A scene from the Bhagavata Purana

The earth mother in the form of a cow approaches Brahma for salvation;
Kamsa begs forgiveness and releases Devaki and Vasudev
Bikaner, India, circa 1650
Opaque watercolour and gold on paper
34.3 x 27.7 cm

In this wonderful 17th century Bikaner painting of a scene from the Bhagavata Purana, the artist has commanded all the magnificence of Indian visual mythology at his disposal to depict, in great chromatic splendour, a scene from what is one of Hinduism’s eighteen great Puranas (Mahapuranas). It was composed in Sanskrit and traditionally attributed to Veda Vyasa and promotes devotion towards Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu.

In chromatic vitality, the artist illustrates the active dialogue between the worlds of faith and nature as gods and goddesses are portrayed in their natural state as well as their zoomorphic avatars. Using the depth of Indian mythology and cosmology, nature is portrayed as multi-faceted and multi-dimensional.

On the upper of the two registers, the artist depicts the moment when the entire world was burdened by the sins of the Asuras, power-seeking demons related to the more benevolent Devas, such as Kansa, the earth mother in the form of a cow approaching Brahma for salvation:

गौर्भूत्वाश्रुमुखी खिन्ना क्रन्दन्ती करुणं विभो:
In the shape of a cow, the tearful, distressed Earth mother….

We observe how Brahma, along with Shiva and other gods, approaches Vishnu, who reassures them that he will appear on Earth (as Krishna). We see Brahma, with three heads and golden crowns, dressed in a flowing robe below the waist; behind him follow the blue-skinned Shiva and other gods as they approach Vishnu, seated on the ground and holding several elements in his many hands, such as a mirror and a rattle.

सत्रिनयनस्तीरं क्षीरपयोनिधे:
..with the three eyed one (Shiva) he approached the sea of milk (Vishnu floating on the white sea of milk)

Shiva is depicted in one of his manifestations as a bird (Nilkanthi) and Vishnu flowing as a river of milk that culminates in a multi-headed serpentine form approaching a topographical element, a holy mountain.

On the lower register, set against a darker background, we see a depiction of the episode when Kamsa tries to kill the 8th girl child. Kamsa holds a sword and is prepared to strike the child, who submits her bare neck as he holds her plaited hair in his other hand. However, as she tells him that Krishna has been born elsewhere, Kamsa feels remorse at having mistreated, imprisoned and killed all the children of his sister Devaki and brother-in-law Vasudev. He begs forgiveness and lets them leave his prison. Devaki and Vasudev then leave the prison for their home in the chariot, which is shown being pulled by white stallions. At the bottom of the painting, a cortege of further chariots and elephants follows along.

Sam Fogg, London.
Private collection, UK.

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