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Simon Ray

India (Bilaspur)
Height: 31.3 cm Width: 38.7 cm

Opaque watercolour heightened with gold on paper.

An illustration from a Bhagavata Purana series.

With his head coming to rest against an outcrop of craggy rocks, his eyes closed and his face contorted with the agony of death throes, a demon in the lower right vomits blood as cowherd boys led by Balarama beat his fallen body with sticks. Krishna watches from the left, seated under a tree in regal repose as he leans against a large white bolster-like cow, its legs tucked under the body like a resting Nandi bull. Krishna wears a striped yellow robe and shawl, a long garland of flowers and a peacock crown. Balarama and the gopas (cowherds) are dressed in short drawers tied with floral patkas (sashes).

Other cows and calves stand placidly by, rooted in paralysis, or run away in fear, panicked by the sudden turn of events and the demon’s terrifying appearance. Some of the cows have unusual colours and patterns that heighten the emotional charge of the scene: a yellow cow with a spotted hide like a leopard, and cows with swirling blue, black and white marbling streaked with gold. The scene takes place in a wooded riverbank shaded by ancient trees with clustered leaves, gnarled or stumpy trunks and zigzag moss-covered roots. A river with a zigzag bank cuts across the right foreground. Puffs of cloud streaked with gold roll through the blue sky.

Without an inscription, it is difficult to identify precisely the incident from Krishna’s life that this painting depicts yet the forest setting and the vomiting of blood by the demon fit in well with the death of Pralamba, who is killed by a powerful blow from Balarama as the cowherds play in the forest (Bhagavata Purana, Book X, chapter 18). The incident takes place at the height of summer. To escape the intense heat, Krishna, Balarama and the gopas bring their herd to the forest. Because of the special features of Vrindavan, the forest always exhibits the qualities of spring.(1) There are abundant pastures shaded by trees and cooled by spray from waterfalls and breezes from the waves of brooks and streams. Here the boys play games that include hide and seek, leap-frog, blind man’s bluff and piggyback.(2)

A demon named Pralamba assumes the guise of a cowherd and joins the group with the intention of seizing Krishna and Balarama. Although Krishna knows who the demon really is, he welcomes him into their fellowship, all the while considering how to exterminate him. He divides the gopas into two teams, one led by him and the other by Balarama, and organises games in which the losers must carry the winners on their backs. Pralamba joins Krishna’s side; they lose and have to carry Balarama’s victorious team.(3)

Pralamba takes Balarama and spirits him far beyond the perimeter of the grazing herd. In response to his abduction, Balarama begins to increase his weight till it equals that of Mount Meru, making it impossible for Pralamba to proceed any further. Pralamba’s disguise collapses under the strain and he reveals his true form, with blazing eyes, furrowed brow, ferocious teeth and hair of fire, glittering with gold and jewels. As he begins to ascend into the sky, Balarama strikes him with a shattering blow to the head and the demon falls to earth with a terrifying roar, vomits blood, falls unconscious and dies.(4)

The Bhagavata Purana series to which this picture belongs was once owned by the family of a Bilaspur nobleman, Thakur Ishwari Singh Chandela, later a resident of Udaipur, who sold most of the pictures to the Russian painter and collector, Svetoslav Roerich. Chandela states on the basis of family tradition that the series is the work of Bilaspur painters at Bilaspur.(5)

Two sequential paintings from the series, depicting similar scenes of cows grazing in the forest and Krishna killing the crane demon Bakasura, are published in W. G. Archer, Indian Paintings from the Punjab Hills, 1973, vol. I, pp. 241-242, Kahlur (Bilaspur) 46(i-ii); vol. II, pp. 188-189, pls. 46(i-ii). The present painting, which belonged to Dr William K. Ehrenfeld, is published in Daniel J. Ehnbom, Indian Miniatures: The Ehrenfeld Collection, 1985, pp. 216-217, cat. no. 107.

Our painting and the crane demon scenes published by Archer share numerous stylistic affinities that link them to each other, and the whole series to the Bilaspur tradition. Archer notes the inclusion of brindled and dotted cows; figures with square-shaped heads and large pupils set in the corner of the eyes; the zigzag treatment of the water; trees with dramatically gouged-out holes; all set against pale blue skies and landscapes dominated by olive brown tones. He further notes the preference for hard brusque forms and clear narrative statements.(6)

Archer also points out the strong influence of mid eighteenth century Mewar painting, seen in the angular river banks; the sombre colours used for the background; the stiff explosive movement of the figures with jerky rhythms; and the landscape conventions, in particular clusters of leaves like the clawing fingers of a hand, which can be seen to the lower right corner of our painting.(7)

Archer, sensing a far stronger Mewar influence on this series than in other Bilaspur miniatures, theorises that a Bhagavata Purana series may have been borrowed from Mewar as a model during a period of strained relations between Bilaspur and Kangra, where the Krishna cult had long been deeply rooted.(8) Ehnbom acknowledges the evident similarities but argues that it is difficult to assess their true meaning. He suggests that the independent development of common sources may account for the similarities or the affinities may simply be coincidental. Conventions that reappear in different styles and periods of Indian painting do not necessarily indicate direct contact between separate idioms.(9) Though the underlying stylistic influences may ultimately elude the analysis of scholars and must remain conjectural, the resultant vitality and distinctiveness of this splendid Bhagavata Purana series cannot be denied.

The William K. Ehrenfeld Collection

Exhibited and Published:
Daniel J. Ehnbom, with essays by Robert Skelton and Pramod Chandra, Indian Miniatures: The Ehrenfeld Collection, 1985, pp. 216-217, cat. no. 107. This is the catalogue for the exhibition organised by the American Federation of Arts as part of the “Festival of India” in the United States during 1985 and 1986. The opening presentation of the exhibition was held at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco.

1. B. N. Goswamy and Anna L. Dallapiccola, Krishna the Divine Lover: Myth and Legend through Indian Art, 1982, pp. 75-76; Edwin F. Bryant (trans.), Krishna: The Beautiful Legend of God (Srimad Bhagavata Purana, Book X, 2003, chapter 18, pp. 91-94.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. W. G. Archer, Indian Paintings from the Punjab Hills, 1973, vol. I, pp. 241-242.
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid.
9. Daniel J. Ehnbom, Indian Miniatures: The Ehrenfeld Collection, 1985, p. 216.

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