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Sunday, October 24, 2021

A Question of Identity

Prominent art historian BN Goswamy on the origins of a painting that was widely shared on Eid of Krishna and a group of people pointing towards the sky. In the group is a man, dressed in white, particularly appears to be Muslim.

Written by Vandana Kalra |
Updated: June 19, 2018 12:30:06 am
A painting showing Krishna showing the moon to a group Muslim men and women.


On June 15, when historian Harbans Mukhia shared the reproduction of a painting on Facebook to celebrate Eid, little did he know that it would trigger a controversy. The image was said to be of Krishna and a group of people pointing towards the sky. In the group is a man, dressed in white, particularly appears to be Muslim.

The painting, Mukhia wrote, was a “reproduction of an 18th century Rajasthan miniature depicting Lord Krishna and his brother Balram sighting the Eid moon and pointing it out to a group of Muslim men and women.” He continued, “Is this the India we have lost? Well, lately India has started reasserting itself in defiance of the assaults on it. Hope lives. Let Eid give strength to this hope”.

The image, which was shared across social media, including tweets by politicians Yogendra Yadav and Shashi Tharoor, has become embroiled in questions regarding its authenticity and the identity of its subject. Veteran artist Gulammohammed Sheikh says it is a wrong reading of the painting and the work is part of Bhagavata Purana. “Wherever I could correct it, I wrote a short note. It (the work) has no Islamic connection. Instead of my elaborating, I thought an authority should and that is when I sent it to Dr BN Goswamy and asked him to ascertain what it is,” says Sheikh.

An authority on Indian art and author of several books on Indian miniature paintings, Goswamy responded to Shiekh in writing, which is also now being widely circulated. He writes, “I must confess that I had not seen this image before, despite being quite familiar with the Bhagavata Purana and this series of paintings from the Tehri-Garhwal collection (painted by one of the members of the first generation after Manaku and Nainsukh). However, the present ‘reading’ of it is completely meaningless based as it is, chiefly I think, on the appearance of Nanda who is dressed like a Mughal courtier: with that kind of beard, and wearing a long jama and a sloping turban.

The anachronic impossibility of a Muslim figure to be seen in the Bhagavata Purana or this series apart, this is the way Nanda appears in every single folio of this series whenever we see him. Even in this regard, if one notices from close, the jama Nanda wears is clearly a Hindu style jama, tied as it is, in Hindu-fashion, under the
left armpit.”

Discovered by Mukhia on the internet a year back, the former Professor of Medieval History and Rector at JNU, says, “I think it has been painted by a Muslim artist called Ruknuddin in 18th century in Bikaner. There are several unusual paintings of Krishna, including one where he is out on a hunt with a rifle on his shoulder. Several themes were picked up by bazaar painters. What is more important is the composite culture the work represents, which is now under assault.”

On allegations that the work does not feature Muslim figures and its varied readings, Mukhia says, “I had the impression it was Rajasthani, but may be others are right. I am not an art historian and I can’t be definitive about it. To me what is significant is it represents a certain cultural milieu. Both Sheikh and BN Goswamy are assuming it could be from the Bhagavata Purana, although there is no indication that it is from there. Besides the tall maulvi, who he calls Nanda, there is another darkish man in black who is clearly a Muslim.” Though he confesses that he hasn’t tried to locate the painting, Mukhia does intend to now.

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