Radha and Krishna watching Fireworks in the Night Sky

By Google Arts & Culture

Prof. Kavita Singh

How many stories can be hidden in one painting? How many realities can be captured in one image? How many lives can be lived in one life?

Radha and Krishna watching fireworks in the night sky (Late 18th Century) by SitaramNational Museum - New Delhi

On a gleaming marble terrace under an inky black sky, Radha and Krishna are being entertained by fireworks and song. 

The divine couple share a bejewelled seat and a single halo emphasizes their oneness, already made obvious by the matching features of their faces: the arched eyebrow, the lotus-petal eye, the elongated nose and curving chin of Radha and Krishna are essentially the same, and are made only slightly thinner or thicker to become more feminized for her, more masculine for him.

Attendants clap their hands, or hold tanpuras or a veena as they sing and the phuljharis – ‘flower-dropping’ sparklers – they hold send a stream of fire-blossoms to the floor. On the far shore of the lake, fireworks create a veritable forest of flames.

In this miniature painting from Kishangarh, Radha and Krishna are no longer cowherders roaming the forests and pastures. They have become ‘royalised,’ and they inhabit palaces, wear silks and jewels and are waited upon by attendants. 

They have been recast in the mould of the painting’s patrons and now they look like Kishangarh royalty that lives in lakeside palaces and possesses fine things.

This royalisation was seen in many Rajput courts in the eighteenth century when a surge of Vaishnava devotionalism made the gods seem present in the here and now. 

In Kishangarh, under Savant Singh (1694–1764) the intertwining of the king’s life with the god’s was taken to new heights. Today Savant Singh the ruler is known only to a few, but thousands of Krishna devotees are familiar with his pen-name Nagaridas, and devotional poems he wrote are still sung in temples in Rajasthan and Braj. 

His faith seems to have been his mainstay in the turbulent years when he was deposed by his brother.

As soon as he won back his throne he abdicated in favour of his son, choosing to live out the rest of his life in Vrindavan immersed in devotion to Krishna.

Accompanying him was his concubine Vishnupriya, who is believed to be the model for the famous Kishangarh painting of Bani Thani, ‘The Adorned One’ that shows a heavily bedecked woman with the same features as Radha and Krishna in this painting.

Vishnupriya was a singing girl, bought in the bazaars of Delhi to entertain Savant Singh’s step-mother. No doubt she sang songs based on Savant Singh’s poetry but she grew to be a poet in her own right too, writing under the name Rasikbihari. 

Joined in their devotion to Radha and Krishna, the poetic collaborators Nagaridas and Rasikbihari and the mortal lovers Savant Singh and Vishnupriya imaginatively fused their lives with their gods. 

Their poems intimately imagined what it was to burn with love for Radha or Krishna, and their own lives became an earthly shadow of Radha and Krishna’s passion that defied social norms.

When Kishangarh artists depicted Radha and Krishna, it is said that they modelled them upon Vishnupriya and Savant Singh. In this painting, then, the figures on the throne are both a royalised Radha and Krishna, and a divinised king and his concubine.

The artist who forged the distinctive Kishangarh style, in which a stylised Radha and Krishna are shown in landscapes filled with intense detail, is Nihal Chand (c 1705-1782). Trained in the Mughal school, Nihal Chand adapted his style to produce deeply imaginative interpretations of Nagaridas’s verse.

This painting is probably based on a Nagaridas poem of a Diwali night where the fireworks and lamps are outshone by Radha. 

Made in c. 1770, this painting was produced not for Savant Singh but for his son, Sardar Singh, and it was made not by Nihal Chand, but by his son Sitaram who continued in his father’s vein.

Ladies of the Imperial Harem Celebrating Shab-i-Barat

Although Sitaram’s painting responds to a Kishangarh theme, it is unmistakably based upon another painting that was made in the Mughal capital of Delhi some forty years before. Ladies of the Imperial Harem Celebrating Shab-i-Barat (Fig. 2) is a fine example of a late-Mughal genre that shows idealized beauties amusing themselves in palatial settings.

Here, on a terrace that overlooks a river, the further bank of which is lit up with illuminations and fireworks, ladies of the imperial household observe the Shab-i-Barat, a night-long vigil held before the holy month of Ramadan.

Two women in the front row wear golden slippers while the rest are barefoot.

We can guess that the be-slippered women are aristocrats while the maids and entertainers stand barefoot in a mark of respect. 

Radha and Krishna watching fireworks in the night sky (Late 18th Century) by SitaramNational Museum - New Delhi

In his painting, Sitaram has exactly mirrored the Mughal composition, mirroring the terrace with its pavilion, the two rows of women, including the ones holding a tanpura, a veena, and a phuljhari and the one wearing a tall Chagatay cap and standing next to the little girl.

Even the distant fireworks and plumes of smoke of the Mughal painting are copied – less finely – by Sitaram. He must have had this painting at hand, or he must have had a clear memory of it, as he made his own rendering of the scene.

Such close relationships between Kishangarhi and Mughal paintings are not surprising. The Kishangarh and Mughal royal families were closely connected; Shah Jahan’s mother was a Kishangarh princess as was Bahadur Shah I’s (r. 1707-1712) wife.

Several Mughal artists migrated to Kishangarh in the eighteenth century where they were treated well and paid lavish sums. These artists must have carried with them sketches and samples of their imperial work and tried to please their new patrons by making fresh paintings that equalled or exceeded what they had made for the emperors in Delhi. 

It becomes interesting to see how Sitaram alters the Mughal painting to suit this new context.

To the left of the scene, where the Mughal terrace had been empty, the artist has placed Radha and Krishna on a golden throne. The musicians now are singing their song for the divine couple, and even the royal Mughal ladies have become attendants serving them. If we had any doubts about this, we need only look at their feet: all women are now barefoot.

Given the close adherence of this painting to the earlier Mughal version in every detail, the removal of these aristocrats’ slippers must be seen as a deliberate choice..

..and it is a choice that turns the Mughal princesses into servitors of the Hindu god.

But the artist adds another figure at the head of these two rows of women: a dazzling figure dressed in white who holds a tanpura in one hand and a sparkler in another, as though she is offering the divine couple both light and song.

While the faces of all the entertainers behind her keep the ‘Mughal’ features as though traced from the original painting, this prominent lady has a face whose arched eyebrows, lotus-petal eyes and slim body seem almost (but not quite) as stylized as Radha and Krishna’s own.

Nagaridas’ verse celebrating Diwali dwells on Radha’s beauty, but starts by describing an unnamed woman holding a phuljhari whose veil is embroidered with stars, and who is as radiant as the sun. 

Could this enthralling woman in the poem be Sitaram’s inspiration for the figure in white? And is she meant to be Savant Singh’s beloved Vishnupriya?

In that case, Sitaram’s use of both Mughal style and Kishangarhi stylization across the figures painting become a code to render different levels of reality, from earth-bound to soaring spirituality.

The relatively natural-looking Mughal faces reflect those who live as mortals; the intensely stylised faces of the divinities belong to an ethereal realm; and Vishnupriya’s face, painted in a style subtly poised between the two, suggests a person who lives in this world, but whose spiritual awareness takes her to the threshold of a dominion that lies beyond.

Recommended further reading:
1. Eric Dickinson and Karl Khandalavala, Kishangarh Painting, Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi, 1959
2. V. K. Mathur, Marvels of Kishangarh Painting from the Collection of the National Museum, Bharatiya Kala Prakashan, New Delhi, 1999
3. Heidi Rika Maria Pauwels, "Romancing Rādhā: Nāgarīdās’ Royal Appropriations of Bhakti Themes", South Asia Research 25.1 (2005): 55-78
4. Heidi Rika Maria Pauwels, Cultural Exchange in Eighteenth-Century India: Poetry and Paintings from Kishangarh, Berlin: EB-Verlag, 2015

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