3. THE DEMON NIKUMBHA KIDNAPS PRINCESS BHANUMATI
Height: 37 cm Width: 47 cm
Opaque watercolour heightened with gold on paper.
An illustration from a Harivamsha series.
Inscribed in devanagari on the painting with the names of the principal figures and the number “92” on the flyleaf and on the reverse.
The red-skinned demon Nikumbha has captured the Yadava princess Bhanumati from the golden palace of her father, Bhanu, much to the distress of the Yadava ladies who watch helplessly as he takes off into the sky. The crowned figures seen three times in the continuous narrative are Vasudeva, Krishna’s father dressed in green, and Ugrasena, Krishna’s maternal grandfather and king of Mathura, who wears a pink robe. Suddenly realising the abduction of Bhanumati due to the commotion in the palace courtyard, they leave their antechamber, quickly arm themselves, then set off at high speed in their horse-drawn chariots to ask for Krishna’s help. The action of the painting proceeds forcefully from right to left, following in the demon’s trail and left behind by his upward trajectory.
Nikumbha is the demon king of Shatpura (six towns) who receives a boon from Brahma that he would only die at the hands of Krishna. Krishna has many battles with Nikumbha before finally killing him; in fact, he has to kill Nikumbha several times as the asura keeps springing back to life. Nikumbha can multiply himself and take on many forms, including that of a giant bird who abducts princess Bhanumati. In this painting, we see him just before he transforms into a bird and takes flight. The story progresses with the rescue of Bhanumati by Pradyumna, Krishna’s son, and the defeat of Nikumbha by Krishna, Pradyumna and Arjuna with the help of Garuda after a protracted battle, during which the demon seems at times invincible.
The thoroughly enjoyable saga of Nikumbha is one that the painters of this Harivamsha series have relished illustrating as it affords many opportunities to depict dynamic action. A painting published in our Simon Ray Indian & Islamic Works of Art catalogue, 2010, pp. 102-103, cat. no. 45, depicts a battle to rescue the three abducted daughters of the pious Brahmin, Brahmadatta. The painting shows three identical versions of the multiplied demon king carrying the limp bodies of the three daughters in the midst of battle. In the narrative of the Harivamsha, this is a scene anterior to the abduction of Bhanumati. Another picture illustrated in the 2013 Simon Ray Indian & Islamic Works of Art catalogue, pp. 130-133, cat. no. 50, shows a great battle with Nikumbha after Bhanumati has been rescued by Pradyumna. As with the present painting, it uses continuous narrative to great effect, showing Nikumbha and Krishna at various stages of their dynamic combat; yet the way the story is told, with the demon appearing four times and Krishna five, vividly expresses Nikumbha’s duplicating ability as we repeatedly encounter his relentless vermilion form.
The story of Bhanumati’s abduction takes place when the entire Yadava clan led by Krishna and Balarama makes a pilgrimage to a sacred bathing place by the sea to celebrate a joyous festival by frolicking in the waters, an episode that has resulted in the famous sequence of swimming pictures with many partially disrobed figures cavorting in the water with a delightful sense of play, such as the two published in the Simon Ray Indian & Islamic Works of Art 2006 catalogue, pp. 164-171, cat. nos. 75 and 76. It is during the course of the riotous festivities that Nikumbha, seizing his chance with Krishna distracted and away, kidnaps the princess.
The Harivamsha (an Account of the Dynasty of Hari [Vishnu], or the Genealogy of Hari) is a work in three chapters (parvan) appended to the great epic the Mahabharata. The story of Nikumbha appears in Parva.2.90.
Private German Collection, acquired from the Royal Mandi Library in 1969. The fly-leaf bears the stamp of the Mandi Royal Collection.