Krishna and Balarama Hear About the Demon in the Palm Grove
Probably for a composite series of the Bhagavata Purana

Artist/maker unknown, Indian

Probably made in Himachal Pradesh, India, Asia

c. 1870-1880

Opaque watercolor on paper

Image: 9 3/8 × 13 1/2 inches (23.8 × 34.3 cm) Sheet: 12 × 16 5/8 inches (30.5 × 42.2 cm)

Curatorial Department:
South Asian Art

Object Location:

Currently not on view

Accession Number:

Credit Line:
125th Anniversary Acquisition. Alvin O. Bellak Collection, 2001

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Krishna and Balarama, wearing crowns, are asked by a group of cowherd boys to kill the dreaded donkey demon Dhenuka, who lives in the grove of palm trees and eats anyone who enters. Despite differences in pose, color, and dress, all of the boys have the same face and the palm trees differ only in size. Although this painting was produced much later than other Panjab Hills paintings, it still features the idealized pastel landscape developed a century before. Now, however, the earlier fine and varied detail has become a cartoonlike repetition. It seems likely that this page was painted for a patron in the Panjab Plains who owned several earlier, partial Pahari Bhagavata Purana series and wanted to complete them or add additional sections.

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

    Many of the tales of Krishna’s early life told in the Bhagavata Purana juxtapose his outward identity as a rambunctious young cowherd with his reality as the ultimate deity, Vishnu, through his destruction of an array of colorful demons. Often in these stories it is also shown how Krishna’s brother Balarama also partakes of the godhead.

    The three lines of Sanskrit verse on the back of this painting tell the beginning of the story, when the cowherd (gopa) Shridama, together with Subala and Stoka-Krishna, comes to Krishna and Balarama with a problem1 Nearby there is a grove of palm trees filled with delicious fruit, ripe and falling to the ground. The fruit tempts the gopa boys, but is well guarded by Dhenuka, a cannibal asura (demon) in the form of a donkey. Dhenuka and his retinue viciously devour anyone—bird, cow, or man—daring to approach. Shridama begs the divine brothers to help retrieve the fruit. They and the gopas enter the grove, where Balarama kills Dhenuka by grabbing his legs, whirling him overhead, and skewering him atop a tall tree; together, Balarama and Krishna then use the same technique to destroy the demon’s party.

    Here Krishna, Balarama, and the gopas first approach the palm grove. At the far right of the group, the mustached Shridama (identified by an inscription over his head) and, presumably, Subala and Stoka- Krishna, excitedly point to the grove and describe the lurking asura to Krishna and Balarama. The remainder of the gopas talk among themselves, their agitation contrasting with the poised listening of Krishna and Balarama.

    The grove itself occupies the right half of the central ground of the painting, a major element in the composition. Along the bottom third runs a river; small pink and blue stones border its banks, and huge gray fish, shown in full side view as if lying on the surface, swim within it. The left half of the central distance is taken up with the group of gopas, clutching their herder’s staffs, gathered in an arch around the crowned figures of white-skinned Balarama and blue-skinned Krishna.

    The cowherds are distinguished from one another by clothing and skin color (some light, some dark), by full face or profile depiction, by hairstyle, and by body pose, yet they are essentially the same figure with the same face—slightly blunter and fuller than those of the brothers—repeated eleven times. There is a distinct lack of ornament and sartorial detail in the painting of the figures that, taken together with the unpainted border, may indicate the artist left unfinished some final touches. However, in other images from this group, where cowherds appear in conjunction with more elaborately clad figures, the gopas likewise lack ornamentation.

    The landscape here, although depicting a far horizon, does not have the sense of deep space nor of delicate detail seen in earlier Pahari works (see Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2004-149-73, 77). Instead, its distance is created by schematically layered hills with tops outlined in regular lines of lighter green, dotted with varying sized cannonballbushes perched on the rises in sets of two or three. Stands of deciduous trees peek from the valleys in the middle distance, and wet daubs of white, orange, and gold form the clouds stretching across the narrow section of sky. The palm grove itself appears as a pattern of perfect circles of triangular fronds and spindly trunks with patchwork shading.

    Although there is an oral tradition2 that W. G. Archer attributed this painting to the small Pahari kingdom of Sirmur, he published a page probably from the same series and attributed it by formal comparison to the kingdom of Hindur (Nalagarh).3 More recently, another related Bhagavata Purana page has been published as “probably Garhwal.”4 Even more than works of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, which display a distinctiveness of workshop traditions, such paintings that date after the mid-nineteenth century show an almost cartoonlike generic style that current scholarship has not begun to disentangle.

    On the reverse of this painting, however, there is an additional clue about its origins that leads to a conclusion of major significance for the later use and appreciation of these works in the Indian milieu: above the standard inscription of the Sanskrit text from the Bhagavata Purana are four lines written in Gurmukhi, the language of the Panjab Plains, that give the chapter and verse of the passage as well as a brief identification of the subject. What imparts it importance, however, is that Gurmukhi inscriptions that precisely match this one in format and hand are found on the pages of two other dispersed Pahari Bhagavata Purana sets that were probably painted by successive generations of the same family, which B. N. Goswamy calls that of Pandit Seu, Nainsukh, and Manaku. The earlier is the so-called larger Basohli Bhagavata Purana of about 1760–65 and the later the well-known “Kangra” Bhagavata Purana of c. 1780, which was probably painted in Guler (for paintings closely related in style, see Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2004-149-73, 74, 75).5 The most likely scenario to be derived from this evidence is that both series, at some time during the second half of the nineteenth century, were in the possession of an individual in the Panjab Plains region who attempted to amalgamate them into a single narrative set; commissioned a painter trained in the Pahari tradition to create additional pages as fillers for missing scenes (for the practice of creating replacement pages, see also Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2001-43-3); and added the Gurmukhi inscriptions onto all the pages, perhaps because he could not comfortably read the Sanskrit verses.

    Although extremely popular with Western collectors in the first half of the twentieth century for their idealized charm, such “late” paintings, produced in great numbers, have now fallen into disfavor. However, the best of these works not only show a combination of lively narrative and clever composition, but emphasize the continuity of patronage and the popularity of the texts interpreted—or, in this case, “completed”— by a new generation of artists. Darielle Mason, from Intimate Worlds: Indian Painting from the Alvin O. Bellak Collection (2001), pp. 204-205.

    1. Book 10, Chapter 15, verses 20–21.
    2. On an invoice for the painting is recorded: “According to a former owner, W. G. Archer suggested the painting was made in Sirmur.”
    3. W. G. Archer. Indian Paintings from the Punjab Hills: A Survey and History of Pahari Miniature Painting. London: Sotheby Parke Bernet; Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1973, vol. 1, p. 173, Hindur no. 8; vol. 2, p. 127, Hindur no. 8.
    4. The Cleveland Museum of Art, 71.301; see Linda York Leach. Indian Miniature Paintings and Drawings: The Cleveland Museum of Art Catalogue of Oriental Art. Part 1. Cleveland: The Cleveland Museum of Art in association with Indiana University Press, 1986, pp. 272–73, no. 110.
    5. It was B. N. Goswamy who noticed the relation of the inscription on this page with that on Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2004-149-72, and then made the further connection with the c. 1780 manuscript. From these factors we deduced the above scenario.