Krishna Holds Aloft Mount Govardhana
Page from a dispersed series of the Satasai (Seven Hundered) of Bihari

Artist/maker unknown, Indian

Geography:
Made in Datia, Madhya Pradesh, India, Asia

Date:
c. 1770

Medium:
Opaque watercolor, gold, and silver-colored paint on paper

Dimensions:
Image: 7 1/8 × 7 1/2 inches (18.1 × 19.1 cm) Sheet: 8 7/8 × 9 1/4 inches (22.5 × 23.5 cm)

Curatorial Department:
South Asian Art

Object Location:

Currently not on view

Accession Number:
2004-149-66

Credit Line:
125th Anniversary Acquisition. Alvin O. Bellak Collection, 2004

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Label:
In this painting Krishna lifts Mount Govardhana to shelter a group of villagers from a devastating rain invoked by the god Indra, Lord of Storms. Krishna stands with one foot crossed in front of the other, holding the mountain aloft with his left hand. The pose is reminiscent of other images of the deity that are worshiped in the temples in the region where this painting was made. Rain falls in torrents from a black sky filled with lightning, yet it is deflected by the massive mound. To either side, villagers fold their hands in reverence and cattle gaze upward in smiling adoration. Rather than depicting the full story, the artist has focused on the main episode, the miraculous revelation of Krishna as god.

Additional information:
  • PublicationIntimate Worlds: Indian Paintings from the Alvin O. Bellak Collection

    The poetry in white in the upper border of the painting reveals that the page was originally part of an illustrated series of the Satasai, the monumental poem of the poet Bihari (1595-1664). Bihari spent his life moving among several cities in or near Braj, the area around Mathura and Agra, called by various rajas and Shah Jahan to employment as court poet in much the same way that painters moved among Indian courts when work was available. When Bihari was still a child, he and his father left their natal place Gwalior to join the circle of the great poet Keshavadasa (see Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2004-149-19,20,21,76) at Orchha. Father and son moved with the poet to Vrindavan, Krishna’s childhood home, near Mathura, and the center of the bhakti movement (the religion of devotion especially directed toward Krishna). Eventually, after several years at the Mughal court at Agra, Bihari returned to Vrindavan before moving to Amber, where he was the court poet for Mirza Raja Jai Singh. At Amber in 1647 he completed the 713-verse poem, the Satasai (literally the “Seven Hundred”).1 Written in Brajbhasha, the Hindi dialect of Braj, the Satasai addresses every aspect of love in its many forms, both carnal and divine.

    The poem here illustrated can be translated:

    When the assemblage of clouds
    began to pour at Indra’s command
    as though they would cause
    the world’s dissolution,
    Krsna lifted the Goverdhana [sic] mount
    on his hands
    And destroyed
    Indra’s arrogance.
    2

    The story referred to and illustrated in the painting is as follows (see also Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2004-149-31). Krishna found his friends the cowherds (gopas) preparing to worship Indra, the Lord of the Heavens and God of Rain. When he asked why Indra was to be the object of veneration, they replied that Indra was the all powerful Lord of the Rain, who granted water, which is the life of living beings. Krishna asked them instead to worship the mountain Govardhana, and said that if they did, the spirit of the mountain would be revealed. The gopas agreed to do so. Krishna himself became the spirit of the mountain and received their offerings.

    Furious at being replaced, Indra sent a dreadful storm of the worst kind of destructive clouds to punish the gopas and gopis and their cattle. But Krishna lifted the mountain like an umbrella over his friends and the cattle, and held it up on one finger for seven days. Indra then understood Krishna’s power, relented, asked Krishna’s forgiveness, and was pardoned. As with other of the fantastic tales in the Bhagavata Purana, from which this episode is adapted, the story contains an underlying moral message: pride dispels knowledge, allowing evil to become manifest.

    In the painting, the gopas, gopis, and their cows adore Krishna, who easily stands on one foot while holding Govardhana aloft with his left hand. The rain comes down in torrents from a black sky filled with lightning and is deflected away from them all by the massive mountain. The somewhat stiff composition, with groups of adoring figures on either side of the Krishna figure above two groups of cattle along the lower margin, is often seen in picchawais, the backdrops of painted cotton that hang behind the images in temples to Krishna.3 The nearly square shape and the blue-black borders with the couplet written in white across the top make the set of paintings from which this comes unusual and easy to identify. The group is associated with Datia not only because of the chunky, long-limbed, small-headed human figures, but also because the pages are stamped on the versos with a Datia state seal. The number 25 in the left margin indicates the place of the verse in the arrangement in this particular Datia set of Bihari’s 713 couplets. The couplets are arranged in various orders in different editions of the Satasai.

    There is at present no way to know if the complete late eighteenth-century Datia Satasai included the entire 713 stanzas of Bihari’s work. However, there are pages from it scattered throughout the world in collections of South Asian painting.4 The set, or perhaps one volume of it, was apparently broken up at the beginning of the last great period of selling and buying Indian painting; the earliest sale in London of paintings from the Datia Satasai seems to have been at Christie’s in 1968.5 Ellen Smart, from Intimate Worlds: Indian Painting from the Alvin O. Bellak Collection (2001), pp. 170-171.

    1. Krishna P. Bahadur, “Introduction,” in Bihari, The Satasaï, trans. Krishna P. Bahadur (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books/UNESCO, 1990), pp. 15-16.
    2. Ibid., p. 300, no. 686.
    3. See Robert Skelton, Rajasthani Temple Hangings of the Krishna Cult from the Collection of Karl Mann, New York (New York: American Federation of Arts, 1973), nos. 3, 9.
    4. Other paintings from this set are in the San Diego Museum of Art (1990:988, 1990:989, 1990:990 [Portland 1968, p. 65, no. 50]); and the John Kenneth Galbraith Collection (Stuart Cary Welch and Milo Cleveland Beach. Gods, Thrones, and Peacocks: Northern Indian Painting from Two Traditions, Fifteenth to Nineteenth Centuries. Exh. cat. New York: Asia Society, 1965, p. 87, no. 43). Edwin Binney (in Portland [Oregon] Art Museum. Rajput Miniatures from the Collection of Edwin Binney, 3rd. September 24 - October 20, 1968, p. 65, no. 50) mentions that some pages are also reproduced in Maggs Brothers’ Oriental Miniatures and Illumination, Bulletin No. 5, but neglects to say how many or to give the complete reference. In three issues of their bulletin, Maggs Brothers published several of these pages, and there are no doubt more in other numbers from their series not at present available to this writer. See Maggs Brothers, London, Oriental Miniatures and Illumination, Bulletin No. 23 (March 1975), p. 119, nos. 148-50; Bulletin No. 24 (December 1975), p. 179, nos. 220-22; Bulletin No. 29 (September 1978), pp. 4-5, nos. 18-20.
    5. Christie’s, London, December 18, 1968, lots 175-80. Another page was sold at Christie’s on June 25, 1969, lot 78.