaf on my breasts!/ Put color on my cheeks!/ Lay a girdle on my hips!/ Twine my heavy braid with flowers!/ Fix rows of bangles on my hands/ And jeweled anklets on my feet!” And her ‘yellow-robed lover’, does her bidding exactly as asked. The artist does not say it in so many words, but he is presenting her here as a svadhinapatika nayika, the heroine who has her lover completely under her control.


Submitting to Her Will, Completely First generation after Nainsukh, 18th century Pahari painter, Guler, circa 1770. Courtesy of Kapoor Galleries.


Next, Krishna and Radha watch “nautch” together. Nautches were a style of dance that became popular in India through the 18th and 19th centuries within the courts of Mughal rulers and ambassadors of the British East India Company. Prior to Nautch, artistic dancing was only executed at temple sites in honour of the represented deity. Dancing for entertainment was popular in Persian courts, and was introduced to the subcontinent through the Mughal kingdom. The word ‘nautch’ is derived from the Prakrit ‘nachcha,’ meaning ‘dance.’ European men found great pleasure in watching Nautch, as there were very few European women in India at the time and it was refreshing to be in the company of such fine ladies.

The present painting portrays Radha and Krishna enthroned on a lotus, observing Nautch with a company of attendants behind them. This work was executed during a time when Nautch was at its zenith and any dinner party or festival would be deemed incomplete without such performance. Nautch girls (dancers who perform Nautch) were considered to be women of taste and high society, possessing quick wit, refined manners, and in depth knowledge of poetry.


Radha and Krishna watching Nautch, India, Kangra, circa 1800-1810. Courtesy of Kapoor Galleries.



An Illustration to the Rasikapriya: Radha and Krishna Gaze Into a Mirror, Jaipur, circa 1830, opaque watercolor heightened with gold on paper. Courtesy of Kapoor Galleries.


Illustration to a Baramasa Series: The Month of Pausha (Mid December to Mid January), Attributed to Sajnu and his workshop, India, Mandi, circa 1808. Courtesy of Kapoor Galleries.


Folio from an Usha-Aniruddha Romance series, India, Garhwal, circa 1840. Courtesy of Kapoor Galleries.


Rama and Lakshmana on Mount Pavarasana: Folio from the Shangri Ramayana series (Style II) Punjab Hills, Kingdom of Jammu (Bahu), circa 1690-1710. Courtesy of Kapoor Galleries.


In the two images below, there are narratives related to the god Vishnu. The first is about “Samudra manthan” (the churning of the ocean of milk), an episode mentioned in the Bhagavata Purana, Mahabharata and the Vishnu Purana.

The story goes that when the forces of evil were becoming powerful, the gods came to Vishnu for help. Vishnu, the preserver of the Cosmos, devised the scheme of churning the Ocean of Milk to obtain amrit, which would sustain the gods and make them immortal. The holy mountain Mandara, with Vishnu seated atop it, was carried to the ocean and placed as the churning stick on the back of Kurma, the king of tortoises, an incarnation of Vishnu himself. The serpent king Vasuki served as the churning rope, the demons pulling on his hood, the gods his tail. Into the radiant waters of the Ocean of Milk were thrown various kinds of medicinal herbs, and the churning began. After the gods and demons had laboured at their task for a thousand years, miraculous things arose from the water one by one.

The second painting is based on “Gajendra Moksh” from the Bhagavata Purana. Amidst a rippling current, Vishnu rescues the king of elephants, Gajendra, from a crocodile. Gajendra had gone to bathe in a lotus filled lake when the crocodile caught the elephant, dragging him down into the water. The elephant struggled against the crocodile with all of his strength, but with each attempt at escape the crocodile’s grip tightened. In a final effort to thwart his demise, Gajendra cried out for Vishnu to save him, grabbing a lotus in his trunk to offer to the god. Vishnu heard the elephant’s pleas and appeared alongside Garuda, vanquishing the crocodile demon and granting moksha to Gajendra for putting his faith in Vishnu as saviour.

Leaf from the Bhagavata Purana Depicting Vishnu and Garuda: The Liberation of Gajendra, India, Bundi, 18th century. Courtesy of Kapoor Galleries.


Check out a few more images—from folklore. First, the tragic Punjabi romance of Sohni and Mahiwal. The narrative dates to the 18th century, and revolves around two star-crossed lovers. The nayika Sohni is in a loveless marriage to a man she detests, but finds that she has true feelings for the buffalo herder Mahiwal. She swims across the river every night to rendezvous with him, using an earthenware pot to keep her afloat. Eventually, her sister in law finds out about the affair, and replaces the pot with an unfinished clay pot that disintegrates in the water, leaving Sohni to drown, never seeing Mahiwal again.

Second, Baz Bahadur and his spouse Roopmati, a poet. Bahadur was the last Sultan of Malwa Sultanate, reigning from 1555 to 1562. The couple gazes admiringly at each other, as they are seated on galloping horses during their evening hunt. Baz Bahadur wears a bright yellow jama holding a spear in his right hand with a quiver of arrows hung around his waist. Roopmati is wearing a translucent garment, adorned by a pearl necklace with multiple strands and a fine sarpech affixed to her turban. The night scene of the forest is shown brilliantly with hints of light green bushes. A vibrant deep blue skyline contrasting the dark grey terrain with a shallow lotus pond at lower right balances the composition.

Sohni Swimming Across the River to Meet Her Lover Mahiwal, India, Jodhpur, circa 1880. Courtesy of Kapoor Galleries.
Baz Bahadur and Roopmati Hunting at Night, India, Mughal, Delhi, mid-18th century. Courtesy of Kapoor Galleries.


Next, the love story of Madhavanala and Kamakandala. The young brahmin Madhavanala was exiled from his country by a king who envied his youth and good looks. While exiled, he met the beautiful maiden Kamakandala and wooed her in various guises. They fell in love but the story has a tragic ending. Kamakandala, mistakenly believing that her lover has died, kills herself, and on hearing of her demise Madhavanala follows suit. In the current scene from the story, Madhavanala has disguised himself as a wandering musician, and so enraptured is he by the sight of his love, that he collapses in a swoon.

After that we have a painting that shows the celebrated scene from stories and songs that talk about “the first meeting of the eyes” of a hero and a heroine. The scene is set forth here with perfect clarity: a dashing young man dressed in princely attired comes riding a fine steed; a beautiful woman offers him a pot of water freshly drawn from the well. As fate would have it, they are already married to one another; but neither recognises the other, because he has been gone for so many years.

Lastly, we have the tragic love story of Shirin and Khusraw by Nizami Ganjavi (1141–1209), the Persian equivalent of Romeo and Juliet. Shirin’s father encourages Farhad, Khusraw’s rival, to cut a road through an impenetrable mountain; if he is successful, he will offer him his daughter’s hand in marriage. Fueled by passion, Farhad works day and night and nearly completes the seemingly impossible task. Shirin’s father then dupes the lovesick man by sending an old woman to tell him that Shirin has died. Grief-stricken, Farhad jumps to his death. Shirin mourns his unfortunate death, while the old woman covers her face in shame.

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Leaf from the Madhavanala Kamakandala India, Pahari Region, Nalagarh School, 19th century. Courtesy of Kapoor Galleries.


Shirin Mourning Farhad’s Death, Provincial Mughal Style, 18th century. Courtesy of Kapoor Galleries.