The watercolour that you see on this page recounts the episode of Munjatavi or Isikatavi. It depicts the omnipotent Krishna swallowing an entire forest fire in order to rescue His sakahas and cows. What had happened was this: the cows had wandered into Munjavan and lost their way, the sakhas followed suit, and Kamsa set fire to Munjavan to triumph over Krishna.
Within a rectangular-shaped frame with superbly rounded edges, the cows and sakhas huddle together behind their protector. Dense evergreen forests surround them. A raging fire from amongst them is gradually retreating into the mouth of the divine.
Note the sheer number of human and animal figures in this painting. Each, including Krishna, has been imbued with a lifelike body language and expressive composure of countenance.
As the Bhagavata Purana has it, the incident of Krishna consuming forest
fire occurred on the same day when he subdued serpent Kaliya and the
viper was evicted of Kaliyadah, a spot in the river Yamuna which the
serpent had been occupying and was polluting. When playing with his
‘sakhas’ – mates, their ball slipped towards Kaliyadah. Krishna
followed it and along the ball fell into the serpent’s abode.
Infuriated by such sudden turmoil Kaliya got up and held Krishna into
its coils. The news reached Brij and the entire village : men, women
and cows, rushed to the spot. Krishna’s friends were boosting their
friend’s morale and all men and women, as also the cows as much in
love with Krishna, were praying for his safety. By evening Krishna got
hold of Kaliya but before he crushed its hood, its consorts appeared
and prayed for mercy. Krishna spared the viper on condition that it
would vacate the river and retire to sea that could bear the serpent’s
volume and venom.
It was already evening when Krishna subdued the serpent. With a sigh
of relief inhabitants of Brij decided to celebrate the occasion on the
Yamuna’s bank itself. It was quite late in the evening when the
celebration came to an end. Hence, they decided to stay at the
Yamuna’s bank itself for the night, something quite common for when
they grazed their cows during nights they used to stay there
nightlong. In the centre of the grove of trees along with their cows
they all retired, and tired and tense as they were, all fell into deep
sleep. Around midnight they felt unbearable heat and when they opened
their eyes, a huge fire was seen engulfing them and the entire
surroundings. When there was hue and cry all around and all cried for
help, Krishna, too, woke. It took him no time to understand that it
was yet another mischief of Kansa. He instantly invoked his divine
power and caught a flame and began sucking the fire through it into
his mouth. Soon he consumed the entire fire and as he expected not
even a leaf of a tree was burnt.
Though miniaturized, each figure, a Gopi, Gopa or cow, or even a form
of tree, has been crafted with rare clarity, soft touches and lifelike
vigour. The gesture of Krishna’s left hand, conducting the flame into
his mouth, and his curved figure reveal a rare drama. Many of the
Gopas and Gopis, unable to see Krishna fighting the mighty fire all
alone and fearing that the fire might harm him, have either turned
away their eyes from Krishna or have covered them with their palms.
This human sentiment passes into the attitude of cows too, as many of
them turn away their faces from Krishna while others look with a
worried face towards him. In most paintings on the theme river Yamuna
is not painted. Here the artist has painted Yamuna as also the sky
grown fiery by the heat of fire reaching it. Contained in an oval
frame with corners manipulated with floral arabesques the painting is
able to draw the eye to its central theme without letting it wander or
This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr. Daljeet. Prof. Jain
specializes on the aesthetics of literature and is the author of
numerous books on Indian art and culture. Dr. Daljeet is the
curator of the Miniature Painting Gallery, National Museum, New
Delhi. They have both collaborated together on a number of
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