Indian Miniatures: Krishna and Radha Paintings

Martadas Pirbudial

The country was India. The time was ancient, before 5000 years. The city was Mathura, and there was a kink named Kansha. Besides being a wrestler, he was known for his unmatched cruelty. 

There entered a boy of twelve years of age in the city of Mathura. He challenged the king in a wrestling bout. He killed the wrestler king in the bout. The name of the boy was Krishna. He is known as the incarnation of God, as per Hindu mythology.

Depicting Hindu Mythological subjects representing the secular history of medieval India when the Mughal Emperors in Delhi and Rajput Kings in Rajputana ruled most part of India. 

Lord Krishna in Paintings: When the Miniature painting artists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries searched for newer subjects, Lord Krishna and his Divine Lover Radha were their favourite choice. 

Where would the history of Indian painting, especially of its medieval period, stand without the broad mention of Miniatures?  Nowhere perhaps. It is because of the style of painting in miniature plates. The art was nicknamed the Mughal Miniature paintings, as the Mughal Emperors sponsored the artists. Subsequently, the Indian Rajput kings and princes also started helping their local artists to paint the miniatures. 

In the initial stage of the art in India, the Mughal Emporers sponsored the artist on a large scale. During this initial period, the court scenes and heroic deed of the Emperors and kings were the subjects. As the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries came, the Rajput kings also helped the miniature artists to depict the mythological stories in the miniatures. So the Miniature are was called mainly the Mughal Miniature Paintings. However, in many regions, the art has its local variants, too. These variants have their own names like Kangda style of painting, phad painting, Deccan painting and others.

Krishna and the Golden City of Dwarka,
from the Harivamsha (Geneology of Vishnu)
Watercolour Painting Kesu Kalan
Lord Krishna in the Golden City of Dwarka:  It would be hard for an art critique to paint a complete picture of India’s cultural and artistic journey without putting the miniature paintings on record; these were the exotic and beautiful pieces of art that the artist did under the helping the umbrella of the Mughal emperors who ruled most part of India from 16th to 18th century.

Mughal Emperor Humayun had injected artistic flavour into the art of Indian painting when he brought two miniature artists from Persia. By the passing of time, this miniature art had percolated up to the deep corners of Indian states which were ruled by Rajput Kings of northern and southern India.  

The painting shows the mythical city of India. It was called Dwarka, where Lord Krishna, an incarnation of the Hindu God Vishnu is crowned on a golden palace and encircled by his relatives. An agrarian scene in the view evokes a familiar village background. It creates a feeling that God is present in our everyday life. This manuscript was painted for the Mughal Emperor Akbar. He followed Islam. But he was respecting other religions, too. Akbar had helped the translations of major Hindu texts. It includes the Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata (Great Story of the Bharatas), known in its Persian translation as Razmnama (Book of Wars). The above miniature page is from a section appended to the Razmnama known as the Harivamsa (Genealogy of Vishnu), which narrates the life of Krishna.

On seeing the Mughal miniatures we would think that this must be a Persian painting; such heavy was the influence of the Persian painting style on the minds of the Indian artists of that time. But the Mughal style of painting concisely narrates the life and choices of the people of medieval India. On close scrutiny, we would find that there is an elaborated depiction of the lifestyle of contemporary Indian society. May it be costumes, the men and women in the paintings put on, or may it be ornaments of the male and female figures have on their bodies; these articles clearly witness the lifestyle of the people living during those centuries.

Krishna Holding Mount Govardhan - Crop
Lord Krishna

Lord Krishna and Radha:    Strangely enough for the historians, too, the paintings commissioned by the Mughal emperor Akbar were the clear witness of a great endeavour to integrate two different cultures.

The majority of the population of Hindus and a minority of Muslims,  Emperor Akbar created a bond among them, into one, and created a great and peaceful Indian state. The paintings of Lord Krishna fall under this category. The miniature artworks of other deities of the Hindu religion were proof of the will of the great Emperor.  It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Mughal miniature paintings are the symbol of cultural and religious tolerance that had developed in India during the medieval period.

The above miniature painting shows the mythical city of Dwarika or Dwarka. Lord Krishna is enthroned in a golden palace. The village-like scene in the foreground creates a feeling that God is not far away, He is part of our life. This miniature is believed to be commissioned by the Mughal emperor Akbar. Another painting is also of Lord Krishna. It is a mythological story that when a devastating rain was out to destroy the town where the devotees of Lord Krishna loved, he lifted a mountain named Govardhan with his one finger and saved the crowd of people from the heavy rain. 

Rajasthan has been one of the major region and an important centre of Indian paintings. The decoration of houses, courts, and other household buildings were the places to depict the creative genius of the Rajasthani paintings. The miniature paintings are perhaps the most interesting and distinctive styles that have existed in India and in Rajasthan.

Rajasthani Style painting of Radharani
Unknown authorUnknown author
Paintings of Hindu Mythology:  From the start of the sixteenth century here flourished different schools of paintings. Some of them are the Mewar School, the Bundi-Kota kalam, the Jaipur, Bikaner, Kishangarh school. 

A number of schools of miniature painting thrive in Rajasthan. They are a quaint mixture of Mughal and indigenous Indian styles. The Deities, especially Lord Krishna and Radha, were the favourite themes embedded in the Rajasthani.   Miniatures of the 17th and 18the century. The dwellings and household objects were decorated with miniature paintings done by artists of the Rajasthan in the 18th and 19th century.

The painting given here is of the woman known as Radha or Radharani. She was a devotee and lover of Lord Krishna. Painters of Rajasthan or Rajputana, as it was called in that period, had done many paintings based on the Love Songs of Radha and Krishna. After the spread of Vaishnavism, the religion worshipping Lord Krishna and Radha, the theme of these mythological characters became popular in India and in the north part of India particularly. Southern India has its own mythological traditions depicted in the art. [All the images depicted here are in Public Domain, taken from Wikimedia Commons]

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