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3. Krishna dances in the rain. Attributed to Afzal ‘Ali Khan.
Aurangabad, India.
c. 1690.
Opaque watercolour and gold on paper.
Folio: 33 x 23 cm; Painting: 24 x 15 cm.
Krishna dances in the rain. Attributed to Afzal ‘Ali Khan.

Krishna dances in the rain: a painting attributed to Afzal ‘Ali Khan
by John Seyller

The onset of the rainy season in India is cause for celebration, as life bursts forth everywhere from a renewed earth. According to the ragamala text composed by Mesakarna, a 16th-century poet, the particular musical mode to be sung in the morning of this joyful time of the year is Meghamalar Ragini, the name indicated in the caption inscribed on the reverse of this richly evocative painting.[1] The corresponding visual imagery suggested by the poet is a dark-skinned figure dancing in the rain, a verbal prompt that the artist draws upon as he envisions Krishna, the dark lord, who perhaps more than any Hindu deity embodies the divine presence on earth, dancing with abandon, one foot raised high in a jig and a golden sash twined about his outstretched arms. Krishna is shown crowned and nimbate but without a human partner, attributes that lend an iconic quality to his pose and universal appeal to his legions of devotees. He is accompanied by five somewhat larger male musicians in courtly dress, who respectfully stand barefoot in their lord’s presence, and lean in enthusiastically as they sing and strike up a lively beat on clappers and a mridangam, a double-headed drum. Lotuses – a traditionally auspicious symbol in Indian lore – sprout naturally from marshy waters in the foreground, but their astute placement in the area below Krishna’s feet builds up the latent devotional spirit of the scene.

The artist might well have limited the composition to the divine dancer and his band cutting loose beneath dark monsoon clouds. It is a measure of his ambition and talent, however, that he does not. Instead, he painstakingly embellishes inessential parts of the painting, and in the process transforms what might have been a merely attractive work of art into a compelling one that rewards prolonged scrutiny. For example, he uses a dark swath of vegetation to create a dynamic ground line, and then develops well-articulated plants and grasses within it. He complements this foreground area with a series of squarish, turf-covered rocks and mounds, which are formulated by variations in tone and overlaid with dense and scratchy texture strokes. He imparts depth to the lake behind Krishna by manipulating the fine striations on its surface, and integrates the green lakeshore by feathering it with them as well. Plying the lake is a royal barge, its exalted status indicated by its red colouring, the fancy canopy and standards near its stern, and the sheer number of oarsmen propelling the craft forward. Thirty minuscule figures – all abbreviated to the point of being little more than white dots and dashes with bits of colour – scurry the length of the town’s concourse, most engaging in warrior games of horsemanship and sword fighting, while at least six other figures take shelter from the rain among a grove to the left. The town itself is a veritable warren. It begins on the right with red sandstone ramparts, gates, and kiosks, and gives way to an adjoining compound of loftier white marble structures that terminates quite abruptly on the left. The town’s outer limits are demarcated by white ramparts, while two soaring towers – one with six separate spiralling storeys lined with ghostly white spectators – culminate in golden finials and large standards. A few sketchy inhabitants of the town can be discerned even at this great distance. A trio of white birds perch on a branch projecting from the mass of trees on the left, and sheets of rain descend from three discrete sections of painterly storm clouds.

The style of this painting resists easy categorisation. There is undoubtedly an element of late 17th-century Mughal-style naturalism present in it, particularly in the three-dimensional rendering of Krishna’s face, body, and dress, as well as in some of the rocks and vegetation. At the same time, the musicians’ facial types – especially the oversized, elongated eyes – are more in keeping with Deccani characteristics. Where these two trends come together to form an engaging hybrid style is the cosmopolitan milieu of Aurangabad, a Mughal stronghold in the Deccan since the 1630s as well as the de facto capital of the Mughal empire from 1681 until the death of Emperor ‘Alamgir in 1707.

By good fortune, we can now identify the artist as Afzal ‘Ali Khan and situate this work within his career. The cornerstone of this artist’s oeuvre is a c. 1683-85 painting ascribed in the lower border to Afzal ‘Ali Khan, a name otherwise unknown in the annals of Indian painting. [2] The painting depicts a young prince listening to a tambura player on a low, obliquely positioned platform. The sensitive modelling of his face is certain evidence that the artist was trained in a Mughal workshop. The maroon cushion behind the prince is modelled adeptly, while the embroidered cloth on which he sits seems to float above a carpet with a large floral pattern and bright border. The composition is spatially ambitious, beginning with a foreground garden of neat beds rendered in shades of moss green, and continuing with a pair of tall white pavilions that frame the prince and his two female attendants. The gap between these pavilions opens onto a vista with minuscule figures, structures, and trees strung along near the high horizon beneath billowing cumulus clouds. [3] Each of these elements builds upon two slightly earlier works of a princess on a terrace and anticipates effects seen in this slightly later painting of Krishna dancing, specifically in the use of paired forms to frame the central vista, and the judicious distribution of two favourite colours, carmine and reddish orange. [4]

This painting of Krishna dancing also looks forward to the crowning achievement of Afzal ‘Ali Khan’s career: the c. 1700 portrait of Prince Bidar Bakht that aggrandises ‘Alamgir’s favourite grandson and the viceroy of Aurangabad with a commanding equestrian presence, haughty countenance, and pseudo-halo. [5] Like Krishna’s musicians, three of the prince’s retainers exemplify the artist’s growing inclination to render the eye, eyelid, and eyebrow as elegant and geometricised forms. The artist’s squarish rocks proliferate and diversify in shape and combination, some even morphing into animal grotesques. And Afzal ‘Ali Khan once again finds occasion to enliven the peripheral parts of the composition with such features as meticulously drawn plants and flowers, a townscape nestled in the distance, rolling clouds overhead, and a miniaturised army on the move.

This marvellous painting of Krishna dancing in the rain thus represents the second stage in the career of this newly identified master, who began with a style informed primarily by prosaic Mughal empiricism and gravitated towards a refined and lyrical Deccani aesthetic.

John Seyller

[1] We take the inscription to indicate that this is Meghamalar (Ragini) of the family of Pancham Raga. The absence of an accompanying folio number in a ragamala series and the sheer complexity of the painting suggest that this painting was not part of a complete ragamala series. The numeral 45 written on the upper left corner of the painting itself appears to be a later inventory number.
[2] British Library Johnson Album 1, no. 29, published in Toby Falk and Mildred Archer, Indian Miniatures in the India Office Library (London, 1981), no. 141; and J.P. Losty and Linda Leach, Mughal Paintings from the British Library (London, 1998), no. 15. The painting with the ascribed border is published in John Seyller and Jagdish Mittal, Deccani Paintings, Drawings, and Manuscripts in the Jagdish and Kamla Mittal Museum of Indian Art (Hyderabad, 2017), Fig.17.
[3] Falk and Archer 1981, p. 102 believe that this passage was repainted in the late 18th century, an assertion not accepted here.
[4] These two works in the Mittal Museum and a private collection are dated to c. 1681-83, and published in Seyller and Mittal 2017, cat. no. 40 and Fig.16, respectively.
[5] Now in the in the David Collection (13-2015), this well-known painting is published in Mark Zebrowski, Deccani Painting (Berkeley and Los Angeles,1983), pl. XXI; and Sotheby’s, London, 6 October 2015, lot 46. A full discussion of evidence identifying the subject of the equestrian portrait as Prince Muhammad Bidar Bakht and supporting an attribution to Afzal ‘Ali Khan is presented in Seyller and Mittal 2017, Fig.18.

Sotheby’s London, late 1970s.
Private collection, London, late 1970s.

Falk, Toby and Archer, Mildred. Indian Miniatures in the India Office Library. London: Sotheby Parke Bernet, 1981.
Losty, J.P. and Leach, Linda. Mughal Paintings from the British Library. London: Indar Pasricha Fine Arts, 1998.
Seyller, John and Mittal, Jagdish. Deccani Paintings, Drawings, and Manuscripts in the Jagdish and Kamla Mittal Museum of Indian Art. Hyderabad: Jagdish and Kamla Mittal Museum of Indian Art, 2017.
Zebrowski, Mark. Deccani Painting. London: Sotheby, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press,1983.

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