17th century paintings show sexuality and purity of Hindu gods

(ART REVIEW) NEW YORK — The night frightens him.

Radha, you take him home!

They leave at Nanda’s order,

Passing trees in thickets on the way,

Until secret passions of Radha and Mandava [Krishna]

Triumph on the Jamna riverbank.

—Jayadeva, Gita Govinda

The forest exudes an eerie feeling. It appears dark and ominous. The Tamala trees contort left and right as they rise into the cloudy sky. The blue darkness of the night dims their rich, green color, and even the stars lack their celestial radiance.

However, the colorfully bright presence of an embracing couple shines through the center of the canvas, adding life to the otherwise depressive scene depicted in Radha and Krishna Walking at Night. An excerpt from Gita Govinda, a 12th-century Hindu work detailing Krishna’s love for Radha, is inscribed on the back of the painting. It’s commonly believed Radha never became one of Krishna’s eight wives, and she holds a special place in the mythology as a feminine form of god.

The erotic piece is one of 21 included in The Met’s new exhibition, Seeing the Divine: Pahari Painting of North India. Per the collection’s overview, the various mediums in the exhibition portray the Hindu deities in “emotionally charged narrative moments... [as a] means for royal patrons to forge a personal connection to the divine through devotion.”

Lord Shiva sits with his wife Parvarti, as seen in a vision by the nobleman (left). Shiva and Parvarti sit on a tiger skin, with their bull waiting beside them.

Lord Shiva sits with his wife Parvarti, as seen in a vision by the nobleman (left). Shiva and Parvarti sit on a tiger skin, with their bull waiting beside them.

Dating back to the 17th-19th centuries, all of the pieces come from the Punjab hills of North India. Most of them are not attributed to any specific artist. This is most likely a reflection of the humility cherished in the orthodox Hindu culture.

According to their holy book the Bhagavad Gita, the virtue of humility is a divine quality practiced by mortals and gods alike. It is believed to be indicative of having “sattva,” a mode of existence associated with purity and wholesomeness.

The exhibit is primarily composed of watercolor paintings and ink drawings. Nevertheless, it also showcases an embroidered banner that has never been available to the public eye before now. The Met Fifth Avenue will continue to display the exclusive collection until July 21.

Many of the exhibition’s artworks illustrate a mortal to god interaction, reinforcing the collection’s literature regarding royal patrons’ desire to connect with the divine. In one instance, a nobleman is humbly present before the god Shiva and his goddess wife, Parvati (A Nobleman’s Vision of Shiva and Parvati). In another painting, Raja Sidh Sen, a powerful ruler of the Himalayan hill-state of Mandi, is shown paying homage to Savari Durga (Raja Sidh Sen’s Vision of Savari Durga).

Ironically, a few pieces seem to stray away from the veneration of the divine and illustrate a human side of the Hindu gods. Krishna in particular—the god who embraces Radha in the aforementioned piece—is portrayed as a mischievous and promiscuous figure.

Krishna, in the tree, gazes upon the gopis (female cow herders) bathing naked in worship of him after he stole their clothes.

Krishna, in the tree, gazes upon the gopis (female cow herders) bathing naked in worship of him after he stole their clothes.

One painting presents Krishna as a child who slyly steals freshly churned butter with the aid of his brother, Balarama (Krishna as a Child Stealing Butter). A different painting shows him lounging in a tree with the clothes he stole from several female cow-herders, all of whom frolic naked in a nearby riverbank (Krishna Steals the Clothing of the Gopis).

As I curiously pondered about the interpretive juxtaposition of these particular paintings, one of the museum’s security team members approached me. Her cherry lipstick and freshly dyed red hair complemented the color scheme of the exhibition, which utilized scarlet-colored frames and backgrounds for a majority of its pieces. Red is the most auspicious color in Hinduism, symbolizing both sensuality and purity, and used for many important occasions like childbirths, marriages, and many festivals. The guard pointed to the image of Krishna and the naked girls before revealing with a grin, “That’s one of my favorites!”

We continued to have a pleasant conversation, during which she surprised me with a deeper explanation of the piece. According to her, the “gopis,” Sanskrit for female cowherders, are actually conveying a deep sense of reverence and love for Krishna in their willingness to expose themselves. The chastity and purity of women are paramount to the Hindu culture. By disregarding their integrity, the gopis are actually displaying their devotion.

Child Krishna steals butter from a churn while the women aren’t looking.

Child Krishna steals butter from a churn while the women aren’t looking.

Seeing the Divine lends raw insight into the values of upper caste Hindu culture. The Punjabi Katri caste was originally a Hindu military order of rulers and administrators, but eventually the community turned to mercantilism to maintain their wealth. They have historically been among the richest of the rich in India. (They also produced many prominent Sikh gurus after Sikhism broke off from Hinduism in the 15th century in a rejection of the caste system’s inequalities.)

Today, wealthy Punjabis have a significant influence on mainstream culture through their control of Bollywood. They boast a monopoly in most business-related sectors and have a disproportionate amount of representation by military leaders. According to the India Environment Portal's “Economic Survey of Delhi,” every single one of the top-15 wealthiest individuals in India are from the Punjabi Katri caste.

Retrospectively, this exhibition highlights the Indian elites’ primary ambition, which is not to survive like a majority of their brethren, but rather to connect with the divine. Their patronage of such artwork symbolizes their ironic attempts to advance to the next mode of existence via the attainment of sattva.