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The artist of this piece has curiously experimented in the painting with the shrine’s imagery, a form concretized over centuries. While retaining the iconographic models of the three deities : styles of eyes, roundness of faces, types of noses, body-colours, patterns of ornaments and costumes among other things, he has arranged the three figures into vertical order, not horizontally as they are actually installed in the sanctum. In this new arrangement too Krishna comprises the central figure but Balarama has shifted to the top above Krishna from his place on his right, and Subhadra occupies her seat on his lap. The artist knew that being sister Subhadra could not be portrayed under Krishna’s feet, though as younger sister she could be painted in his lap; hence, this manipulation. Apart, this placing of images in ascending order better suits a multi-layered vertical layout : the dimensions of canvas, architecture with a towering sanctum-chamber, fire-arch rising like a flame enshrining the deities etc. The Krishna’s deep blue, in Oriya tradition transformed into deep black, comprises the axis of the entire creation and draws the eye from all around.
Inclusion of Subhadra’s image, not Radha’s, in Krishna-related iconography might sound strange to contemporary mind but the worship of Krishna with Balarama and Subhadra seems to have preceded Radha’s worship by many centuries. The sculptures of the three from the early centuries of the Common Era, though not many reported so far, strongly suggest that the worship of Subhadra with Krishna must have begun during early times. Maybe, not as one of Vishnu’s incarnations, it was begun by Vrashnis, the clan Krishna belonged to, for his great deeds as the clan’s heroes. Some early texts including the Mahabharata also extol Krishna along with Balarama and Ekananga, Yashoda’s daughter and hence Krishna’s sister, as Vrashni heroes. Later, Ekananga was alternated with Subhadra. Orissa, perceiving in Krishna Jagannatha : the Lord of the entire Creation, might have inherited his image for its enshrining deity from some of such early traditions.
However, in this representation the artist, besides reverting to the ancient tradition and adhering to the live convention as pursued at Puri shrine, seems to lay greater emphasis on his figures’ Vaishnava links. The four-armed Krishna has been portrayed as holding, and quite prominently, Vishnu’s essential attributes : lotus, disc, mace and conch. A four-armed Balarama, his multi-armed form a rare visualization of his image, considered as Vishnu’s ninth incarnation also holds Vishnu’s attributes, though with lotus replaced by his identity symbol ‘plough’. However, in addition the seven hooded great serpent Shesha covering him umbrella-like over his head has been added to his iconography. Apart, the presence of Brahma on the pedestal’s right, and Indra’s, on its left, both paying homage with folded hands, further emphasize the images’ Vaishnava connections and status. The images have been installed within an architectural unit, obviously a sanctum-chamber, with a ‘shikhara’ – tower, with graded elevation and corbelled opening and all other members reflecting the characteristic Orissa temple art. With every part beautifully cast and far more beautifully painted, revealing rare beauty, architectural precision and geometrical dimensions, symmetry in particular, the sanctum by itself becomes the painting’s theme, or at least one of its major attractions. Towards its bottom lay a beautifully incised hexagonal pedestal supporting a flame-shaped fire-arch which the images of Krishna as Jagannatha, Balarama and Subhadra enshrine. Even a dull colour, this grey fire-arch is brilliantly coming out against a deep blue background.
This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr. Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of literature and is the author of numerous books on Indian art and culture. Dr. Daljeet is the curator of the Miniature Painting Gallery, National Museum, New Delhi. They have both collaborated together on a number of books.