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Vamana, the Dwarf Avatar of Vishnu
Page from a dispersed series of the Bhagavata Purana (Story of the Lord Vishnu)

Artist/maker unknown, Indian

Geography:
Made in Mankot, Jammu and Kashmir, India, Asia

Date:
c. 1700-1725

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

Dimensions:
Image: 9 × 6 3/4 inches (22.9 × 17.1 cm) Sheet: 11 1/4 × 8 5/8 inches (28.6 × 21.9 cm)

Curatorial Department:
South Asian Art

Object Location:

Currently not on view

Accession Number:
2004-149-32

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

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Label:
Through intensive religious rituals, the demon king Bali conquered the gods. The god Vishnu came to earth as Vamana, his fifth avatar, to defeat him. Vamana appeared as a dwarflike Brahmin. When the pious Bali asked what gift the holy man desired, Vamana requested only as much land as he could cover in three steps. As Bali was about to seal his promise by pouring a libation of holy water, Bali's advisor recognized Vamana's true identity and tried to stop the transaction by shrinking to tiny size and lodging himself in the vessel's spout. Bali poked out this obstruction with a blade of sacred grass, accidentally blinding his advisor in one eye. In this illustration, the blind advisor raises a warning finger to Bali. Action holds its breath in anticipation of the next moment when Vamana will shed his dwarf disguise, grow to cosmic size, and engulf the world with his three steps.

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

    Vamana, the dwarf, is the fifth of the ten avatars (Dashavataras) of the god Vishnu. Through great religious practice and asceticism, the asura (demon) king, Bali, had conquered the gods and driven out Indra, king of the gods’ heaven. To vanquish Bali, Vishnu was born as a Brahmin. Appearing as a dwarflike religious student, he came to the place where King Bali was performing a sacrifice. The king honored the Brahmin student and asked what he would like as a gift. However, Shukra, Bali’s guru and advisor, recognized the Brahmin’s true identity as Vishnu and warned the king to beware, but Bali ignored his advice. Vamana then requested that Bali grant him only as much land as his stumpy legs could cover in three steps.

    As the king was about to seal his promise by pouring a libation of holy water, Shukra attempted to stop the transaction, shrinking to tiny size and jumping into the spout of the water vessel. To clear the obstruction, Bali poked at the spout with a leaf of the sacred kusha grass used as part of the sacrifice, which not only removed Shukra but also blinded him in one eye. The king then completed the vow. Suddenly, Vamana-Vishnu grew to enormous size and took three steps. With his first two he encompassed the earth, the middle world, and the heavens--and returned them to Indra’s rule. There being nothing left to claim with his final step, the pious Bali, finally recognizing Vamana as Vishnu, offered his own head. Vamana, now called Trivikrama (Conqueror of the Three Worlds), used the pressure of his foot to send Bali to the netherworld, to rule there over the asura kingdom with Vishnu’s blessing.

    In this painting Vamana, blue like the god of whom he is a manifestation, is depicted as a mendicant Brahmin with saffron-orange garment, topknot and beard, walking staff, and parasol. He is shown as a sage in the prime of life, rather than the boy-student of the text. Over his shoulder is slung the antelope skin of a wandering ascetic, yet he wears courtly jewelry. He gazes up at King Bali, himself tonsured, crownless, and dressed to perform the ritual. Between them lie a variety of ritual implements, including the sheaf of kusha grass; several water containers; a flower-shaped holder for incense and ritual powders; and a flat tray used for arati (worship with fire). Shukra stands behind the king with a hand on his shoulder and one finger raised in a warning gesture. His head is turned in three-quarter view, a deliberate break from the usual profile depiction that allows his pupil-less right eye to be visible,1 and thus accurately depicts the tense moment in the story after he has been blinded, just as the king pours out the water.

    The broad background of solid Indian yellow is broken only by a high horizon and by the figures. Vamana’s dark body and the sharp diagonal composition make the masquerading god the focus and pivot of the scene. Action seems to hold its breath in anticipation of the next moment in the story, when Vamana will shed his disguise and grow to cosmic size, engulfing the world with his three steps.

    This page relates closely to the Bhagavata Purana that included the scene of Krishna holding aloft Mount Govardhana (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2004-149-31). It is certainly stylistically identical, apart from the lack of white inscriptions in the borders. Among the other, related pages showing the Dashavataras are four representing different points in the story of one avatar--Narasimha, the man-lion and fourth incarnation of Vishnu.2 It is likely, therefore, that the original set also included paintings of other points in the narrative of Vamana and the other avatars. Beginning with W. G. Archer, most scholars have implied that the Dashavataras formed a separate set, independent from the Bhagavata Purana with its pages narrating the life of Krishna. In the Pahari region, sets of ten paintings showing the individual Dashavataras were created as independent entities. Such Dashavatara images could also act as the opening pages for copies of the Gita Govinda. In these cases, however, they are shown as ten iconic images, not as small series of narratives giving multiple scenes from each incarnation. When they do appear as narratives, they are invariably part of the Bhagavata Purana, and other illustrated Pahari Bhagavata Purana manuscripts3 do include narrative sequences of each of the ten avatars, and the text itself certainly tells these stories. Further evidence that this page was indeed part of a Bhagavata Purana is the fact that there exist narrative Dashavatara images in the format of the “horizontal” Mankot Bhagavata Purana on which the scenes in this “vertical” set are based (see Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2004-149-31).4

    Indeed, this image of Vamana is clearly adapted from a page in the “horizontal” Bhagavata Purana, one that is now in the Museum Rietberg, Zurich.5 In this earlier work, however, the right third of the painting is taken up with an elaborate depiction of Bali’s palace, complete with attendant. Vamana stands mid-height in the picture plane, balancing the king and the guru. The god gazes straight ahead, the king’s eyes look toward the pot in Vamana’s hand, and Shukra places both hands together on the king’s shoulder. In the Bellak page, the condensed version, not only are all nonessential elements of the story removed, but its drama is emphasized by the guru’s gesture, the diagonal composition, and especially the intense eye contact of king and dwarf. Darielle Mason, from Intimate Worlds: Indian Painting from the Alvin O. Bellak Collection (2001), pp. 96-97.

    1. This is seen also in depictions of Shiva (see Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2004-149-77 and 2004-143-1) in which his head is turned in three-quarter view so that his third eye is visible.
    2. They are a painting in the Walter Collection (Pratapaditya Pal. The Classical Tradition in Rajput Painting from the Paul F. Walter Collection. Exh. cat. New York: The Pierpont Morgan Library and the Gallery Association of New York State, 1978., pp. 166–67, no. 58); two in the National Museum, New Delhi (62.1770 and 62.1771; see Hayward Gallery 1982, p. 203, nos. 375–76); and one in the Goenka Collection (B. N. Goswamy with Usha Bhatia. Painted Visions: The Goenka Collection of Indian Paintings. New Delhi: Lalit Kala Akademi and Rabindra Bhavan, 1999., p. 222, no. 168). Paintings of other avatars include those in the Binney Collection (now in the San Diego Museum of Art); the Bickford Collection (now dispersed); and the collection of Doris Wiener in New York. A final image, showing Vishnu and Lakshmi, which B. N. Goswamy speculates may be the introductory page, is in the Goenka Collection.
    3. For example, the version attributed to Manaku.
    4. B. N. Goswamy and Eberhard Fischer. Pahari Masters: Court Painters of Northern India. Supplement 38 of Artibus Asiae. Exh. cat. Zurich: Museum Rietberg, 1992, p. 96. “Horizontal” pages with Dashavataras include an image of Matsya in the Bickford Collection (Stanislaw Czuma. Indian Art from the George P. Bickford Collection. With an introduction by W. G. Archer. Exh. cat. Cleveland: The Cleveland Museum of Art, 1975., no. 103); and paintings of the following in the Boner Collection of the Museum Rietberg, Zurich: Vamana (RVI 1211), Varaha (RVI 1209), Narasimha (RVI 1210), Kalkin (RVI 1213), and possibly Rama (RVI 1212) (see Georgette Boner et al., Sammlung Alice Boner: Geschenk an das Museum Rietberg, Zürich [Zurich: Museum Rietberg, 1994], p. 97, nos. 266, 264, 265, 267, 263, respectively).
    5. Cited in n. 4 above.

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