Krishna Slays Arishta, the Bull Demon
Page from a dispersed series of the Rasikapriya (Connoisseur's Delights) of Keshavadasa

Artist/maker unknown, Indian

Made in Madhya Pradesh, Malwa Region, India, Asia

c. 1640

Opaque watercolor and gold on paper

Image: 6 × 6 1/4 inches (15.2 × 15.9 cm) Sheet: 8 1/8 × 7 1/8 inches (20.6 × 18.1 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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This story of Krishna impaling the bull demon Arishta on his own horn is traditionally illustrated in the Bhagavata Purana, not the romantic Rasikapriya, of which this is a page. The painting may have been included in this Rasikapriya in praise of Krishna generally or, perhaps, to illustrate an introductory verse that requests his blessings. The image is a fine example of the distinctive style of painting from Malwa in central India. Although Malwa was one of the first Rajput regions to fall under Mughal control in the mid-sixteenth century, its artists absorbed practically nothing from Mughal painting for many decades. With the exception of the figures' Mughal-style turbans, this painting most closely resembles the indigenous style seen in other sixteenth-century Bhagavata Purana pages.

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

    Krishna and his cowherd companions enjoy many a blissful day at Braj and its environs. On one occasion, however, their tranquil existence is shattered by the demon Arishta, who, in the form of an enormous bull, rampages into their midst, fouling the earth and terrorizing the helpless populace with menacing snorts and glares. The cowherds rush to seek the aid of their protector. Krishna arrives and taunts Arishta, prompting the bull to charge him. But Krishna quickly catches hold of Arishta’s horns and demonstrates his obvious supremacy by dragging the beast about at will. Refusing to concede defeat, the enraged Arishta charges again. This time Krishna grabs him by the horn and wrestles him to the ground, where he pins him with the force of his foot. Then, wrenching one of Arishta’s horns from his head, Krishna dispatches the mighty demon to his death by impaling him with his own horn.

    This episode, which is recounted in Chapter 36 of Book 10 of the Bhagavata Purana, is strangely out of place in an illustrated series of the Rasikapriya, a text with a decidedly romantic nature (see Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2004-149-19,21). Yet its depiction at the very beginning of this Rasikapriya series reveals much about Indian literary and artistic sensibilities, which admit a divine presence in most situations, and conceive of the gods in terms of popular legends, paying little heed to the exact textual source of those stories and images. In this case, for example, the representation of Krishna’s heroic quelling of a demonic threat is inspired by a brief invocation to Krishna, which follows a similar homage to Ganesha, the elephant-headed deity invoked customarily at the inception of all undertakings. To judge from the sequence of painting numbers, this Rasikapriya series was designed to be so extensive that the team of artists could illustrate even such tangential or introductory passages.1

    A terse inscription on the reverse of this painting appears to allude to the subject in a most oblique manner, for it reads: “Fearsome when Keshi he overcame.”2 Yet Keshi, a horse demon who meets a similar fate at the hands of Krishna, is certainly not represented here.3 Keshi is, however, the subject of the first half of the Rasikapriya verse that concludes “courageous when Vatsasura [the calf demon] he killed.” Thus, it seems that rather than being a simple mistake, this abbreviated verse was enough of a verbal prompt to lead the artist to extol Krishna’s physical prowess with a scene of his subjugation of one of these two infamous animal demons. Accordingly, scholars have taken this painting to be an image of Vatsasura, the calf demon whom Krishna seizes by the hind legs and tail and hurls to its death.4 However, the inexplicitness of the inscription had unforeseen consequences, for the artist illustrates neither Keshi nor Vatsasura. Instead, as is indicated by Krishna’s action of taking the bull by the horn, the painter allows himself to stray into the story of Arishta, a similarly bovine demon, albeit one not mentioned at all in the Rasikapriya text. While this substitution was probably occasioned by the painter’s faulty knowledge of the precise Rasikapriya verse, it would be entirely acceptable in a world of mythic legend because the episode and image still speak eloquently to the essential truth of Krishna’s insuperable power.

    The illustration itself is a fine example of painting from Central India. Although the Malwa region was among the first to fall under Mughal control in the mid-sixteenth century, its artists absorbed few features of Mughal painting until the second half of the seventeenth century. The large-headed figures here, for example, are only slightly more rounded and finely featured than those of the Palam Bhagavata Purana (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2004-149-6-8), made a century earlier; in fact, the sole concession to contemporary metropolitan styles is the plumed Jahangir-period turbans that the cowherds sport. This conservatism is a virtue in many respects, for the Malwa style retains much of the raw vigor of early Indian painting. The cowherds, for example, assume forceful, angular poses as they hasten to assist Krishna. For his part, Krishna grasps Arishta’s horn in a most untenable way, and lands what can only be a glancing blow with his foot; despite the pictorial imprecision of these actions, there is no doubt that Krishna will subdue the demon imminently. Two monkeys, creatures ubiquitous in this series, leap from tree to tree, simultaneously echoing the agitation of the scene below and enlivening the upper stretches of the composition. This work, like the best of early Malwa painting generally, strikes a compelling balance between areas of detail--restricted to a few elements such as Krishna’s plumed crown--and large blocks of primary color. The simple backdrop, which in this series alternates between dark blue and canary yellow, accentuates the painting’s strong two-dimensional quality and imparts a sense of timelessness to its actions. John Seyller, from Intimate Worlds: Indian Painting from the Alvin O. Bellak Collection (2001), pp. 72-73.

    1. This painting is inscribed with the number 6, which indicates that it was preceded in the series by five other paintings; conversely, a painting sold at Sotheby’s, New York, September 16-17, 1998, lot 544, bears the number 288.
    2. The translation is by Richard Cohen. The Hindi phrase is “kesī prati ati raudra.”
    3. The episode of Keshi is described fully in Chapter 37 of Book 10 of the Bhagavata Purana.
    4. Stella Kramrisch. Painted Delight: Indian Paintings from Philadelphia Collections. Exh. cat. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1986. p. 177, no. 90.