Art of the past: Tanjore painting – Redemption of Nalakuvara, c. 1825-40
What: The Tanjore—or Thanjavur—style of painting, originating in Tamil Nadu’s eponymous city, flourished from the 17th century and is noted for its vivid colours, use of gold foils and inlays of gems, beads and jewellery for decoration. Here, the artist has depicted a tale from the Bhagavata Purana in one inventive framing. Krishna’s mother Yashoda ties him to a mortar as punishment for stealing butter and in an ensuing struggle between the two, Krishna uproots two Arjuna trees with the mortar, thereby freeing two yakshas, Hindu demigods, Nalakuvara and Manigriva, from a curse cast on them by the sage Narada. The brothers appear suspended mid-air, beside Krishna’s bejewelled crown, with their hands clasped in reverence and gratitude.
Style: Painted on layers of cloth placed over a wooden board, the work is rich in symbolism. By depicting Krishna as the largest figure in the painting, dwarfing his own mother, the artist highlights the divine importance of the godchild and the skewed perspective lends a highly dynamic and playful quality to the scene. Krishna’s cherubic smile portrays calm and serenity, even as he is chased by Yashoda. The assured and composed countenance also symbolizes how the most mundane of actions by a god—uprooting the trees here—have a deeper purpose and can have significant consequences, such as the redemption of the two brothers.
Look closer: Due to loss of paint over the years, Yashoda’s eye has suffered erasure. When you view the work in person, the rich gold ornamentation on Yashoda’s sari sparkles—a dazzling effect bound to be lost when the painting’s image is reproduced, as done above.
This is the fourth in a six-part series introducing our picks of antique art and sculpture from the National Museum, Delhi.