Krishna Destroys the Demoness Putana
Page from a dispersed series of the Bhagavata Purana (Story of the Lord Vishnu)

Artist/maker unknown, India

Geography:
Made in Sirohi, Rajasthan, India, Asia

Date:
c. 1725

Medium:
Opaque watercolor and gold on paper

Dimensions:
Image: 6 13/16 × 9 1/8 inches (17.3 × 23.2 cm) Sheet: 9 5/16 × 10 1/2 inches (23.7 × 26.7 cm)

Curatorial Department:
South Asian Art

Object Location:

Currently not on view

Accession Number:
2004-149-54

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

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Label:
The first asura sent by evil King Kansa to kill Krishna was the demoness Putana, the Devourer of Infants. She pretended to be a wet-nurse, but her breast was full of poison instead of milk. Krishna recognized her, but suckled anyway. Instead of dying from the poison, however, the divine baby sucked so forcefully that he killed the demoness. In this illustration, Krishna kneels triumphantly on Putana's enormous chest as she dies, her breast and tongue lolling, while the village women look on in wonder.

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

    Kamsa, the evil king of Mathura, learns of an ominous prophesy that he will meet his end at the hand of his own sister’s eighth son, who is destined to be none other than Krishna. The alarmed king takes no chances, and has each of his sister’s first six offspring slain as soon as it is born. The gods intervene to spare her seventh and eighth children, once by transferring the embryo to another woman, and a second time by magically allowing her imprisoned husband to free himself long enough to exchange the newborn Krishna with the infant girl of another woman, Yashoda. Kamsa viciously dashes the replacement baby to the ground, but she miraculously rises to the heavens and reveals herself to be a goddess. Thereupon the relentless Kamsa decides that a wider net of death is in order, and urges a child-killing demoness named Putana to purge the area of newborns.

    Thus it is that Putana, in the guise of a wetnurse, arrives one day at Yashoda’s house in Vrindavan. This pernicious nursemaid does not arouse suspicion, for she is so wondrously beautiful that Yashoda and her companions take her to be the goddess Lakshmi herself. Putana gathers the infant Krishna into her arms, and prepares to suckle him. Krishna immediately recognizes the disguised ogress for what she is, and knows her breast to be filled with the most virulent of substances. He accepts it nonetheless, and sucks on it greedily. But rather than succumbing to the poison, which would kill any mortal, Krishna drains the breast so forcefully and completely that Putana herself falls into death throes. As she does, the wanton creature reverts to her natural state, her swollen tongue and disheveled hair only adding to the hideousness of her fanged mouth, cavernous nostrils, and mountainous body.

    Krishna continues to play at Putana’s breast until his nonplussed foster mother sweeps him up with relief and bundles him off for ritual purification. Meanwhile, men set about destroying Putana’s colossal corpse, first dismembering it and then beginning to cremate it. To their astonishment, an amazingly fragrant smell issues from the pyre, a divine sign that even one so vile as Putana can be redeemed by contact with Krishna. This promise of redemption has heartened sinful beings to this day.

    This episode is one of the most frequently depicted in the Bhagavata Purana. Most artists select the moment of Krishna sucking the poison from a fallen Putana, probably because the juxtaposition of the grotesque demoness with the divine babe simultaneously demonstrates the powers that Krishna possessed even as an infant and inverts the usual nurturing relationship of mother and child.1 Others aspire to create more comprehensive images, and render as ancillary scenes Kamsa dispatching the ogress and a disguised Putana making her way to Krishna’s crib.2

    This artist chooses a singular and less dramatic moment, when Yashoda comes to retrieve her child from the breast of the dead ogress while her companions look on with wonderment. The narrative choice is facilitated in this series by the two images that precede and follow this one, which respectively show a disguised Putana arriving in Vrindavan and the ogress reverting to her horrific form.3 Here, having finally relinquished Putana’s breast, Krishna conveys his triumph over the demoness by kneeling contentedly on her chest. Putana’s awkward position, disheveled hair, and distended tongue all indicate a level of distress, but her body and face are otherwise unmarked by the pangs of death, and are still far from the monstrous state that they will assume once more.

    Although Krishna is naturally the religious focus of the composition, his small size and position within the contour of Putana’s body make it easy to overlook him. Instead, the painting is dominated by female figures, most of whom are quite peripheral to the story. Yashoda and a complementary figure do reach toward Krishna, thereby directing the viewer toward him, but the three women to the right express undifferentiated surprise and simply fill out the horizontal composition. Indeed, it is their brightly colored clothing, particularly its dense floral patterning, that organizes the painting into busy shapes and voids.

    This aesthetic principle is also manifested in the remarkable series of framing devices around the painting and folio. The broad and surprisingly unadorned white strip that runs along the bottom of the painting is connected to the rudimentary doorframe behind Yashoda by color alone; its real purpose is to provide visual relief from the continuous mass of color and pattern above. Similarly, just as the row of alternately colored tassels consumes the space immediately above the heads of Yashoda’s companions and refocuses attention on the lower half of the composition, it is answered by another relatively plain element, this time a brilliant white eave. The band above the eave in turn has no recognizable architectural form, but is an unabashed excuse for yet another pattern. Pattern yields to plain form again in the red frame that binds the composition together and contains a caption describing the scene. The wide outermost border displays the most exuberant pattern of all: a heavy floral scroll with enormous yellow flowers. The border is unique in all of Rajasthani painting for its extraordinary width and flamboyant patterns, no two of which are alike.4

    This series is usually placed to Sirohi (see Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2004-149-53), a minor school of painting that has features related to styles current in the neighboring courts of Mewar, Marwar, and Gujarat. Although there is unusually meager documentation of painting at Sirohi, the figure style and decorative motifs of an illustrated scroll dated 1737 and sent by a Jain congregation in Sirohi to an itinerant religious teacher greatly resemble those of this Bhagavata Purana series.5 B. N. Goswamy has also suggested the possibility of some connection with painting of the Kutch region of Gujarat.6 The language of the caption above and the four-line inscription on the reverse is described as a mixture of Rajasthani and Gujarati, and thus does not clarify the situation further. John Seyller, from Intimate Worlds: Indian Painting from the Alvin O. Bellak Collection (2001), pp. 144-145.

    1. For an eighteenth-century Mewari example in the Bharat Kala Bhavan, Varanasi, see P. Banerjee, The Life of Krishna in Indian Art (New Delhi: National Museum, 1978), fig. 33.
    2. See 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. 96-99, nos. 25-26.
    3. The two images were offered for sale at Sotheby’s, London, April 8, 1975, lots 108 and 107, respectively.
    4. See Joachim Bautze, Indian Miniature Paintings, c. 1590 - c. 1850 (Amsterdam: Galerie Saundarya Lahari, 1987), p. 65, no. 25, for a partial list of other paintings from this series. Paintings published subsequently include: Celebrations at the Birth of Krishna (Bhagavata Purana [BP], Book 10, Chapter 5, Verses 13-14), 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. 189, no. 148); Nanda Requests That Krishna’s Horoscope Be Determined (BP, Book 10, Chapter 8, Verses 11-20), Brooklyn Museum of Art, 78.260.5 (Amy G. Poster et al. Realms of Heroism: Indian Paintings at the Brooklyn Museum. Exh. cat. Brooklyn: The Brooklyn Museum in association with Hudson Hills Press, 1994, pp. 223-24, no. 178); Krishna Fights the Demon Bakasura (BP, Book 10, Chapter 11, Verses 47-53), The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, M.1035.4 (Barbara Schmitz et al. Islamic and Indian Manuscripts and Paintings in the Pierpont Morgan Library. New York: Pierpont Morgan Library, 1997, cat. 61.27, fig. 279); Krishna Enjoys a Midday Repast with the Cowherds (BP, Book 10, Chapter 20, Verse 29), 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. 188, no. 147).
    5. See Karl Khandalavala, Moti Chandra, and Pramod Chandra. Miniature Paintings from the Sri Motichand Khajanchi Collection. New Delhi: Lalit Kala Akademi, 1960, no. 82.
    6. In B. N. Goswamy with Usha Bhatia. Painted Visions: The Goenka Collection of Indian Paintings. New Delhi: Lalit Kala Akademi and Rabindra Bhavan, 1999., pp. 188-89.