India Through the Eyes of Europe - Krsna and Balarama

BY: SUN STAFF - 2.1 2018

We conclude the "India Through the Eyes of Europe" series with a final comparative study. Again, we have an engraving done by Barlow around 1790, and another piece done by Sourindro Mohun Tagore in 1880.

At first glance these appear to be completely different images: above is Tagore's Balarama, from a Dasavatara series; below is Kaliya Krsna. Both pieces are unique and beautiful, and we have not seen similar copies of either piece.

Tagore's Lord Balarama is beautifully rendered, with a face that has a strong likeness to other Bengali transcendental artworks. Sri Balarama holds club, plow, sword and conch. His headpiece is very subtly like Krsna's peacock feather crown, but somewhat indistinct.

Balarama stands on a completely unadorned field, on which Tagore has not added even a blade of grass. Behind Balarama is a cloudy sky on a wide horizon, again, quite undefined.

Barlow's engraving of Lord Krsna standing on the Kaliya serpent is an entirely different scene, but interestingly similar to Tagore's, which followed it by almost 100 years. Sri Krsna stands poised on a large, spotted snake, a motif typical of Indian art depicting this lila pastime.

The backgrounds of these two pieces are strikingly similar. Krsna is framed against a bright sun rather than cloudy sky. While His pastime takes place on the water, the artist has used the lightest cross-hatching to create a surface that is unadorned, but representative of water.

Krsna's crown is completely different from Balarama's headpiece. In fact, it is quite a flamboyant example of a European-influenced crown. Lord Krsna's face is also much more European than Balarama's.

Krsna's garlands and jewelry are more opulent than Balarama's, and more pronounced in the picture. This is due, in part, to the fact that the Barlow engraving is more finely etched than the softer-edged Tagore illustration.

Aside from the similarities in background, a close resemblance between these two images is found in the dhotis worn by Krsna and Balarama. Their garments are very striking, and are similarly styled in a fashion not typically found in art images of this genre. The dark highlights in the fabric folds, the arced frontspiece, and the striped shawls are obvious replicas.

The position of hands and feet also highlight the reproduction. The feet are placed quite identically, with the lower legs covered in thin folds of fabric. Likewise, two of Krsna's hands are identical to Balarama's. The same technique of shadowing was used on shoulders and arms. Even the navels are alike, both placed anatomically too high on the torso..

As we've emphasized in this series, it is interesting to note the reproduction of bona fide details copied by European artists who depicted Indian devotional scenes. It is equally interesting, however, to note the artistic embellishments added by Europe's artists as they interpreted and enhanced. Watching these European embodiments then work their way back onto the canvas of Indian artists, who generate their own reproductions over long periods of time, is more fascinating still. Being attuned to these artistic progressions lets us identify what is bona fide, what falls within the realm of fair artistic interpretation, and what is outright concoction.