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The Gods Sing and Dance for Shiva and Parvati
Page from an unidentified dispersed series
Attributed to Khushala, Indian, active late 18th century
Shiva and his wife Parvati rest on a tiger skin as they watch a pair of dancers accompanied by divine musicians. The group of performers is so large that it winds away behind the trees. Shiva, the great yogi, can be identified by his ash-white skin, long hair, snake jewelry, and third eye. However, he is shown here not as a terrifying ascetic god, but as a lovely prince on a bucolic outing. The text that this painting illustrates is unknown, but the scene may represent the celebration when Shiva accepts Parvati as his bride.
Alvin O. Bellak's preeminent collection of Indian paintings is one of the finest in the world. Eighty-eight pieces from the collection are a partial and promised gift from Dr. Bellak to the Museum in honor of its 125th Anniversary. These lush, delicate, and intimately scaled paintings and drawings span five hundred years of India's artistic history. Dating from the 1400s, before the rise of the Mughal empire, to the heyday of the British Raj in the late 1800s, most of the pictures were created for India's royal courts and patronized by Hindus, Muslims, and Jains. Themes range from the epic adventures of heroes and gods, to poetic explorations of divine and human love, to solemn and satirical portraits, to sumptuous visions of palace life. The focus and glory of the Bellak Collection are the quirky, lively, and colorful products of the ateliers active from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century in the Hindu kingdoms of northern India, ruled by the interlinked clans known as the Rajputs (Sons of Kings).
This page is from the state of Himachal Pradesh in the Himalayan foothill region of northern India, sometimes called the Panjab Hills. This late eighteenth-century pastel panorama The Gods Sing and Dance for Shiva and Parvati shows the gods at their most bucolically regal. Gentle rolling hills, grazing deer, flowering trees, and a lotus-filled lake create an ideal landscape for the divine outing of the god Shiva and his wife Parvati, who sit together on a tiger skin. Parvati wears a queen's regalia; her skirt of gold cloth worked with pink flowers exemplifies India's sumptuous textile tradition. Shiva is her perfect companion, a sweet-faced young man whose alternate persona as a fierce ascetic is only implied by his ash-whitened skin and the live snake that wriggles around his neck. In front of the couple, two women dance in rhythmic symmetry, and at the right musicians assist a third woman to don a scarf intricately textured with thin lines incised into the metallic gold surface.
Each work in the Bellak Collection is a masterpiece of its type, and together they vault the Museum into a preeminent position in the realm of Indian painting. Darielle Mason, from Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gifts in Honor of the 125th Anniversary (2002), pp. 22-23.
This composition of divinity at its most bucolically regal balances perfectly, like the elegant counterpoint of the central dancers. It represents the zenith of Pahari idealization, just at the watershed where softness and naturalism concretize into the more cartoon-like repetition that is very different in feeling, though charming in its own right. Yet this painting’s importance lies beyond its beauty, for it bears on its reverse a rare inscription giving the names of two known painters—one as maker and one as owner— that link it with the painter-family of Pandit Seu and his sons Nainsukh (see Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2004-149-71) and Manaku.
The inscription is in part ambiguous. In one hand it states: “Pictures twenty [a group of twenty pictures] first refined [or ‘fine’] painted [or ‘drawn’ or ‘written’] by Khushala.” Following this, in another hand, is the word “Kamedi,” meaning “belonging to or owned by Kama.”1 Given the style and the pairing of the two names, it is indisputable that the first refers to Khushala (c. 1730–c. 1790), the younger son of Manaku, and highly probable that the second refers to Kama (c. 1735–c. 1810), the eldest son of Nainsukh.2 As the only known work actually ascribed to Khushala, this painting adds a crucial piece of evidence for sorting out the individual hands of the first generation of descendants of Nainsukh and Manaku. There was an oral tradition that Khushala was the favorite painter of Sansar Chand of Kangra.3 Archer speculates that he worked together with his elder brother Fattu on the Gita Govinda of c. 1775–80 (see Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2004-149-74, 75), among other collaborations.4
Gentle hills with occasional trees slope down to the bank of a lake filled with pink lotuses in all stages of their life cycle. It is the holy Lake Mansarovar in Jammu region, part-time home to the god Shiva and his wife, Parvati, when they leave the barren ice of Mount Kailasa. The gently rolling hills, grazing deer, and flowering trees are an ideal setting for a divine (or royal) outing. On the left in the middle ground, Shiva and Parvati sit together on a tiger skin. She wears a sumptuous skirt of gold cloth worked with pink flowers and an orange scarf. Shiva, turned three-quarter view in a typical depiction that makes visible the open third eye on his forehead, has skin white with ash. A live snake wriggles around his neck, from which hang his ritual rudraksha beads. He wears a leopard skin as his lower garment, and his long ascetic’s hair, lightened by ash and neglect, falls unbound to his shoulders. However, this Shiva is far from the fierce ascetic god that is usual with these attributes. Instead, he is a beautiful, sweet-faced young man (very similar to the grief-stricken Rama of Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2004-149-73). He accompanies the musicians before him on another typical attribute of the mendicant sage, the damaru (double drum).
In front of the divine couple, two women dance in a rhythmic symmetry that is as expressive as it is lyrical; their delicacy and shyness echo those of the antelope behind them. To the right, a large group of male musicians play strings and percussions— vinas, cymbals, sitars, and mridangams. All are beautiful young men, wearing crowns, jewels, and gold-bordered garments, making it likely that they are gods and other heavenly denizens, all performing for the supreme couple. The one with the prominent orange vina may be the sage Narada. In the middle of the group, musicians assist a third woman as she dons her golden scarf, exquisitely textured with thin lines incised in the gold,5 in preparation for her performance. The crowd of divine musicians, though, is so vast that it continues out of the picture at the right, winds around the hill, and reappears behind the trees as a sea of indistinct faces, those in the distance fading into multicolored dabs to imply a multitude beyond measure.
The landscape is as carefully composed as it is idyllic, picturesque in all senses. As the hills recede they appear to be closer together, while trees, animals, and people shrink in size the farther back they are placed in the picture plane. Yet it is not Western linear perspective that is in use here, but only a semblance of it, modified to best suit the narrative and design.
A second painting, in the collection of Paul Walter,6 is undoubtedly from the same series. It represents Shiva and Parvati bathing in a lotus-strewn lake. Not only does it match the Bellak image in size and subject, but its details are handled in precisely the same manner—for example, the idiosyncrasy of the distinctively folded mouth of the tiger skin appears in both images, and the clothing that Parvati wears in this painting is that which she has discarded on the tiger skin in the bathing scene. Just what story these pages illustrate, however, is more difficult to determine, as no text accompanies them.7 It may have been part of a group of paintings relating to the birth of Shiva’s son Kumara (who is also called Karttikeya and Skanda), showing the assembly of the gods the moment after Shiva accepts Parvati as his bride. Darielle Mason, from Intimate Worlds: Indian Painting from the Alvin O. Bellak Collection (2001), pp. 198-199.
1. Translated by B. N. Goswamy. It had previously been mistranslated as: “Twenty paintings. Design by Kushala [sic]. Painted by Käma” (Stella Kramrisch. Painted Delight: Indian Paintings from Philadelphia Collections. Exh. cat. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1986, p. 186, no. 122).
2. For a reconstruction of the lineage of this family of artists, see 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. 307. They date this painting toc. 1800 and do not mention the inscription.
3. J. C. French (1931, p. 69) talks about the painter Kushan Lal and his relationship to Sansar Chand. He later told W.G. Archer that this information came from the maharaja of Lambagraon (see 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. 268).
4. 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. 292.
5. This treatment is seen frequently in paintings from this workshop at this time.
6. Pratapaditya Pal (1997, frontispiece; p. 58, no. 14 [detail]) identifies the Bellak page as the mate of this page, saying that there is “no doubt of the stylistic kinship.” He then discusses the inscription on the Bellak page, using it to attribute the bathing scene to Khushala and Kama.
7. M. S. Randhawa (1967, plate X) believed that a page showing the same composition as the Walter page was from a set illustrating the love story of Aniruddha and Usha. In an advertisement for Kapoor Galleries (Apollo, n.s., vol. 121, no. 276 [February 1985], p. 15), the Walter image was captioned, “‘Shiva and Parvati Bathing’ in a pond, a folio from the Shiva Purana,” and Stella Kramrisch (Painted Delight: Indian Paintings from Philadelphia Collections. Exh. cat. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1986, p. 186, no. 122) likewise speculated that the Bellak page might illustrate the Shiva Purana. Pal (Dancing to the Flute: Music and Dance in Indian Art. Exh. cat. Sydney: The Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1997, p. 58, no. 14), however, wrote that it has an “unusual subject matter . . . intriguing for its literary source,” but chose to leave it unidentified, as Goswamy and Fischer (Pahari Masters: Court Painters of Northern India. Supplement 38 of Artibus Asiae. Exh. cat. Zurich: Museum Rietberg, 1992 pp. 332–33, no. 138) did with the Bellak page.