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The Poet Bihari Offers Homage to Radha and Krishna
Opening page separated from a manuscript of the Satasai (Seven Hundred Verses)

Attributed to Nainsukh, Indian

Made in Guler, Himachal Pradesh, India, Asia

c. 1760-1765

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

Image: 7 3/8 × 10 3/4 inches (18.7 × 27.3 cm) Sheet: 9 3/4 × 12 7/8 inches (24.8 × 32.7 cm)

Curatorial Department:
South Asian Art

Object Location:

Currently not on view

Accession Number:

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

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Attributed to the master Pahari painter Nainsukh, this is the opening page of the Satasai, a devotional poem by the seventeenth-century writer Bihari. The verse invokes the deities Radha and Krishna, who sit on a jeweled throne. In front of them, a white-robed man bows slightly to the couple. His striped, cloth satchel may hold either the writing tools of a poet or a painter's brushes and pigments. The man is Bihari, honoring his divine inspiration at the beginning of his text. But he is also Nainsukh, whose features included a mustache and a long neck. Thus, in this subtle masterpiece, Krishna and Radha are both deities and royal patrons, while the man with the satchel is both a devotee and a supplicant artist, both the long-dead poet and the living painter.

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

    Subtle of drawing, color, emotion, and meaning, this masterpiece of Pahari painting constituted the opening page of the Satasai of the poet Bihari, a Hindi poem of some seven hundred two-line verses describing the nuances of love and lovers.1 The poem, completed by the ardently Vaishnava Bihari (see Philadelphia Museum of Art 2004-149-66) for Raja Jai Singh of Amber, was supposedly instigated by his queen as a way to get the king’s mind off a recent infatuation.2 The verse written in gold at the top of the page is the invocation that begins the Satasai: “Take away the pain of existence, this cycle of the world, from me, Radha, you, whose [golden] reflection turns Krishna’s [blue complexion] into a glowing green [i.e., makes him come to life].”3

    The setting of the painting is a palace terrace with gleaming white railings and bold red-striped dhurrie. Behind is a golden sunrise sky tinged with color. On a gilded, jewel-encrusted throne beneath a silver canopy rest Krishna and Radha. Krishna, regally composed but youthfully handsome, wears a peacock feather crown and grasps a blooming lotus. Radha, with glowing light complexion, holds out a floral garland as if about to present it. Their enthronement and postures, the sheltering umbrella, and the peacock feather fly whisk held by a maid behind them are ancient designators of both royalty and divinity, and, indeed, their portrayal in this painting is intimately linked with royal portraiture. To further the courtly ambience, a second maid holds a jeweled tray and box, probably containing betel leaves. All four of the figures—Krishna, Radha, and the maids—bear the exquisitely idealized features that become, from about this time forward, the image types used for male gods and most women painted in the Kangra Valley region.

    The man approaching the divine couple, however, is quite individualized and not at all ideal. Dressed in a simple white diaphanous jama, a restrained court sash (patka) around his waist, he is neither prince nor heavenly attendant. Tucked under one arm is a pink-and-red-striped cloth satchel (basta), a type of bag that contains the writing tools of a poet or scribe—or the brushes and pigments of a painter. The man folds his hands in the reverent gesture of anjalimudra to Radha and Krishna; he is humble but rapt, his left leg slightly bent as he bows forward, his eyes meeting those of the gods in an understated but moving rendition of the rite of darshan—the powerful interactive gaze of man and god.

    Given the fact that the invocation inscribed on the page is addressed not to Krishna but to Radha as intercessor, it is instructive to compare her depiction with that in a closely related image attributed to the same artist, Raja Balwant Singh of Jasrota Does Homage to Krishna and Radha, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.4 In this latter work, it is the king who honors Krishna and Radha, likewise enthroned. There, however, Radha’s eyes are downcast modestly, and the interaction is strictly between the king and Krishna.5

    B. N. Goswamy first identified the supplicant in this Satasai page as most likely the poet Bihari,6 on the strength of his dress, basta, and pose combined with the invocatory verse at the top of the page. The practice of depicting the writer in such a position on the opening illustration of a text he had composed was not uncommon,7 although the painter of this page could not have been aware of the long-dead Bihari’s physical features.

    In 1992 Goswamy and Eberhard Fischer attributed the painting to the hand of the Pahari master Nainsukh of Guler (c. 1710–1778), and Goswamy subsequently amplified both this attribution and the painter’s life and oeuvre in his 1997 monograph on the artist.8 They also noted that the facial features of the supplicant they identify as Bihari match rather well with what is arguably a self-portrait of Nainsukh.9 Although the face in this supposed self-portrait does differ slightly from that in the Bellak page—the mustache is smaller, the expression more somber, and the gaze more downcast—the finely chiseled profile, prominent teeth, long, thin neck, and well-defined jaw make the identification very convincing.10 Thus, in this reading, the painting has multiple layers of identity. Krishna and Radha are both deities and royal patrons; the man with the satchel is both devotee and supplicant artisan, century-dead poet and living painter. Darielle Mason, from Intimate Worlds: Indian Painting from the Alvin O. Bellak Collection (2001), pp. 186-187.

    1. This page may be from a dispersed set, but no other leaves are known.
    2. Krishna P. Bahadur, “Introduction,” in Bihari, The Satasai, trans. Krishna P. Bahadur (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books/UNESCO, 1990), pp. 15–16.
    3. Translated in 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. 302, no. 128.
    4. 1994.377; see Steven Kossak. Indian Court Painting: Sixteenth–Nineteenth Century. Exh. cat. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1997, p. 98, no. 58.
    5. In addition, although Balwant Singh stands with his hands together in anjali and bows slightly, there is decidedly less subservience in his posture and gaze than in those of the man depicted here, yet there is also less response on the part of both gods.
    6. In a 1985 letter to Stella Kramrisch.
    7. The Gita Govinda of 1730, which Goswamy attributes to Nainsukh’s brother Manaku, likewise begins with an image of its author, the twelfth-century poet Jayadeva, honoring Vishnu (B. N. Goswamy and Eberhard Fischer. Pahari Masters: Court Painters of Northern India. Supplement 38 of Artibus Asiae. Exh. cat. Zurich: Museum Rietberg, 1992, pp. 252–53, no. 100).
    8. Ibid., p. 303, no. 128; B. N. Goswamy. Nainsukh of Guler: A Great Indian Painter from a Small Hill-State. Supplement 41 of Artibus Asiae. Zurich: Museum Rietberg, 1997, pp. 230–31, no. 90. This latter book and the accompanying exhibition were the first dedicated to a single premodern Indian artist.
    9. This is the man genuflecting behind the throne of Raja Balwant Singh of Jasrota in a work in the Museum Rietberg, Zurich (see Balwant Singh Looking at a Painting with Nainsukh. Panjab Hills, Basohli or Guler; c. 1745–50. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper; 8 1/4 x 11 13/16 inches [21 x 30 cm]. Museum Rietberg, Zurich, RVI 1551). The English inscription on the reverse states that “the painter of pictures is sitting in opposite side” (B. N. Goswamy and Eberhard Fischer. Pahari Masters: Court Painters of Northern India. Supplement 38 of Artibus Asiae. Exh. cat. Zurich: Museum Rietberg, 1992, pp. 286–87, no. 117). If both Goswamy’s attribution of this painting to Nainsukh and the English inscription are to be believed, then this is the face of the artist. The Bellak page certainly adds weight to this supposition.
    10. Goswamy also dates the Rietberg page (see n. 9 above) slightly earlier than the Bellak (most recently to c. 1745–50; see B. N. Goswamy. Nainsukh of Guler: A Great Indian Painter from a Small Hill-State. Supplement 41 of Artibus Asiae. Zurich: Museum Rietberg, 1997, p. 126, no. 39), which would certainly account for the smaller mustache. The difference in expression is easily explained by the context: in the Rietberg work the artist is approaching his patron during a critique; in the Bellak page he approaches the god.

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