Krishna became a living icon in the hands of these craftsmen, who embellished his image according to local need and context, for as a personal god his profile could change almost from district to district. In Udaipur, Shrinathji; in Kota, Shri Brajnathji; and in Kishangarh, Kalyan Rai. But beyond his formal form as deity, he was an ideal an image, a concept, that could he molded to suit the personal needs of a patron and his sensitive master-artist. For instance, in the paintings made by Nihalchand, the famous chef de atelier of Savant Singh, the Raja of Kishangarh, Krishna looks uncannily like the latter, and Radha like Bani Thani, Savant Singh’s widely renowned mistress. A similar process, with a few variations in nuance was under way in the Rajput states of Mewar, Malwa and Bundelkhand. In Himachal Pradesh, a virtual efflorescence in Krishna-inspired paintings took place in Basohli under Raja Kripal (167895) and his talented son Dhiraj Pal (1695-1725); in Guler under Goverdhan Chand (1744-73); and in Kangra under Raja Sansar Chand (1775-1809). Significant work was also done inChamba, Kulu, Mandi and Garhwal. In both the hills and in Rajasthan, this school of painting, which gave new vitality to the Moghul miniaturist tradition, unfortunately declined in the nineteenth century with the coming of the British and the advent of the Company School of painting.
In other parts of India, beyond the confines of formal or stylized art, Krishna continued to be an inspiring motif for both devotee and artist alike. In Bengal and Orissa, he was depicted on palm leaves, and in Calcutta, the so called Kalighat school of paintings catered in particular to pilgrims. In Rajasthan, he was painted on cloth in colours derived from vegetable dyes—the Pichhavai paintings—which have acquired new found popularity in recent times. In Bihar, he was the focus of the vibrant Madhubani folk art, and in Maharashtra and Karnataka, the Paithen paintings specialized in projecting him in his roop as Chakravartin.
The now much in vogue Thanjavur paintings (paintings of Tanjore in Tamil Nadu), were first commissioned by rich patrons in the seventeenth century. Traditionally, the artists were the Kshamyas of the Raji community. The medium was wood or glass inscribed over with gold and silver leaf and semi-precious gems. Krishna, particularly Navanita Krishna, was the most pervasive preoccupation of the artists. It is a matter of some interest that Krishna was not the most popular subject in Indian sculpture. Perhaps the less pliable mediums of stone, copper or bronze lent themselves less to the kaleidoscopic variations of the Krishna theme. There are, of course, a few extant pieces of the most exquisite beauty, in both copper and bronze, of the crawling Krishna with a ball of butter in his hand, or of the dancing Krishna—and a few surviving stone panels depicting well-known incidents of Krishna’s life; but on the whole it is the more pliable aspects of the Krishna myth which seem to have thrived. Stone and metal create icons of worship for placing on a pedestal. Krishna was ready to be appropriated, to mould himself to the flights of imagination of his followers. He pirouetted effortlessly on an upheld musical note, leapt gracefully out of a painting, and danced in unison to our internal mental rhythms. Peasant or prince, lover or warrior, child or sage, his was a la carte devotional menu. Above all, he was both the embodiment and the sanction of joy. In portraying him, artists revelled in the sheer joyous flexibility of expression he made possible. Hence we notice that even in secular themes, such as that of the Baramaasa series, or the Ragamala paintings, the male figure is that of Krishna.
Indeed, in many respects, Krishna was not just a Hindu deity. His appeal transcended religious boundaries or regional affiliations. Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith, sang evocatively: ‘He Govinda He Gopal,’ and the Sikh Shabad kirtans are replete with references to Madho and Shyam. Mian Tansen, the celebrated Muslim court musician of Akbar, could sing with fervour: Shyam Ghanshyam umad ghumad ayo hai (Shyam, the dark one, comes circling like the monsoon clouds); and a panoply of renowned Muslim vocalists have continued to sing with joy and familiarity of the dark one. Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, the talented last king of Oudh, wrote two plays titled Kissa Radhe Kanhaiya Ka (The story of Radhe and Kanhaiya); when staged, he used to play the part of Krishna himself. The number of Muslims who painted on Krishna themes was significant. In the court of the seventeenth century princely states of Mewar, the master painter who illustrated the Bhagavata Purana was a Muslim, Sahibdin. At about the same time, Syed lbrahim Ras Khan, wrote his Rachnavali in praise of Krishna. Its opening lines were:
Worthy to be human, are only those Ras Khan,
Who dwell among the cowherders of Gokul Gaon,
And blessed alone are those animals,
Taken to graze with the cows of Nanda’s barn.