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Simon Ray

India (Basohli)
Height: 30.8 cm Width: 39.8 cm

Opaque watercolour heightened with gold on paper.

An illustration from a Bhagavata Purana series.

The donkey demon, Dhenukasura, kicks Krishna furiously with his hind legs as Krishna shakes the fruit off palm trees (tala) in the palmyra grove (talavana). Balarama calmly raises his arm at the approaching donkeys while gopas (cowherds) rush to gather the fallen fruit.

On the verso are two lines of takri and three lines of devanagari describing the scene, using two verses from the fifteenth Canto of the Tenth Book of the Bhagavata Purana:

“Hearing the words of their dear companions, Krishna and Balarama laughed and, desiring to please them, set off for the Talavana surrounded by their cowherd boyfriends.” (10.15.27)

“The powerful demon rushed up to Lord Baladeva and sharply struck the Lord’s chest with the hooves of his hind legs. Then Dhenuka began to run about, braying loudly.” (10.15.30)

The verses are Bhagavata Purana, Book X, chapter 15, verses 27 and 30. This series has selected or condensed verses written on the reverse and not the complete text. Verses in devanagari are frequently accompanied as here by takri versions of the story.

The famous story of the donkey demons in the palmyra grove takes place when young Krishna first reaches the pauganda stage of boyhood between the ages of six and nine. While Balarama is generally acknowledged to be the hero of this episode, as is it Balarama not Krishna whom Dhenukasura kicks in verse 30, and he who kills the demon in verse 32 by whirling him into a tree, the artist of this illustration has chosen to depict Krishna as the central focus.(1)

The setting is a dark and mysterious forest in Vrindavan. As the twilight sky darkens from blue to a foreboding grey, and the scattered shrubs covering the ground become barely discernible through the shadows, Balarama, Krishna and the cowherds gather the fallen fruit of the palmyra trees. It is the gopa Sridama who first tells his friends of a huge forest with rows of palm trees and abundant fallen fruit, fiercely guarded by the evil demon Dhenukasura who has taken the form of a donkey and surrounded himself with kinsmen of equal strength. So terrifying are the demon donkeys that no humans, cows or even birds dare to penetrate the forest.

Yet the golden yellow fruits are so fragrant and their wafting scent so all-pervasive that the gopas are intoxicated with a desire to eat the fruit and beg the two Lords to lead the way. It is Balarama who enters first and with the strength of an elephant, shakes the trees to loosen the fruit. Enraged by the sound of dropping fruit and trespassers encroaching on his territory, Dhenukasura rushes like thunder and quaking earth towards Balarama, and rump-first, kicks him on the chest with his hind legs.(2) Using just one hand, Balarama picks him up by his hind legs, and whirls him so vigorously that he dies while being spun.(3) Then Balarama throws him onto the top of a great palmyra tree, which shakes so much that the whole grove trembles and fruits rain down to the delight of the boys. Seeing their leader fallen, the donkey horde rushes toward Krishna and Balarama who effortlessly pick them and hurl them one by one into the trees.(4) Soon the ground is covered with a pile of dead demon bodies and the forest freed at last from their reign of terror. In this painting the upright tree trunks form a parallel grid through which the action speeds.

This illustration is part of the large Guler-Basohli Bhagavata Purana series that is called by W. G. Archer the “fifth Basohli Bhagavata Purana”. According to Darielle Mason, who publishes another folio in Intimate Worlds: Indian Paintings from the Alvin O. Bellak Collection, 2001, pp. 188-189, cat. no. 80, over thirty pages have been published although the series contained many more. One of the pages now in the Edwin Binney, 3rd Collection at the San Diego Museum of Art, bears the date 1769, and it is by this date that many scholars date the series.(5) However, because this date appears not as part of a colophon but in the middle of a narrative sequence, some scholars including Archer prefer to date the series slightly earlier (1760-1765), others slightly later (1770-1780), though the earlier dating of this transitional series is more convincing stylistically.(6)

The compositions, choice of narrative moments, and style of this series are undoubtedly based on the extensive set of Bhagavata Purana paintings and drawings of circa 1740 attributed to Manaku.(7) The series is large and though the basis of the style is derived from Manaku, it displays a great variety of styles and is pivotal in the development of the distinctive Pahari style that reached its apogee in the late eighteenth century. The stylistic transition is from the vivid clarity of the early Basohli style to the delicate idealism of paintings at Guler and Kangra.(8) In his recent writings, B. N. Goswamy attributes the bulk of the images in the series to Fattu, the eldest son of Manaku, who during its production came more and more under the influence of Nainsukh. (9)

The majority of this set was once in the collection of Mrs. F. K. Smith, sold at Sotheby’s, London on 1st February 1960. It is now widely dispersed amongst various public and private collections. The paintings all bear inscriptions on the reverse in takri and devanagari describing the illustrations. Some have red borders with black rules, others with black and double white rules. The image and border sizes vary. The earlier folios like ours have images measuring approximately 23 x 33 cm. and the later folios, slightly larger images.

Listed as lot 11 on p. 4 of the Sotheby’s Catalogue of Important Western and Oriental Miniatures and Manuscripts, 1960, is the companion painting to ours, “Krishna and Balarama slay the ass-demons”, which concludes the narrative of this great adventure. Mrs F. K. Smith did not previously own the present painting as it is not listed as part of her large collection offered through the catalogue. However, knowledge of her painting combined with ours demonstrates that in this series important episodes were depicted over multiple illustrations in the manner of a graphic novel.

Professor William Kelly Simpson

We would like to thank Jerry Losty for his expert advice and kind reading of the inscriptions.

1. The story given here is taken from B. N. Goswamy and Anna L. Dallapiccola, Krishna: The Divine Lover, 1982, pp. 44-45; and Edwin F. Bryant (trans.), Krishna: The Beautiful Legend of God (Srimad Bhagavata Purana, Book X), 2003, chapter 15, pp. 19-24, verses 20-40.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Darielle Mason, Intimate Worlds: Indian Paintings from the Alvin O. Bellak Collection, 2001, p. 188.
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid.
9. Ibid.

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