An illustration from the Gita Govinda
An illustration from the Gita Govinda


An illustration from the Gita Govinda
Master of the first generation after Nainsukh
India, Guler or Kangra, 1775-80
Krishna and Radha intimately entwined in a bower of leaves by a calm stream in the dusk of night, both still wearing their jewelry and he his crown and white floral garland, surrounded by trees and creepers providing gentle seclusion and mirroring their tender lovemaking
Opaque pigments and gold on paper
6 5/8 x 5 7/8 in. (16.8 x 15 cm.)

Lot Essay

The Gita Govinda, or "Song of the Dark Lord," is an epic poem written in the 12th century by Jayadeva, and describing the love story between Krishna and Radha. Jayadeva's language and resultant imagery expresses the most intense form of love, from Radha's longing for Madhava ("Honey-Sweet One"), their independent struggles to maintain dignity while hiding his or her tempestuous emotions, and the final release in their blissful union. The poem serves as a metaphor for the spiritual love for Krishna, and was seminal in the development of the bhakti movement of Hinduism, which advocated direct devotion to the deity instead of using a Brahmin as intercessor.

In the Pahari Hills, the Gita Govinda has been illustrated at least three times by some of the most important and well-known artists of Pandit Seu's family: the first in 1730 by Manaku (see B.N. Goswamy and E. Fischer's chapter on Manaku in Masters of Indian Painting II, 2011, pp. 641-658), this series in circa 1775-80, and then a third series also known as the "Lambagraon" Gita Govinda, created in Kangra around 1800-1810. The series to which the present painting belongs has been variously called the "Tehri-Garhwal Gita Govinda series," after the collection in which it was first discovered by N.C. Mehta in 1926; the "first Gita Govinda of Kangra, circa 1780" and the "second Gita Govinda of Guler, circa 1775." Recent scholarship suggests the original series had possibly 151 folios, of which approximately 135 survive today, and seem to be based on the same number of finished master drawings (in the collection of the National Museum, New Delhi), some further based on rough sketches done in sanguine and attributed to Nainsukh, circa 1765-75 (Goswamy and Fischer, 2011, p. 680, figs. 15-16b and B.N. Goswamy and E. Fischer, Pahari Masters - Court Painters of Northern India, 1992, p. 313, figs. 106-108). It has been determined that two different master artists, both belonging to the generation after Nainsukh, produced this series (Goswamy and Fischer, 2011, p. 689), echoing Archer who earlier identified the artists possibly as Khushala, the younger son of Manaku, and Gaudhu, the second son of Nainsukh (W.G. Archer, Indian Paintings from the Panjab Hills: a Survey and History of Pahari Painting, 1973 1, 292-293). Archer's attributions remain to be supported by current scholars, but from the research it is clear this Gita Govinda series was done by a master artist descended from Pandit Seu and his two sons.

This painting has an inscription on the verso which comes from Part 12, Verse 10 of Jayadeva's poem. Like other known paintings from this part of the story, though it is trimmed on the left edge, it can still be identified and translated as follows:

Displaying her passion
In loveplay as the battle began, She launched a bold offensive
Above him
And triumphed over her lover.
Her hips were still,
Her vine-like arm was slack,
Her chest heaving,
Her eyes were closed.
Why does a mood of manly force
Succeed for women in love?"

This verse relates directly to the scene in the painting, in which Radha has boldly positioned herself atop Madhava to take control of their lovemaking. One can almost hear her labored breathing as she braces her arm against the earth for support. Her skin reflects the light emanating from Madhava, which also gently illuminates their leafy bed, some branches and creepers above them. The painting and verse relate closely to two others from the same series. One is in the Polsky Collection (A. Topsfield, In the Realm of Gods and Kings: Arts of India, 2004, p. 162-3, fig. 64), and depicts Radha seated above Krishna, as in the present painting. The two are in tight embrace and she braces herself against the floor with her foot as he looks out to the viewer, wearing a yellow turban. They are on the same bed of leaves in the same bower of trees, and the mood is equally intimate. The only landscape element missing is the Yamuna river, which was likely lost when this work was trimmed. The other is in the Alvin O. Bellak Collection (D. Mason, Intimate Worlds, 2001, p. 194-195, fig. 83), in which the verso has a nearly identical inscription but the scene is different: Radha leans back as Krishna crouches before her, shy but gently encouraging of his caresses. Based on the close relationship between these two compositions, it is likely they were sequential in the series, possibly with the Bellak painting preceding the current work.

Other works from the same series are published in N.C. Mehta, Studies in Indian Painting: a Survey of some New Material Ranging from the Commencement of the VIIth century to circa 1870 AD, 1926, pl. 24; M.S. Randhawa, Kangra Paintings of the Gita Govinda, 1963; B.N. Goswamy, "Pahari Painting: The Family as the Basis of Style," Marg 21/4 (1968), pp. 17-62, 48f, pls. 37, 38; W.G. Archer, Indian Paintings from the Panjab Hills: a Survey and History of Pahari Painting, 1973, Kangra 33; M. Chandra, Pahari Paintings from the Gita Govinda, 1971; B.N. Goswamy and E. Fischer, Pahari Masters - Court Painters of Northern India, 1992, pp. 312-331; S. Kossak, Indian Court Painting - 16th-19th century, 1997, figs. 63 and 64; A. Garimella, "My Heart Values his Vulgar Ways. A Handmaid's tale: Sakhis, Love, Devotion and Poetry in Rajput Painting," in Love in Asian Art and Culture, edited by V. Dehejia, 1998, figs. 1, 3-5, 7; E. Fischer and B.N. Goswamy, Paintings by Nainsukh of Guler, 1999, 10-12, 34-43; D. Mason, Intimate Worlds, 2001, p. 192-195, figs. 82, 83; E. Fischer, "Gitagovinda - Das Lied vom Hirten und seine Illustrationen aus der Werkstatt des Nainsukh von Guler," in Liebeskunst: Liebeslust aund Liebesleid in der Weltkunst, 2002, pp. 163-177; and A. Topsfield, In the Realm of Gods and Kings: Arts of India, 2004, p. 162-3, fig. 64.

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