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The Loves of Krishna


During the twentieth century, a certain type of Indian painting began to fascinate the West. Unlike Mughal art, it was a product of Hindu courts in Rajasthan and the Punjab Hills and unlike Mughal painting, its chief concern was with the varied phases of romance. Ladies would be shown brooding in their chambers as storm clouds mounted in the sky. A girl might be portrayed desperately fondling a plantain tree, gripping a pet falcon, the symbol of her lover, or hurrying through the rainy darkness intent only on reaching a longed-for tryst. A prince would appear lying on a terrace, his outstretched arms striving vainly to detain a calm beauty or welcoming with delight a bashful girl as she slowly advanced. In all these pictures, romantic love was treated as the highest good and physical passion was interpreted with a freshness and innocence unequalled in the world's art.

Such paintings were, at first sight, easy to appreciate. Although they alternated between two methods of expression—the first a style of savage distortion, the second a style of the softest grace—each manner enlivened the common subject.[1] Yet in two respects elucidation was vitally necessary. Just as in Japan, the lover might express his longings by cryptic references to Nature, the Indian artist employed poetic symbols to charge his subjects with romantic ardour. Flowers were never merely flowers nor clouds clouds. The symbols of Indian poetry—the lotus swaying in a stream, the flowering creeper embracing a trunk—were intended to suggest passion-haunted ladies. The mingling of clouds, rain and lightning symbolized the embraces of lovers, and commonplace objects such as dishes, vases, ewers and lamps were brought into subtle conjunction to hint at 'the right true end of love.' What, in fact, might seem at first sight to be a simple portrait, proved on closer understanding to be a study in despair, a revelation of delight or a clue to rapture, each image with its sexual implications contriving to express some nuance of longing. In these pictures, only a part of the meaning was apparent and without a comprehension of the poetry, much of its true significance was lost.

Such an obstacle to understanding was real enough but, as the eye ranged over this new kind of love-painting, a second difficulty appeared. In many pictures, the lover had special characteristics. He was shown with a crown of peacock's feathers, clad in a golden dhoti and in every case his skin was mauve or slate-blue.[2] In certain cases, the lady of his choice appeared bowing at his feet, her pose suggesting the deepest adoration; yet, in other pictures, his role was quite different. He was then a resolute warrior, fighting and destroying demons. It was clear, in fact, that here was no ordinary lover but one who might also be a god. At the same time, other perplexing circumstances were present. The lover's appearance was that of an aristocratic youth and the ladies whom he loved had the bearing of elegant princesses. Yet often the scene of their encounters was a forest thick with flowering trees. His companions were cowherds and the objects of his love were not the ladies of a court but cowgirls. Other activities betrayed the same lowly sphere. In certain pictures, he was shown eating with cowherds, sharing in their sports, grazing the cattle and himself milking cows. That such a lover should dominate the paintings was perplexing in the extreme and just as cultured Indians would be baffled by Italian and Flemish painting unless they already knew the life of Christ, it was clear that part, even the majority, of these pictures would remain obscure unless the character of their central figure was first explained. One further point remained. In many cases, the pictures were not intended to be viewed in isolation but were illustrations of a text. Many were inscribed with Sanskrit or Hindi verses and in each case there was an intimate connection between the content of the picture and the poem's subject. To understand the pictures, therefore, some acquaintance with these texts was necessary for only in this way could the identity and role of the blue-skinned lover be appreciated. He was, in fact, Krishna—an incarnation of God—and in his worship some of the deepest requirements of the Indian spirit found ecstatic release.

The purpose of this book is to throw some light on Indian painting by presenting the story of Krishna in the clearest possible terms. It might be supposed that, of all Indian gods, Krishna was already the one best known to the West and therefore, perhaps, the one least requiring explanation. Among modern poets, Sacheverell Sitwell devotes a whole poem in Canons of Giant Art to describing Krishna's effect.

Rain falls and ceases, all the forest trembles:

Mystery walks the woods once more,

We hear a flute.

It moves on earth, it is the god who plays

With the flute to his lips and music in his breath:

The god is Krishna in his lovely youth.

Louis MacNeice in Ten Burnt Offerings describes a much-loved cat,

Fluid as Krishna chasing the milkmaids.

And the same Krishna, flute player and lover of milkmaids, is familiar to British audiences from the dancing of Ram Gopal. Yet side by side with this magnetic figure, a second, strangely different Krishna is also known. This second Krishna is the preacher of the Bhagavad Gita, the great sermon delivered on the battle-field of Kurukshetra. It is a cardinal document of Indian ethics, and consoled Mahatma Gandhi during his work for Indian independence. It has for many years been known in the West but has recently attracted fresh attention through a modern translation by Christopher Isherwood and Swami Prabhavananda. This Krishna of the Gita is clearly quite different in character from the Krishna of the milkmaids and, without some effort at reconciliation, the two must obviously present a baffling enigma. Indeed so great is the contrast that many Englishmen, entranced by the lover, might be astonished to hear of a more didactic role, while those who value the Gita might easily be disturbed on finding its author so daringly identified with the theory and practice of romantic love. The truth, if we are to admit it, is that despite considerable acquaintance with Krishna as a name, few educated people in the West have intimate knowledge of his story. In fact, we have only to ask some basic questions to realize how slender is general understanding. What, for example, were the circumstances in which Krishna was born and why did he enter the world? Of which Indian god is he an incarnation? Who were his parents and how did he come to live among cowherds? Who were Radha and Rukmini? In what ways did he love the milkmaids and why has this aspect of his story assumed such big proportions in Indian religion? Why, in fact, is God a romantic lover? Just as few Indians, even highly educated Indians, could survive a friendly cross-examination on details of the New Testament, the majority of cultured Englishmen would find it hard to answer even a few of these simple questions.

It is to remedy in part this situation that I have marshalled the material given in this book. With certain types of issue I have made no attempt to deal. I have not, for example, discussed statements such as 'Krishna was not a god but a hero of a rough tribe of cowherds.' 'The Gita is an interpolation.' 'There is general agreement on the historicity of Krishna.' 'Radha appears to be a late addition.' Higher Criticism, whether applied to the Bible or to the classics of Indian religion must necessarily remain a small scholars' preserve—of vital importance to the few but of little account to the main body of believers or to artists illustrating adored themes. I have rather been concerned to present information about Krishna in the form in which it has actually reached Indian minds and has influenced belief and worship. During the last two thousand years, various texts have dealt with Krishna, emphasizing first one and then another aspect of his character and in the process assembling more and more details. These texts are still revered by Indians and although they are the product of widely separated eras, all of them have still an air of contemporary authority. By considering them in historical sequence, we can understand not only the subject-matter of romantic Indian painting but realize why Krishna, the adored lover, should still enchant religious India.


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