Krishna in Indian Artistic Forms

By Vanishree Mahesh

Krishna's valour and his charm as youth are depicted in a multitude of artistic forms in India - from paintings, sculptures, and music, to dance. Stories of Krishna, especially of his childhood, have enthralled artists and commoners for centuries. Puranic scriptures dedicated to Vishnu, namely Bhagavatha Purana and Vishnu Purana, narrate the stories of Krishna at length since he is considered the eighth incarnation of God Vishnu.

Krishna's birth paves the way for the many stories of him slaying demons even as a toddler. Krishna's maternal uncle, Kamsa, hears from a divine voice (Asharira Vani – body-less agent) that his end would be in the hands of the 8th child of his sister Devaki. This voice alerting Kamsa happens on the day of Devaki's wedding to Vasudeva. Paranoid Kamsa tries to kill his sister. However, Vasudeva convinces him that he and Devaki would hand over every child born till the 8th child to Kamsa. Imprisoned by Kamsa, Vasudeva and Devaki give up their children to Kamsa.

Kamsa kills the first six children of Devaki and Vasudeva, but the seventh and the eighth children escape his clutches. When Krishna, the eighth child of Devaki, is born, a divine force assists Vasudeva in safely taking him to Gokula. Yashoda and Nanda, friends of Vasudeva, agree to raise Krishna. As Vasudeva returns to his jail cell after leaving Krishna with Nanda, a divine voice alerts Kamsa. Kamsa is horrified to learn that the eighth child of his sister Devaki is safe and that his end will come soon. Enraged, Kamsa deploys a series of demons to kill Krishna and Krishna thwarts his attempts every time. Krishna's childhood has been a source of inspiration to many artists and poets.

Images in this exhibit are of the sculptures in the Hoysala temple of Amrutapura and artwork housed in the New York Met Museum.

Krishna kills Putani


The first demoness sent by Kamsa to kill Krishna is Putani. Looking for every newborn in the neighbouring village, Putani locates Krishna in Gokula. Taking the form of a beautiful young woman, Putani begs Yeshoda to allow her to feed Krishna. Putani schemes to kill Krishna by poisoning him with her breast milk. However, while he feeds on her, the infant Krishna kills her in turn.

Image: On the left side of the sculpture from Amrutapura shows Putani breastfeeding infant Krishna.

Krishna kills Arishtasura, and Bakasura

Krishna kills Keshi - the horse demon

A fierce demon sent by Kamsa assumes the form of a horse that breezes through at lightning speeds. Young Krishna takes him on and kills him to bear the name Keshava.

The images displayed are of

-- 5th-century bronze sculpture New York Met Museum

-- Wall relief sculptures at the Amritapura temple.

Kalinga Mardhana


Unable to bear the onslaught of demons sent by Kamsa to Krishna, Nanda decides to move to Vrindavana. However, trouble follows them to Vrindavana too. While grazing the cows, Krishna realizes one of the cows died after drinking the water from the river Yamuna, which flows through Vrindavana. The cow's death was the doing of Kalinga or Kaliya, a venomous snake living in the waters of Yamuna. No one dares go near the river, fearing the wrath of Kalinga. However, Krishna, angered by the death of his cow, takes on Kaliya. Krishna holds him by the tail when the snake attacks him and dances on his hood. This sequence is probably one of the most popular ones from Krishna's childhood.

Images: L to R

-- 17th century Bronze sculpture from the New York Met Museum

-- Wall relief sculpture from Amrutapura,

Govardhana Giridhara

Another famous incident among Krishna’s childhood escapades is when he lifts mount Govardhana to hold it as an umbrella. When the people of Vrindavan are readying themselves for a festival to appease Indra, the God of rain and thunder, Krishna stops them. He argues that they must be grateful to the mountain rather than to Indra for the rainfall. He insists that they pray to mount Govardhana instead of Indra.

Agreeing to this proposition, the people of Vrindavan offered their prayers to Mountain Govardhana that year. Angered by this, Indra caused a deluge that began to flood Vrindavana. Young Krishna plucks the mountain and holds it in his little finger sheltering people from the downpour. Indra, realizing that Krishna is God Vishnu, withdraws the rains.

Images displayed are of

-- 16th century painting from the New York Met Museum

-- Wall relief sculptures at the Amritapura Temple.