Krishna As God

Krishna’s presence in music is equally ubiquitous. In Bengal, they have a saying: Kanu bina gita nahin (without Krishna there is no song). He is the focus of the largest numbers of compositions in Indian classical music and his presence is even more pervasive in the light classical music genre of the thumri, raas, hori, dadra and charchari songs. Indeed, most thumris are written in Braj bhasha, the language of the Krishna bhakti cult. In a way, the thumri, akin to the khayal ang of Hindustani music, but much more relaxed and without the self-consciousness of its more stringent classical elder, was a particularly apt medium to relate to Krishna. Its bol was not in rhetorical Sanskrit or stylized Urdu; its compositions reflected the simplified language of the heart, the outpourings of musicians rather than grammarians. Thumri after thumri deals evocatively with the pangs of separation from Krishna. Radha asks:

Bata de Sakhi, Kiun gali gayo Shyam~ (Tell me friend trough which alleyway did Shyam go?);
or vexed by Shyam?s barjori she says:

  • Kanha mori gagariya phori re,
  • Dekho, dekho re langarva ne
  • kinhi barjori

(Kanha broke my earthen pot, see how the mischievous one has behaved with me);

or plaintively she implores him.

  • Chunanya de de mori Shyam,
  • Bar bar kar jorat tum son

(Give me my scarf Shyam, again and again I plead with folded hands);

or sometimes, in an ecstasy of longing, she bursts out:

  • Tum Radha bano Shyam
  • Sab dekhenge brij bama
  • Sab Sakhiyan mili natch nachave
  • Yeh hai brij ghan Shyam,
  • You come dressed as Radha, Shyam,
  • All the women will watch
  • And sing and dance
  • This is the dark as clouds Shyam.

In the hands of musical wizards like Faiyaz Khan, Bade Ghulam Ali, Rasoolan Bai, Siddheswari Devi and Begum Akhtar – to name but a few-such simple lines acquired an emotional luminosity that could be profoundly moving, full of sweetness, with a certain sensuous pathos, and yet retaining the robustness and
lack of inhibition of their essentially folk origins.

The many forms of Krishna, particularly his roop(form) as a child and a lover, and the many incidents and events related to these two forms, were irresistible material for the visual artist as well. The Bhagavata, the Harivarnsa and the Gitagovinda were illustrated because their written content unleashed a canvas of imagery?part imagination part fantasy?that cried out to be given visual form. The tidal wave of output came in the sixteenth century when poets like Surdas, Keshav Das and Bihari took the Krishna theme by storm. Although the poems of Surdas and Bihari were favourite material for the painters, it is not surprising that Keshav Das’s sensual eroticism was responsible for the greatest number of illustrations.

The princely states in Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh were the centres of this Krishna related renaissance in Indian painting. Krishna’s sringara roop was the dominant theme but popular incidents of his childhood?the lifting of Goverdhan, Kaliyadehan, the killing of Putana, and the stealing of butter?were also portrayed. Krishna became a living icon in the hands of these craftsmen, who embellished his image according to local need and context, for as a personal god his profile could change almost from district to district. In Udaipur, Shrinathji; in Kota, Shri Brajnathji; and in Kishangarh, Kalyan Rai. But beyond his formal form as deity, he was an ideal an image, a concept, that could he molded to suit the personal needs of a patron and his sensitive master-artist. For instance, in the paintings made by Nihalchand, the famous chef de atelier of Savant Singh, the Raja of Kishangarh, Krishna looks uncannily like the latter, and Radha like Bani Thani, Savant Singh’s widely renowned mistress. A similar process, with a few variations in nuance was under way in the Rajput states of Mewar, Malwa and Bundelkhand. In Himachal Pradesh, a virtual efflorescence in Krishna-inspired paintings took place in Basohli under Raja Kripal (167895) and his talented son Dhiraj Pal (1695-1725); in Guler under Goverdhan Chand (1744-73); and in Kangra under Raja Sansar Chand (1775-1809). Significant work was also done inChamba, Kulu, Mandi and Garhwal. In both the hills and in Rajasthan, this school of painting, which gave new vitality to the Moghul miniaturist tradition, unfortunately declined in the nineteenth century with the coming of the British and the advent of the Company School of painting.

In other parts of India, beyond the confines of formal or stylized art, Krishna continued to be an inspiring motif for both devotee and artist alike. In Bengal and Orissa, he was depicted on palm leaves, and in Calcutta, the so called Kalighat school of paintings catered in particular to pilgrims. In Rajasthan, he was painted on cloth in colours derived from vegetable dyes?the Pichhavai paintings?which have acquired new found popularity in recent times. In Bihar, he was the focus of the vibrant Madhubani folk art, and in Maharashtra and Karnataka, the Paithen paintings specialized in projecting him in his roop as Chakravartin.

The now much in vogue Thanjavur paintings (paintings of Tanjore in Tamil Nadu), were first commissioned by rich patrons in the seventeenth century. Traditionally, the artists were the Kshamyas of the Raji community. The medium was wood or glass inscribed over with gold and silver leaf and semi-precious gems. Krishna, particularly Navanita Krishna, was the most pervasive preoccupation of the artists. It is a matter of some interest that Krishna was not the most popular subject in Indian sculpture. Perhaps the less pliable mediums of stone, copper or bronze lent themselves less to the kaleidoscopic variations of the Krishna theme. There are, of course, a few extant pieces of the most exquisite beauty, in both copper and bronze, of the crawling Krishna with a ball of butter in his hand, or of the dancing Krishna?and a few surviving stone panels depicting well-known incidents of Krishna’s life; but on the whole it is the more pliable aspects of the Krishna myth which seem to have thrived. Stone and metal create icons of worship for placing on a pedestal. Krishna was ready to be appropriated, to mould himself to the flights of imagination of his followers. He pirouetted effortlessly on an upheld musical note, leapt gracefully out of a painting, and danced in unison to
our internal mental rhythms. Peasant or prince, lover or warrior, child or sage, his was a la carte devotional menu. Above all, he was both the embodiment and the sanction of joy. In portraying him, artists revelled in the sheer joyous flexibility of expression he made possible. Hence we notice that even in secular themes, such as that of the Baramaasa series, or the Ragamala paintings, the male figure is that of Krishna.

Indeed, in many respects, Krishna was not just a Hindu deity. His appeal transcended religious boundaries or regional affiliations. Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith, sang evocatively: ‘He Govinda He Gopal,’ and the Sikh Shabad kirtans are replete with references to Madho and Shyam. Mian Tansen, the celebrated Muslim court musician of Akbar, could sing with fervour: Shyam Ghanshyam umad ghumad ayo hai (Shyam, the dark one, comes circling like the monsoon clouds); and a panoply of renowned Muslim vocalists have continued to sing with joy and familiarity of the dark one. Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, the talented last king of Oudh, wrote two plays titled Kissa Radhe Kanhaiya Ka (The story of Radhe and Kanhaiya); when staged, he used to play the part of Krishna himself. The number of Muslims who painted on Krishna themes was significant. In the court of the seventeenth century princely states of Mewar, the master painter who illustrated the Bhagavata Purana was a Muslim,
Sahibdin. At about the same time, Syed lbrahim Ras Khan, wrote his Rachnavali in praise of Krishna. Its opening lines were:

  • Worthy to be human, are only those Ras Khan,
  • Who dwell among the cowherders of Gokul Gaon,
  • And blessed alone are those animals,
  • Taken to graze with the cows of Nanda’s barn.

In Orissa, to this day, devotees sing the Muslim poet Salbeg’s lyrics to welcome Lord Jagannath. And the image of Krislina is a recurring theme in the outpourings of Malik Moliammad Jaise, the author of the first great epic in Avadhi.

A certain eclecticism, a revolt against stifling narrowness, has been an important element of the Krishna cult. The very exuberance of Krishna’s personality militated against a very formalized, rigid, exclusive or hierarchical structure of worship. Ecstasy rather than dogma, fervour rather than bigotry, and bhakti rather than shuddhi, have been the dominant traits of Krislina worship, in accordance with the defining parameters of the Bhakti and Sufi movements as a whole. The Bhagavata Purana had laid the basis for such an approach when it stated categorically: ‘I believe that even a Brahmin equipped with twelve qualities (wealth, family status, knowledge, yoga, intellect, etc.) who has turned his face away from the lotus feet of god (Krishna) is inferior to the chandala (outcaste) who has laid his mind, speech, work, wealth and life at god?s feet; that chandala saves his whole family, while the Brahmin, arrogant of his station, cannot even save himself.

Not surprisingly, there is very little reference throughout Krishna’s sojourn in Vrindavan to traditional Hindu society. In Vrindavan, Braj happily coexists with Bengali as the second most important language of the area. Mathura, where Krishna was born, was, and to some extent still is, an important area for the Jain and Buddhist faiths. The Govindji Temple in Vrindavan, built in AD 1590, has a Hindu elevation, a Christian ground plan and a roof of modified Saracenic character. The musical entourage of one of the most well-known Kathak exponents of the rasa has a Muslim vocalist, a Muslim percussionist and a Muslim sarodist. These are random examples but they are definitive pointers to the basic catholicity of the Krishna faith.

In India, Krishna lives on not only as a symbol of faith, but as a reflex and unquestioned presence in the daily lives of millions of people, a participant in their hopes and joys, sorrows and grief, in their song and dance and music and creative pursuits, in festivals and ceremonials, in laughter and gaiety. In a sense his multilayered personality mirrors the harmonious schizophrenia of the Hindu mind, which effortlessly operates at two apparently dichotomous levels?one of make-believe, ritual, rampant mythology and love, and the other transcendent, beyond categories, serene in the realization of the metaphysical unity of divinity. It is not uncommon to see in a representative Hindu home a picture of Krishna surrounded by nude women gazing passionately at him, and another picture of him giving upadesha to Arjuna on the imperatives of quenching desire and understanding the self within.

To a foreigner, the diversity of godly attributes in one divine persona could well appear bizarre, but not so to the Hindu, who, forever conscious at one level of Krishna’s celestial status, has nevertheless joyously?even extravagantly? humanized him within the framework of his mortal world. It is only when conscious of such a perspective that one can understand why in the temple of Jagannath at Puri, devotees are free to loudly abuse Krishna. It is an aggressive yet overt gesture of proprietary familiarity. There is a personal bond of intimacy between worshipper and deity that defies conventional logic. I have been told that until recently, and perhaps even today in many parts of India, particularly northern India, young widows would be given a laddoo Gopal?an image of the child Krishna?to adopt. The image, of metal or clay, would then become a living child and the lady would be absorbed in the daily routine of bringing up her Gopal.

It was an activity not very different from playing with a doll. However, significantly enough, other members of the household would view this preoccupation as quite normal. If the lady was busy, a visitor would be told without hesitation: she is busy bathing Gopalji, or she is busy feeding Thakurji! Krishna seemed to enjoy this appropriation. There is a popular story of a devotee who looked upon Krishna as his own child, but was one day overcome by the divine status of his ward; at that moment his feelings changed from filial love to overawed servitude; when this happened, Krishna disappeared, reprimanding his devotee about his flawed perspective: Krishna would be his only so long as he considered him his own.

Much in India has changed today, and the process of transition is still ongoing. Mobility, economic opportunity, industrialization, the widening of the political base and the impact of the mass media, have set adrift old traditions, customs and habits, without as yet another set of enduring beliefs to replace them. The metamorphosis is most clearly in evidence in the bigger cities, where the ‘new’ culture is described best by the absence of cultural content, a nondescript if more egalitarian drift whose most recognizable element is a gross and increasingly aggressive materialism. The manner in which Krishna survives in this new milieu is yet to be seen. generation earlier, Janamashtami was celebrated with commitment by the entire extended family, with the children in particular spending days absorbed in building a tableau to recreate the ambience of the place of his birth; today Janamashtami often comes and goes without the younger generation being aware of its advent, and certainly quite ignorant about the manner of its celebration. The cause for this is almost certainly because of new challenges, new goals, and the greater burden of survival in a vastly more competitive environment.

But, it would appear, for all of this, Krishna will survive. Perhaps it is the neurosis of these uncertain times that the numbers of those flocking to his temples show no signs of decrease. Or perhaps his legacy, through a process of osmosis thousands of years old, has been assimilated so imperceptibly by a people that it cannot be mutated without the Hindu psyche itself undergoing a major cataclysmic change. Perhaps, with a twinkle in his eye, he has himself shown a divine agility to change according to the times. For, are there not devotees today in distant and strange lands?the USA, Australia, Russia, Europe and elsewhere?who have given up their own faiths to chant reverentially, ‘Hare Rama Hare Krishna’ and build temples in his honour and ashrams in his name that seek to recreate Gokula and Vrindavan? And so the saga of his rasa goes on every day (nitya rasa), through all the seasons, in spring (basanta rasa), and in autumn (kunj rasa), and then in that full moon night in early winter, the night of the maharasa, when in spite of ourselves, everything in the cosmos halts, to dance once again to the magic of his eternal leela.

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