01 November 2021
Reunion of Krishna icons: A painting of the Festival of the Seven Svarups in the Johnson Album
This guest blog post is by Isabella Nardi (PhD, SOAS), an art historian specializing in Indian painting.
In the group of paintings acquired and personally commissioned by Richard Johnson (1753–1807) which are now in the British Library there is an unexpected depiction, a congregation of Krishna icons attended by priests in a palace setting (see Fig. 1). The work, originating from Faizabad or Lucknow, has been dated to c. 1770–1780, a period of artistic ferment in the Mughal province of Avadh thanks to local rulers and Europeans patrons living in the area. The collector, an East India Company servant who arrived in Calcutta in 1770, served as the Head Assistant to the British Resident of Lucknow between 1780 and 1782; this is probably the time in which he assembled a wide range of Avadhi paintings revealing his interest for the traditions and customs of India (Falk and Archer 1981, 135–136).
Fig. 1. Krishna worshipped under the form of Shri Nathji. Mughal, Faizabad or Lucknow, 1770–80. British Library, Johnson Album 51, 4. 280 x 209 mm; page 287 x 216 mm.
Titled Krishna worshipped under the form of Shri Nathji, the painting has been rightly identified as pertaining to the Vallabha Sampradaya’s cult (Losty and Roy, pp. 180–182). For anyone familiar with this devotional sect, this depiction is a surprising presence in the album for at least two reasons: first, it is a rare representation of a real event, the Festival of the Seven Svarups (Saptasvarūpotsava), which took place in 1739 in the Shri Nathji temple of Nathdwara in Rajasthan. Secondly, this Avadhi painting is found outside the geographical sphere of influence and patronage of the sampradaya which, at that time, covered the land of Braj, Rajasthan and Gujarat, and it was slowly expanding to the Deccan.
To better understand this painting, it is necessary to first introduce the Vallabha Sampradaya and its famous congregations of Krishna icons. This will be accomplished through a detailed iconographic analysis of a representative depiction of the Festival of the Seven Svarups in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). This digression will allow to acquire the necessary information to examine and contextualize the work in the Johnson Album. The Avadhi painting will also be put into conversation with two earlier depictions; whereas established scholarship in the field will locate it within the cosmopolitan culture of circulation and pictorial exchanges in northern India at the time.
The Vallabha Sampradaya is a krishnaite devotional sect – also known as the Puṣṭi Mārg (Path of Grace) – which was founded by Vallabhacharya (1479–1531) in northern India in the sixteenth century. This religious community, subsequently headed by Vallabhacharya’s son, Vitthalnath (1515–1585), had its headquarter in the land of Braj, around the area of Mathura, where it received support from the Mughal Emperors. The descendants of the two founding fathers decided to slowly shift to Rajasthan and Gujarat in search of new patronage hence forming a complex web of temples which map the region’s religious landscape to this day. This influential network is not only formed by hereditary priests – who claim descent from Vallabhacharya and Vitthalnath – but also by the treasured icons in their possession, the svarups (svarūp-s), which are traditionally nine. The nine svarups are considered self-manifested icons which miraculously appeared to Vallabhacharya or one of his disciples and they are therefore deemed to be different from a common man-made statue (murti). The first svarup to manifest itself to Vallabhacharya on Mount Govardhan is Shri Nathji which, in 1672, was installed in a newly built temple in Nathdwara which became the sect’s main headquarter.
Among the peculiar characteristics of the Vallabha Sampradaya are its sumptuous temple rituals and visual culture. Well-known are the famous temple hangings or pichhwais (pichvāī-s), which are elaborate textiles, painted or embroidered, used as backdrops in opulent performances (see Skelton 1973; Ambalal 1995). One of their most important festivals is the reunion of the sect’s most sacred icons, the svarups, in the Shri Nathji temple. This congregation, known as the Festival of the Seven Svarups, appears in several Rajasthani paintings especially from the mid-1820s. Despite its numerous depictions, this festival has been celebrated only on rare occasions, that is in 1739 and 1822. This is because of the problems encountered in organizing such enormous undertakings, including the logistic problems involving the transportation of the svarups from one temple to another, the occasional tensions between high priests on matters of power and prestige, and the periodic political unrests that punctuated the area of Rajasthan and its neighboring regions. A celebration of the festival took place also in post-Independence India, in 1966, after a lengthy legal battle over the administration of the temple. Its video coverage can be accessed on YouTube.
Available visual evidence suggests that the imagery of the Festival of the Seven Svarups is indelibly associated to the celebration of 1822 which has an established and easily recognizable iconography as confirmed by a comparison of its numerous depictions that survive in private collections and museums (Nardi 2017, 223). Most of these works flourished from the mid-nineteenth century when the Nathdwara painting tradition was in full swing thanks to the patronage of temple priests and devotees. For a critical analysis of earlier depictions of the festival, such as the Avadhi painting in the Johnson Album, we first need to understand its traditional visual formula which originated in its sectarian milieu.
A notable example, which portrays the event in every single detail, is in the collection of LACMA (see Fig. 2). The work positions the viewer’s gaze directly in the sanctum of the Shri Nathji temple, offering an intimate glimpse of the svarups which wouldn’t be possible in real life. On either side of the icons are the temple priests who are involved in various ritual tasks, including the arrangement of a special food offering in front of the icons. This includes baskets of sweetmeats, vessels containing milk products and, in the foreground, a big mountain of rice (annakūṭa or mountain of food).
Fig. 2. Commemorative portrait of Damodarji II (1797-1826) performing the ceremony of the offering of food to the seven images (Sapta Svarup ka Utsava) in 1822. Rajasthan, Nathdwara, circa 1822-1850. Opaque watercolor, gold, and tin alloy on paper. 304 x 247 mm; page 330 x 250 mm. LACMA, AC1999.127.41.
The svarups are meticulously portrayed following their iconographic features, such as emblems (flute, ball of butter) and female companions, so that they can be precisely identified by devotees. The icons are depicted in two colours to indicate the materials in which they are made, that is blue for black stone or wood, and golden yellow for metal. This important and tacit rule indicates that their depiction is an actual likeness of the svarups.
For the sake of completeness the icons are identified below (Fig. 3), starting from the top level, from left to right:
- Madanmohanji, a metal statue of Krishna playing the flute accompanied by two female attendants. Its present location is Kaman, Rajasthan.
- Dvarkadhishji (also Dvarkanathji), a rectangular shaped stele in black marble representing Krishna with four arms. Its present location is Kankroli, Rajasthan.
- Shri Nathji, a black marble statue of Krishna with the left arm raised to hold up Mount Govardhan. Its present location is Nathdwara, Rajasthan.
- Mathureshji, a round-topped stele in black marble representing Krishna with four arms. Its present location is Kota, Rajasthan.
- Gokulchandramaji, a wooden statue of Krishna playing the flute. Its present location is Kaman, Rajasthan.
- A metal statue of Krishna playing the flute known as Madanmohan. This is not one of the sacred svarups, it replaces the absent Balkrishnaji (present location Surat, Gujarat), which did not participate to the festival due to a long-standing dispute (Peabody 2003, 75–78).
On the lower level, from left to right (Fig. 4):
- Gokulnathji, a metal statue of Krishna with four arms accompanied by two female attendants. Its present location is Gokul, Uttar Pradesh.
- Navnitpriyaji, a metal statue of baby Krishna holding a ball of butter. Its present location is in the Shri Nathji temple premise, Nathdwara, Rajasthan.
- Vitthalnathji, a metal statue of Krishna accompanied by Rukmini. Its present location is Nathdwara, Rajasthan.
A quick count of the sculptures will yield a total of nine, that is the nine svarups. This tally, however, may be confusing given the name of the festival. The Festival of the Seven Svarups takes this denomination from the seven icons that reside outside the main Shri Nathji temple, which houses both Shri Nathji and Navnitpriyaji. These seven deities are those that have to be carried to such location by their hereditary priests.
Apart from the meticulous depiction of the icons, representations of the Festival of the Seven Svarups of 1822 are distinguishable for other recurring elements, such as the presence of Dauji II (1797–1826) and of a specific pichhwai. Dauji II, or Damodarji II, is the only recognizable portrait on the upper left of the LACMA painting. He was the officiating priest and organizer of the imposing event of 1822 for which he commissioned a special pichhwai. This is the black textile hanging in the background, right behind the svarups, featuring on either side a tree-of-life design embroidered in gold and pearls (Fig. 5). As Amit Ambalal explains (p. 67), this particular pichhwai was commissioned by Dauji after his mother and other priests donated some of their jewels to the temple on the occasion of the festival. This magnificent ritual hanging, whose whereabouts are unknown, is part of the canonical iconography of the 1822 festival and its fame was such that it was also praised in poetic compositions of the time (Taylor 1997, 83).
Unlike the Festival of the Seven Svarups of 1822, depictions of the 1739 celebrations remain exceptional not only for their paucity but also for their variety of pictorial styles, diverging visual elements, and unexpected provenance. To date, there are very few known depictions of this event including drawings, paintings on paper, and murals dating from the eighteenth century onwards. For the scope of this analysis, we will consider the very few eighteenth century paintings on paper that have come down to us, which are only three. Interestingly, none of them was produced in the pilgrimage center of Nathdwara, denoting a circulation of visual information about the festival as well as an interest in documenting it beyond regional and devotional circles.
The first two depictions, published elsewhere, date from the time of the celebration itself: the first is a painting from Udaipur dated to c. 1739 in the collection of the Baroda Museum and Picture Gallery (Doshi 1995, 78); the second, in the Jagdish and Kamla Mittal Museum of Indian Art, is a work from Aurangabad dated to c. 1740 and inscribed to Muttam, formerly known as the Jaipur Painter (Seyller and Mittal 2018, cat. no. 44). Both works can be related to the network of the Vallabha Sampradaya devotees, which included kings and merchants. The painting from Udaipur was probably commissioned by Maharana Jagat Singh II (r. 1734–1751), a patron and follower of the sect whose haloed portrait appears with other members of the royal family standing next to the congregation of icons. The example from the Deccan, on the other hand, can be associated with the community of merchants and bankers that started to settled in the area from 1729 (Shah 2015, 43–44).
The third painting in chronological order is the one in the Johnson Album which – after this lengthy but necessary digression – can be examined from a more informed perspective. The first observation that can be made is that, unlike its two predecessors, this work cannot be related to an established religious network of the Vallabha Sampradaya. In fact, its assessment indicates that its anonymous painter and its commissioner were not familiar with the sect’s ritualistic formalities, liturgical textiles, and iconography of the svarups because the work displays a number of notable imprecisions which wouldn’t be welcomed by a follower of the sampradaya. For example, a missing iconographic element is the pichhwai which has been replaced by a palatial setting, a typical background of Faizabad and Lucknow painting at the time (see Fig. 6).
Fig. 6. Avadhi palace setting used – in lieu of a pichhwai – as the background the Johnson Album depiction of the Festival of the Seven Svarups of 1739. Detail of British Library, Johnson Album 51, 4.
As mentioned above, the pichhwai was an important liturgical element of the celebrations and it also appears in the other two paintings from Udaipur and Aurangabad. Other incongruities can be seen in the depiction of the icons: the stelae of Dvarkadhishji (rectangular) and Mathureshji (rounded) are omitted making their identification impossible. Also the colour of two metal icons on the lower level, Navnitpriyaji and Vitthalnathji, is inaccurate: they should be golden yellow but they are painted in blue (see Fig. 7).
These observations unquestionably demonstrate that the sphere of patronage of the painting in the Johnson Album was outside the established circles of the sect and it opens to the possibility that, rather than an acquisition, this work was actually commissioned by Richard Johnson himself. It is well known that pictorial traditions in Avadh flourished thanks to the patronage of Europeans living in the region, such as Johnson and other East India Company officials, and that their commissions included not only portraits but expanded on other themes, such as Ragamalas and Hindu mythology (Losty and Roy 2012, 153). Given Johnson’s demonstrated interest for Indian traditions, he may have wanted a representation of this important event that took place in Rajasthan in 1739 and, considering that he was stationed in Lucknow, he may have hired a leading artist trained in a courtly atelier not specifically familiar with the ritualistic formalities of the sampradaya. Perhaps, the painter was someone who moved to Avadh in the wake of Nadir Shah’s sack of Delhi in 1739 whose incursion and subsequent period of chaos caused an exodus of artists, including writers, musicians, and painters, who in successive waves left the Mughal capital in search of new patronage (Pauwels 2015, 142; Losty and Roy 2012, 153).
A crucial question remains to be answered: how did an artist not familiar with the sampradaya paint a representation of the Festivals of the Seven Svarups? It is plausible that the anonymous artist may have used an unfinished or uncolored drawing of the festival which provided the basic organizational structure for his work. In fact, ateliers kept collections of paintings and drawings from other traditions from which they could reuse selected elements or take inspiration (Aitken 2015, 89). A possibility is that the artist of the Johnson Album may have used a Rajasthani painting depicting the svarups, a subject that was already popular in Kishangarh, a Rajput court known for its patronage of the Vallabha Sampradaya (Mathur 2000, 54).
A Kishangarh connection with Avadh has already been observed by Heidi Pauwels who has tracked a specific visual reference in a painting of Layla and Majnun from Lucknow (Pauwels, Plate 20). The work, dated to c. 1780, is attributed to Ghulam Reza, a master artist also known for his Ragamala paintings in the Johnson Album (Archer and Falk 1981, 170-173; Pauwels, 2015, 204). In particular, Pauwels (2015, 203-205) detects a stylistic reference in the portrayal of the haloed Layla which displays some peculiar visual characteristics from Kishangarh, such as her silhouette and her elongated eyes and nose. This visual connection is particularly relevant to further strengthen the assumption that Rajput painting was not only known but also one of the sources of inspiration for the artists working in Lucknow and Faizabad. As for the painting of the festival, rather than a stylistic citation we can detect a compositional reference in the display of the icons. Their arrangement – which follows an established formula even though some iconographic elements of the icons are not correct – is juxtaposed to a palace setting and range of colours typical of Lucknow and Faizabad in a combination of visual sources that was very frequent in Avadhi painting (Aitken 2015, 81).
Finally, it is also essential to appreciate the creative aspect of the work which denotes some artistic license. The painter added some interesting touches to the composition rejecting the hieratic and stiff postures of the svarups, a common feature of sectarian paintings. In doing so, he endowed the icons with a gentle smile and a human countenance and gave them a sinuous body slightly curved to one side. These innovations produced a graceful and lively compositional effect which remains a unique feature of this painting when compared to its two predecessors from Udaipur and Aurangabad.
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