For Hindus in India and across the world, Krishna is understood to be both God and man. He is an incarnation of the god Vishnu and the supreme deity as well as a beloved baby, a flirtatious youth and a kingly counselor. For many centuries, Krishna’s divinity has been woven together with his human story in exquisite poems and images. While the mature Krishna is revered as a wise warrior, younger Krishna is the primary focus of popular worship, most often depicted as an adorable toddler who steals butter from his stepmother; as a child who frolics in the forest; and as a cowherd lover who plays his flute to lure women deep into the woods. This youthful — often impish, often dashing — depiction of the deity is the subject of A Flute in the Forest: Tales of Young Krishna (December 22, 2007 – June 2, 2008) on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in Gallery 227. The exhibition’s 25 paintings, six sculptures, two ritual objects and two silk embroidered textiles — all from the Museum’s collection — offer visitors a broad view of the deity as a child, an adolescent, and the focus of devotion.
More than half of the paintings on display are pages from various 18th-century manuscripts of the Bhagavata Purana, a primary Hindu text that recounts Krishna’s life in great detail. Such illustrated manuscripts or series functioned rather like graphic novels, blending image and text but emphasizing the former. These paintings detail Krishna’s development in the North Indian village of Vrindavan, where he grew to adolescence as a normal village boy, yet repeatedly revealed himself as a superhuman village protector and as the ultimate cosmic power. In the courts of western India, these images were used for devotion and learning, but were also a major source of royal entertainment.
“The subject of Krishna’s early life is omnipresent in paintings done for the Rajput Hindu rulers of western India, and the Museum’s rich collection of these works allows us to explore many facets of the story,” said Darielle Mason, the Museum’s Stella Kramrisch Curator of Indian and Himalayan Art. “For the first time, we are showcasing all 10 pages in our collection from a charmingly folkish — and very important — Bhagavata Purana series created in about 1720 in the westernmost region of Gujarat, the many other pages of which are now dispersed in collections around the world.”
In addition to the Bhagavata Purana images, the exhibition includes four paintings from the city of Kota, Rajasthan that illustrate that city’s special devotion to Krishna. In Maharao Bhim Singh of Kota Attending Krishna As Brijnathji (c. 1719-1720), Krishna is depicted on a low throne with the jewels and halo of a ruler. Behind him, the powerful terrestrial ruler of Kota, Maharao Bhim Singh, holds a peacock fan in service to Krishna.
“Krishna was and is worshipped in a variety of ways across India, but the case of the kingdom of Kota is especially fascinating,” Dr. Mason said. “There, Krishna was not only worshipped as the protective deity, but also as the city’s legitimate ruler.”
About the Collection of Indian and Himalayan Art
The Philadelphia Museum of Art houses one of the finest collections of South Asian art in the United States, including the spectacular Pillared Temple Hall (16th century) from Southern India; paintings and sculptures from India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet; an important group of textiles; and a variety of decorative arts. Works from the Indian and Himalayan Art Collections are displayed in a series of galleries (224, 227, 229–232) on the second floor. The William P. Wood Gallery hosts changing collection exhibitions primarily devoted to 16th- through 20th-century art from India. Gallery 232 presents art from the Himalayan region, including Buddhist and Hindu paintings, metal images, and ritual implements.