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The Dancing Krishna

- Harsha V Dehejia, Canada
Images courtesy: Harsha V Dehejia

September 26, 2009

When we think of the artistic representation of the dancing Krishna it is the rasa lila that comes to mind. The rasa indeed is the central and concluding activity of the rasa panchadhyayi of the dashama skandha of the Bhagavata Purana. The nightly rasa lilas and the maha rasa on the purnima of sharada is pivotal to the understanding of the shringara rasa of Krishna and artists delight in presenting this. However the dancing form of Krishna is encountered in other situations as well and must be considered for its aesthetic significance for a fuller celebration of Krishna.

Dance is integral to all Hindu artistic forms, both divine and sacred, and it would not be wrong to say that the dancing human body is perhaps the most beautiful representation of the human condition and the Indian world view. Through the dancing human form, we are able to transcend the limitations of the form and create a feeling. If the form is the vyakta, or the spoken, the feeling in that form is the avyakta or the unspoken emotion. Shilpis and chitrakars alike delight in creating dancing forms of our gods and goddesses. These forms arise from a bedrock of sahitya or literature, which in the case of Krishna starts with the Bhagavata and then proceeds through centuries of Krishna lore. The various artistic forms of Krishna, whether in painting or sculpture, are a form of visual poetry. In painting, the poetry is very often inscribed on the front or the back of the painting, but even if it is not, the words of the poet always resonate in the mind of the prepared Krishna aesthete who is well versed in the rich and extensive literature of Krishna.

Movement in those artistic forms, through the deflections of the body or bhangas, imparts not only grace but adds a degree of sensuality that the static human figure cannot have. Through movement the body transcends its limitations for the human spirit cannot be bound and restricted by the constraints of time and space. Even more the human body, through the gestures of the hands, movements of the eyes and emotions on the face can express a thousand feelings even without a single word. There is in the beauty of the dancing body not only motion but a certain meaning, not just action but a pulsating emotion, and not mere the ability to negotiate the commerce of life but to rise above the banal and the pedantic and express the celestial and the transcendent. It is the movement of the body that connects the otherwise sthula or static body with ripples of thought in the mind, and when the movement of the artistically created is one of dance, the human body becomes a vehicle for the expression not just of arid thoughts but the lyrics and melody of a song.

Through the karanas, or position of the feet, the artistic creation of the dancing human figure becomes alive with rhythm, and thus it is that the dancing body can resonate with the rhythms of the universe around it. And it is through the combination of movement and rhythm that an artist can bring to life the prana that is the energy within the body. And when to the artistic creation of the human body we give a musical instrument, like the flute in the case of Krishna, the image then speaks to us not just in words but in lyrics, and we who partake of that piece of art begin to dance with it. It is dance that most beautifully expresses the rasa that indwells the human body, rasa understood not only as the living sap that animates the body but the aesthetic sentiment that is the life of the mind.

Krishna’s in the Bhagavata is marked by his lilas and kridas, where he is a cowherd, sporting, dallying and dances his way through Vrindavana. Notice how the Bhagavata records his presence in Vrindavana:

Some gopas ran with the shadows of flying birds
some walked gracefully like royal swans
some sat down with cranes while others danced with peacocks. X.12.8
Sometimes Krishna imitated the rapturous notes of the swans
at other times he danced mimicking dancing peacocks causing his companions to laugh. X.15.11
With their bodies decorated with tender foliage, peacock feathers
clusters of flowers and coloured earth
Balarama and Krishna along with the gopas indulged in dancing, wresting and singing. X.18.9
Possessed of a charming personality like an accomplished actor
graced by a crown of peacock feathers
his ears decorated by karnikara flowers
clad in garments yellow like molten gold
wearing the Vaijayanti garland made of five different colours
filling the holes of his flute with the nectar of his lips
accompanied by the gopis singing his glory
Krishna entered Vrindavana and beautified it with his foot prints. X.21.5
Picturesquely clad in garments intertwined with tender mango leaves
with tufts of peacock feathers and bunches of flowers
and wearing garlands of lilies and lotuses
and singing and dancing freely in the midst of groups of gopas
they (Krishna and Balarama) appeared very beautiful like actors on the stage. X.21.8

This sportive, playful presence of Krishna merits depicting him in the dancing mode. How else could an artist capture this persona of Krishna in Vrindavana?
The earliest depictions of Krishna in painting were in the illustrations of the Bhagavata and Gita Govinda done in the 16th and 17th century in Gujarat. Deriving its motifs from the Jain style, the figures of the Gujarat paintings set Krishna in Vrindavana and did not show him as nayaka or a courtly person, just sitting or standing regally, but invariably dancing with the gopis in the sylvan surroundings. The ethos of the early Gujarat Bhagavata was simple but charming, the figures thin and wiry, the expressions rustic and earthy, but there was in these creations a joyous abandon of Krishna and the gopis. What it lacked in sophistication it more than made up in sincerity. While not pretending to be elegant, the dancing Krishna in the Gujarat paintings exudes a certain down to earth truthfulness of shringara rasa. Similar dancing figures are seen also in the early Gujarat Gita Govinda.

These dancing images of Krishna are in contrast to the courtly Krishna of the 18th and 19th centuries, where he is sedate and stately, moving regally in opulent surroundings and in a romantic association with Radha and not gopis. The early Gujarat dancing Krishna has the innocence of the cowherd Krishna dallying in the luxuriant Vrindavana and true to Vallabhacharya’s Madhurashtakam, he was truly akhilam madhuram, all together sweet and mellifluous.

Harsha V Dehejia
Harsha V Dehejia has a double doctorate, one in medicine and the other in Ancient Indian Culture, both from Mumbai University. He is a practicing Physician and an Adjunct Professor of the Division of Religion in the College of Humanities at Carleton University in Ottawa, ON., Canada. His special interest is in Indian Aesthetics. He has 12 books to his credit. He writes mostly on Krishna.

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